Zeal, Wit, and Fury: The Queer Black Modernism of Claude McKay
By Gary Edward HolcombSeptember 11, 2023
As well as McKay’s correspondence, his poetry expresses gay love, his fiction brims with queer content, and his memoirs speak directly about his homosexuality. The record of McKay’s divergent sex life, however, isn’t limited to the Jamaican author’s own writings. “Buffy” Glassco’s 1970 Memoirs of Montparnasse gives McKay, one of the white memoirist’s many gay lovers, the queer-coded name “Jack Relief.” Up against such oppressive ideological apparatuses as the Comstock laws, queer Harlem Renaissance writers were compelled to be chary about exposing their private lives. Baring one’s sexual penchant could lead to criminal prosecution, compulsory mental health treatment, and the devastation of reputation. Under such conditions, McKay was unusually candid.
Due to the recent release of two formerly unknown novels, McKay is now experiencing something of his own renaissance. Discovered by Jean-Christophe Cloutier and co-edited with his Columbia graduate studies advisor, Brent Hayes Edwards, the circa-1941 Amiable with Big Teeth is a satire set in Harlem during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War. When Penguin Classics published the formerly lost text in 2017, the novel generated considerable excitement. It also paved the way for the recovery of the circa-1929–33 Romance in Marseille (two chapters of which were excerpted in LARB in February 2020). Whereas Amiable with Big Teeth was formerly unknown to the world, Romance in Marseille sat on a special collections shelf for some 80 years, its initial containment being largely due to its queer content.
Beyond awarding long overdue attention to McKay, Amiable with Big Teeth and Romance in Marseille provide new contexts for the Harlem Renaissance transgressive novel and, more widely, for modernist fiction in general. McKay’s new old novels demonstrate that unpublishable literary texts may fill a role as significant as works that made it into print, even those that the church and state sought to repress, such as Ulysses and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. What does the Black modernist future—that is, the Black present—look like when a formerly unread text inserts itself on the scene and thereby radically disrupts and rescripts the known historical narrative—the past-present that contemporary readers have understood to exist?
The arrival of these two novels calls for a new McKay biography that mines how the Harlem Renaissance writer’s sexuality shaped his revolutionary art and radical politics. The classic profile, Wayne F. Cooper’s Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance (1987), is now over three decades old. Readers expecting a biographical study that explores the substance of queer imagery in McKay’s writing will be disappointed, however, with historian Winston James’s Claude McKay: The Making of a Black Bolshevik (2022). By omitting any mention of gay or bisexual themes in McKay’s Jamaican-period poetry, James’s biography imparts the impression that homosexual themes in McKay’s early “nation language” poetry (to use Kamau Brathwaite’s term) do not exist. This “absence” materializes as an erasure: a disregarding of how the Jamaican author’s early sexual metamorphosis informed his aesthetic and shaped the decades of writing to come.
McKay was a restless wanderer, geographically, personally, and artistically. In 1912, he left Jamaica, moving to Alabama to enroll briefly as a student at the Tuskegee Institute. He also hoped to make a name for himself as a poet in the United States. Eventually, he made his way to New York to help found the “New Negro” arts movement that has come to be called the Harlem Renaissance. By the early 1920s, as a member of the underground socialist labor union Industrial Workers of the World, he set sail for Britain, where he worked as a journalist for Sylvia Pankhurst’s radical socialist newspaper Workers’ Dreadnought. Spring in New Hampshire (1920), his first book of poems published after leaving Jamaica, was printed by a London publisher.
In due course, he hopped between Weimar Germany and Soviet Russia, where he participated in the Third International. His Russian experience led to two books, both translated into Russian (their English originals lost). The Negroes of America (1923), which was back-translated into English in 1979, is a kind of early Black cultural study, and the thin volume Trial by Lynching (written in the mid-1920s and also released in English translation in the late 1970s) was his first collection of short stories. McKay then settled in France for nearly a decade, living a truly bohemian life—that is, often enduring phases of grim poverty. Existing and writing on the margins of Hemingway and Fitzgerald’s Lost Generation Paris, during flush periods he scraped together the dosh for visits to Marseille and other creatively inspiring locations. In France, he published his one hit, his 1928 debut novel Home to Harlem. Around the beginning of the 1930s, he moved to Morocco, mostly dwelling in the international queer haven, Tangier, where he wrote several books, including Romance in Marseille.
