Amiable with Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem
From the first, Claude McKay was an author of “firsts.” Born in a mountainous rural village in Jamaica in 1889, he wrote two volumes of pioneering Jamaican dialect verse that made him the first black recipient of the Medal of the Jamaica Institute of Arts and Letters—and the first to use its stipend to leave the island permanently. Migrating to the United States along with tens of thousands of other West Indians in the nineteen-teens, he turned to the black lingua franca of Standard English and became the first effectively African American poet celebrated for fusing the time-honored sonnet form with the willfully modern anger of the New Negro. He went on to create both the Harlem Renaissance’s first book of poetry, Harlem Shadows, issued in 1922, and the first certifiably best-selling novel by a black author, Home to Harlem, published in 1928. Even before the Great Depression drew African American literature leftward, he was proud to rate as both the first major black author to tour and praise the Soviet Union, and the first to denounce Stalin’s dictatorship—initially as a disappointed “revolutionist of Communist persuasion,” and then as a Communist-hating Catholic socialist. McKay’s habit of precociousness meant that there were few modernist camps that could not view him as a sympathetic originator during some portion of his early life. But the same habit served to antique him when the voguish aspect of the Harlem Renaissance faded and he strained to market the products of his artistic maturity. He completed at least three poetry collections after Harlem Shadows that found no willing publisher; his transnational fiction after Home to Harlem inspired the inventors of the Francophone négritude movement but barely kept him in groceries. By the time he died in Chicago in 1948, McKay was dependent on the kindness of Catholic friends and strangers, his youthful run of firsts no cure for premature literary aging.
Enter the late redemption of Amiable with Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem, McKay’s final work of long fiction, salvaged and published by the literature professors Jean-Christophe Cloutier and Brent Hayes Edwards in 2017. The most extraordinary thing about Amiable is that it was ever rescued from hiding. As the novel’s scrupulous and publicity-savvy editors suggest, “the discovery of an unpublished and previously unknown manuscript by a major modern writer is a rare occurrence” (ix). Even more rare, they add, is the emergence of “a complete and corrected typescript by a well-known twentieth-century novelist” (x). Swept up in the detective yarn of the unique find, reviewers of Amiable have commonly focused on the novel’s unearthing in the papers of Samuel Roth, the avant-garde pirate, pornographic publisher, and inadvertent father of relaxed “community standards” criteria in U.S. obscenity law. Less uniform, by contrast, are the takes on Amiable’s value after its extraction from Roth’s slush pile. Of what use is the recovered novel? Expanding McKay’s resume beyond his string of early “firsts” is important enough, of course. But shifting from individual to group history, I will suggest two other, larger uses of Amiable following its late birth by forceps. First, McKay’s new-old novel can remind us that the Harlem Renaissance’s rendezvous with Europe did not end with the imaginatively post-racist terrain of the joint city of Paris-London-Moscow in the 1920s. As Amiable indicates, Harlem’s outreach to the northeastern shore of the “Black Atlantic” also involved black America’s response to hyper-racist German and Italian fascisms in the 1930s. Second, Amiable can testify that the cautionary canon of anti-authoritarian fiction—a currently anti-Trump-inspired canon that returned George Orwell’s 1984, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here to American bestseller lists—must include work by McKay and related black authors if it is to reckon with the foundational bonds between chattel slavery, African colonization, and the enduring temptation of fascism in our racially divided republic.
McKay’s habit of precociousness meant that there were few modernist camps that could not view him as a sympathetic originator during some portion of his early life. But the same habit served to antique him when the voguish aspect of the Harlem Renaissance faded and he strained to market the products of his artistic maturity.