While McKay was writing in Western Europe during the mid-1920s, a revolutionary Black queer literary art was emerging in Greenwich Village and Harlem. Aesthete Bruce Nugent’s elliptically modernist, genre-breaking cruise, “Smoke, Lilies and Jade” (1926), included in the one-off literary magazine Fire!!, is an openly Black queer text. At the same time, McKay, living in Paris, was hard at work on his first crack at a novel to be called “Color Scheme.” In correspondence, he described this novel as portraying “Negro characters [who] fuck like people the world over.” Unable to sign with a publisher, however, and in one of his chronic states of fury and frustration, McKay evidently burned the only manuscript.
The residue of “Color Scheme” nevertheless survives in Home to Harlem. While white reviewers hailed the novel as an authentic representation of Harlem life, Black critics generally objected that it pandered to white fantasies about the exotic Negro underworld. None other than W. E. B. Du Bois issued what was likely the severest dressing-down. Two years before releasing his review, Du Bois had published in the NAACP magazine, The Crisis, a lecture titled “Criteria of Negro Art.” His contention was that New Negro authors should face up to the fact that “all Art is [political] propaganda,” and they should therefore produce literature that reflected this reality. Nearly two years later, in his June 1928 Crisis review, Du Bois fulminated that Home to Harlem’s “filth” made him “feel distinctly like taking a bath.”
Du Bois was the author of the most influential African American work of the new century, The Souls of Black Folk, the 1903 study that articulated the theory of “double consciousness”—and a book that college student McKay had regarded as a revelation. By the late 1920s, Du Bois was venting his animus not only with the now established poet McKay but also with the fledgling Fire!! generation of Harlem Renaissance artists, who were drawing on modernist styles and themes in an effort to update the Black literary arts. The objective of the “younger Negro artists,” as Fire!! designates its contributors, was to render in artistic form Black existences that the New Negro literary establishment, with its commitment to social and political themes, was ill equipped to portray. This new Black literary art had to include candid portrayals of outlawed sexuality.
Meanwhile, taking Du Bois’s pasting “personally,” McKay returned the wrath, dispatching a scorching communiqué: “[N]owhere in your writings do you reveal any comprehension of esthetics and therefore you are not competent nor qualified to pass judgement upon any work of art.” McKay’s letter derides Du Bois for trying “to pass off propaganda as […] art!”
What evidently made Du Bois feel “unclean” about Home to Harlem was its drag parade of, in the idiom of the novel, “fairies,” “pansies,” and “dandies.” Perhaps what bothered Du Bois most was that, in McKay’s pansexual pan-Africanism, even sexually conforming male characters are liable to swing toward bisexual ardor. Home to Harlem’s otherwise heterosexual protagonist Jake Brown makes romantic overtures to gay Haitian exile Ray, who is unmistakably portrayed as a semi-autobiographical stand-in for the author.
Despite the critical scolding, McKay wasn’t done exploring the idea of same-sex attraction among identifiably heterosexual Black males. In his next novel and something of a sequel, Banjo (1929), Jake makes a cameo, leaving behind his wife and child to cross the Black Atlantic in search of Ray. When they reunite in a Marseille bar, Ray greets his friend with a “French-kiss.” Ray’s remark about this Gallic act of affection anticipates by 30 years James Baldwin’s Francocentric metaphor for living queer in the partly France-set Another Country (1962). Says Ray: “Stay long enough in any country and you’ll get on to the ways and find them natural.” But Banjo didn’t pay off. While Home to Harlem was the first hit by a Black author, Banjo was a disappointment.
Back in Harlem, Fire!! spawned more queer Black fiction. Not long after his arrival in New York in 1925, USC alum Wallace Thurman had been busted for public indecency, an ordeal that apparently contributed to a lifelong denial of his homosexuality and dread of being outed. Cautious about divulging the details of his private life, Thurman explored queer themes through his creative writing. His 1932 roman à clef, Infants of the Spring, portrays thinly disguised versions of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, and Bruce Nugent. The satirical novel also mocks such intellectual heavyweights as Du Bois and Alain Locke, theorizer of the New Negro. Thurman gives the autobiographical protagonist the name Raymond Taylor—Ray for short. This naming suggests an intertextual dialogue with McKay’s two novels.