A rough outline of Amiable’s plot is introduced in its awkward, almost eighteenth-century subtitle, A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem. Over the course of 269 pages of polemical but decorative mid-Atlantic prose, McKay unfolds a political fairy story of seduction, betrayal, and Africanist revenge. A white communist boy, the ruthless Comintern conspirator Maxim Tasan, meets and enchants a light-brown Harlem girl, the flapperishly restless Seraphine Peixota. With no small symbolism, Seraphine is the adopted daughter of the novel’s ethical center, Pablo Peixota, the ironic opposite of a dreamy Don Quixote. Among other things, Pablo is a McKay mouthpiece modeled on fellow West Indian immigrant Caspar Holstein, the actual black gangster who ran the Harlem numbers game when not rescuing Garveyite and NAACP civic projects from bankruptcy. The communist boy then pawns off the representative Harlem girl to a more physically gifted servant of Stalin, but loses her forever to the revelation that the party line is twisted to hang African Americans. (During one argument with Seraphine, Tasan loudly wishes that he had the “power to turn loose a band of Cossacks to teach [Harlemites] a lesson” ; here and everywhere, he serves as a confessor of Soviet-allied Communism’s cruelest id.) The Harlem girl’s recognition that her white communist lovers are vicious wolves in sheep’s clothing is crowned by the vengeance of superior predators. Anticipating the eye-popping figurative castration of Brother Jack, the communist bully-in-chief in Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man, the last act of McKay’s failed love affair sees Tasan slashed and chased to his death by ritually intoxicated Harlem “leopard men.” “With the stifled whine of a trapped beast,” McKay writes in his novel’s last line, Tasan, now a hunted hunter, “leap[s] up and over the roof, his vile body breaking upon and dashing his brains among the garbage of the neglected Harlem pavement” (269). Where Ellison cloaks his anticommunist wish-fulfillment in imported surrealism, McKay casts his in the melodramatically naturalist key of Richard Wright’s path-breaking novel Native Son, its pulpy rooftop chases and gruesome airshaft murders made public a month after McKay holed up in Maine to begin writing Amiable in 1940, the same year that Native Son was published. The unveiling of McKay’s novel thus provides further proof that the dividing lines between New Negro and New Deal-era black writing blurred in practice. These lines all but vanished at the New York unit of the Federal Writers Project in the 1930s, where Wright, McKay, and Ellison rubbed differently-aged elbows, and influenced each other’s diverse reflections on the intersection of African American life and European-branded anti-liberal ideologies.
What is missing from the compressed plot summary of McKay’s subtitle, however, is what separates Amiable from African American anticommunism as usual: namely, the fact that its narrative of bad love between black sheep and Stalinist wolves circles around Harlem’s impassioned response to Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, a tragic and farcical repetition of the late-nineteenth-century Scramble for Africa. Amiable agrees with John Hope Franklin that this second Italo-Ethiopian war—crucially, the Ethiopians won the first at the Battle of Adwa in 1896—made “even the most provincial among the American Negroes … international minded” (qtd. in Amiable xv). McKay’s first chapter paints a tumultuous parade down Seventh Avenue, Harlem’s canyon of heroes, during which the full, often divided range of African American “fraternal orders, political and religious organizations, social clubs and study clubs” join hands to wave “the tri-color green-yellow-red” of Haile Selassie’s besieged flag (3). McKay’s Ethiopia-inspired internationalists remain split, however, on the nature of the relationship between the fascist powers and the Soviet Union. The pro-Soviet White Friends of Ethiopia, a Comintern-engineered Popular Front group, attracts grasping preachers, frustrated schoolteachers, and semi-talented black artists eager to grasp the brass ring on a Marxist horse. The rival anti-Soviet Hands to Ethiopia organization, chaired by McKay’s virtuous double Pablo Peixota, assumes that antifascism demands anticommunism, since “the Stalin purges and system are just as bad” as the “Hitler purges,” and just as likely to export “the Inquisition” to Africa following its barbaric revival in post-democratic Europe (186-87). Maxim Tasan, never one to mince evil words, admits all this and more. We in the Comintern “have a secret admiration for the Nazi bastards,” he fesses up at a Harlem buffet flat, “because they stole our blueprints to develop a successfully totalitarian organization” (189).