The character based on Nugent, given the name Paul Arbian, professes to be a follower of the “Uranian” school, the underground literary movement devoted to democratic revolution through homosexuality. At the end of the novel, likely representing not only Nugent but also Thurman himself, Arbian, feeling that his queer art revolution has grown hopeless, commits suicide.
Though traces of his divergent appetites emerge in his writing, Langston Hughes was just as vigilant as Thurman about concealing his private life. Near the end of the 1930 bildungsroman Not Without Laughter, a “small yellow man with a womanish kind of voice” who “smelled of perfume, and [whose] face looked as though it had been powdered with white talcum,” moves on the protagonist, Sandy. Though the boy flees, he nonetheless wonders, while bolting down the Chicago street, “what such men did with the boys who accompanied him. Curious, he’d like to find out.”
In his 1940 memoir The Big Sea, Hughes would go on to write about the Hamilton Club Lodge drag ball and other queer happenings in Harlem. He also wrote poems with gay themes during the 1920s and, throughout his career as a fiction writer, several stories with sympathetically portrayed queer characters. Isaac Julien’s AIDS-period film Looking for Langston (1989) helped make Hughes a queer Black icon. But Hughes was never open about his private life, and however deeply his sexuality informed his aesthetic, his writing does not evoke the kind of queer Black leftist art that McKay conceived.
During the same early Great Depression period in which Thurman and Hughes were composing their novels of conflicted and traumatized gay Black men, McKay was working on Romance in Marseille, hoping to generate a novel that would catch on like the bestselling Home to Harlem. Between on and off periods of wrestling with the project, he published two books—the short story collection Gingertown (1932) and his novel of Jamaica, Banana Bottom (1933), both of which fared worse than Banjo. Ultimately, unable to find a publisher for Romance in Marseille, he shelved the manuscript and, until he wrote his 1937 memoir A Long Way from Home, seemed to put it out of his mind. Fortunately, he didn’t incinerate the document.
Romance in Marseille is transforming how we understand the Harlem Renaissance because the once-dormant text is a fête of uncloseted queerness. Same-sex coupling among McKay’s Marseille social outcasts is presented without tragedy or farce. Though her trade is male, Black prostitute La Fleur Noire is in a stable partnership with a Greek girlfriend, and white American expat docker Big Blonde is beatifically paired with elfin hustler Petit Frère. While the towering Babel, a “West Indian from a British island,” is recognizably hetero, he veers queer for the likewise sizable Big Blonde, recalling Jake Brown’s special affection for Ray. Perhaps the most surprising quality of Romance in Marseille is how it normalizes queer life—no campy sissies, no suicidal neurotics, no nasty stalkers “with a womanish kind of voice.”
Over the past 35 years, the critical discussion of McKay’s sexual difference and its relationship to his art and politics have formed a rich bibliography. An indispensable recent examination of McKay’s queer dissidence appears in Aaron S. Lecklider’s landmark study, Love’s Next Meeting: The Forgotten History of Homosexuality and the Left in American Culture (2021). Lecklider observes the hostilities that erupted between McKay and Charles Henri Ford, co-author of the early queer novel The Young and the Evil (1933). Communications between the Black and white writers started with, as Lecklider says, a “mildly homoerotic exchange” and soon deteriorated into a textual brawl over race, sex, poetry, and politics, including “Ford’s wading into red-baiting.”
Ford’s most inexcusable offense was unleashing his not-so-latent racism. “[I]t is only because it is so unusual,” Ford ultimately responded to McKay, “that a member of the black race should write even second-rate verse showing the influence of the classics that your work has been noticed at all.” McKay terminated the conversation with, “I prefer a thousand times to belong to an oppressed race, sure and proud of what I am, than to be anything like you, a vile loathsome pathetic crawling filthy worm of the world of oppressors.”
McKay’s letters teem with such remarks, the author laying into the heterosexual, propaganda-disposed Du Bois and the homosexual, “filthy worm” Ford, along with an equally impressive muster of movers and motivators. The Black émigré author spreads his wrath democratically, giving a thick ear to women and men, queer and straight, adversary and ally, eminent and parvenu alike.