Where Ellison cloaks his anticommunist wish-fulfillment in imported surrealism, McKay casts his in the melodramatically naturalist key of Richard Wright’s path-breaking novel Native Son, its pulpy rooftop chases and gruesome airshaft murders made public a month after McKay holed up in Maine to begin writing Amiable in 1940, the same year that Native Son was published.
Along with Peixota, McKay’s novel can be accused of both the Old Left sin of “premature anti-fascism”—fervent opposition to Nazi Germany prior to the U.S. declaration of war in December 1941—and what we might call “premature anti-totalitarianism,” a pre-Cold War conviction that fascism and communism, despite official battle lines in Ethiopia and Spain, merged into one uniquely monstrous threat to human freedom. In combination, McKay’s two prematurities disclose his surprising pre-echo of Hannah Arendt, the German Jewish emigre with whom the Jamaican-born author shared enforced statelessness, penniless migration to New York City, stubborn and belligerent intellectual independence, and early and well-educated disaffection with Stalinism. Amiable is not and cannot be a novelization of The Origins of Totalitarianism, first published in 1951, of course, but McKay’s fiction anticipates Arendt’s unyielding trilogy in several respects. Ten years before The Origins, Amiable likewise detached the term “totalitarianism” from its original tie to sistema totalitaria, a contested description of Mussolini’s monopoly on Italian governance, and draped it over the yawning gaps between a fascist system guaranteed by capitalist industry and a communist system pledged to liquidate private property. More unusually, McKay’s novel beat The Origins to the punch in identifying African colonization as a horrific précis of the catastrophes of totalitarianism on European home soil. Drawing unbroken lines between Italy’s conquest of Africa’s oldest sovereign state and Tasan’s frank prejudice and organizational diligence as a Harlem carpetbagger, Amiable prefigures Arendt’s bold contention that imperialism’s late arrival in Africa premiered not only the infernal technology of the concentration camp, but also two “new devices for political organization” perfected under total rule: the first, “race as a principle of the body politic”; and the second, “bureaucracy as a principle of foreign domination” (185).
… McKay’s novel beat The Origins of Totalitarianism to the punch in identifying African colonization as a horrific précis of the catastrophes of totalitarianism on European home soil.
All the same, McKay’s Amiable, more traumatized by the 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact than by the Nazi genocide it cannot yet conceive, resists more than a few conclusions of The Origins. For one, Arendt’s complex genealogical model of totalitarian prehistory, embarrassingly convinced that Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness qualifies as reliable ethnography, atypically surrenders to simple progressivism and classic Enlightenment visions of African ahistoricism in its claim that imperialism on the so-called “Dark Continent” served as a bypassed “preparatory stage” for full-blown totalitarianism in the heart of the West (The Origins 123). In distinction, McKay situates this imperialism in historical parallel with both late-stage modernist New Negroism and second-stage European fascism and communism, the latter two “isms” actively dueling over the last citadel of African independence in the decade of Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini’s achievement of absolute power. One of the least implicit morals of Amiable, in fact, is that anti-totalitarianism will be hamstrung until its champions admit the still-shaping presence of anti-black racism in mature totalitarian theory and practice; for example, in the Nazis’ conscious emulation of what McKay labels “the methods of the Ku Klux Klan” and “the false American conception of race,” each praised aloud in Mein Kampf (Amiable 200-01). Which brings me to a final moral of my own: Our Trump-era reinvention of the anti-authoritarian canon, I think, will also be hamstrung if McKay’s Amiable and affiliated works by Wright, Ellison, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Shirley Graham, many of them explored in literary historian Vaughn Rasberry’s terrific book Race and the Totalitarian Century (2016), are not advanced as Arendt’s peers and foils. As Arendt herself attested in the longest single section of The Origins, one of the Holocaust’s proving grounds was the inscription of European racial bureaucracy onto the souls of black folk, the inescapable matter of twentieth-century African American literature.