While guest-editing the 1925 “Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro” special issue of the popular magazine Survey Graphic, Howard University academic Alain Locke was apparently anxious that the title of McKay’s “The White House” would offend white readers. Without the poet’s consent, Locke reprinted the sonnet in the special number as “White Houses.” Later that year, when Locke expanded the content of the issue, editing the historic anthology The New Negro, he repeated the offense. In a state of high dudgeon, McKay wrote Locke:
When you change [“The White House”] to “White Houses” the poem immediately becomes cheap, flat Afro-American propaganda. […] The whole symbolical import of my poem is lost under the title you have chosen to give it & allowed to remain after I had called your attention to it. If you understand how an artist feels about the word that he chooses above other words […] then you will understand how I feel about “The White House.” I do hope you will set this matter right in future editions of your book.
Future editions of The New Negro sustained the solecism.
A decade later, British activist Nancy Cunard, at work on another anthology of Black writing, titled Negro (1934), solicited material from McKay. The impulse for Cunard’s interest in New Negro writing was a public love affair with African American jazz pianist and arranger Henry Crowder, band leader of the Paris-based Alabamians. During the early 1930s, McKay dispatched a dozen or so lengthy, congenial letters to Cunard, including an invitation to stay with his brother Uriah “U’Theo” McKay while visiting Jamaica. But the pleasantness ended when, as if doing an impression of Locke’s editorial affront, Cunard plunged into revising the author’s work without his approval. Writing from Tangier in 1933, McKay’s tone turns to rage: “This your latest letter irritates me to no end in manner and matter and I most emphatically refuse permission for my article to be mutilated and quoted from before published in its entirety.” In letters to friends, McKay bitterly regrets his former trust in the heiress. Corresponding with bibliophile Arthur Schomburg, he discusses abruptly withdrawing from Negro: “Personally I think Miss Cunard a very unreliable person and lacking intellectual purpose and balance, mixing up as she does her love affairs with the Negro problem.”
Frequently generous and sometimes rancorous, McKay’s letters bare a range of opinions about the personalities he encountered. Writing to longtime ally Max Eastman in the early 1930s, McKay referred to distinguished Black gay poet Countee Cullen as “that little prig”! Eastman was well acquainted with McKay’s wrath. Ten years earlier, in a long, admonishing letter, McKay had protested the way his brief period as co-editor of the leftist magazine The Liberator was portrayed by Eastman.
McKay showed that he would speak his mind even when doing so risked losing the support of an influential white champion:
You say that I introduced too much race matter during the months of my editorship. You say this would not make the readers think about the Negro problem, they would rather “dismiss” it. Such is your opinion, which gives me a picture of you as a nice opportunist always in search of the safe path and never striking out for the new if there are any signs of danger ahead.
Some of McKay’s letters are handwritten—many in a taxing, idiosyncratic scrawl—because the often itinerant, out-of-work author didn’t have a manual typewriter. Since he was frequently down and out in London, Paris, and other sites, it is astounding that McKay would end blunt grievances against correspondents with almost bland appeals for sums of money. It seems that, in some cases, the expression of wrath wasn’t meant to be personal. The author’s frequent vexation was an essential impulse of his creative art.
McKay’s writing demonstrates that his artistry, sexuality, political radicalism, and passionate temperament, which on occasion erupted in a ruinous manner (torching his only copy of “Color Scheme” perhaps being the most calamitous), fed—and therefore cannot be considered in isolation from—one another. Honesty, as Baldwin said of his own art, was vital to McKay, even if it meant that the Black Diaspora cruiser had to pawn his typewriter, as he wrote New Negro cognoscente Harold Jackman in 1927, in order to eat. In the modernist literary marketplace, honesty didn’t always pay.
The appeal of Afrofuturism is to imagine a futurity that people of color may play a role in creating. Transgressive modernist texts that were unpublishable in their own time may carry artistic freight that contemporaneous books that found their way into print couldn’t alone deliver. Recovered Black modernist texts that rewrite the known historical narrative, Amiable with Big Teeth and Romance in Marseille offer a glimpse of a reclaimed Black future. And only Claude McKay, roaming on the margins of modernism and writing through his zeal, wit, and fury, could have written them.
* A special thanks to Brooks Hefner for calling attention to the details of this letter!
Gary Edward Holcomb is a professor of African American studies at Ohio University. He is the author of Claude McKay, Code Name Sasha: Queer Black Marxism and the Harlem Renaissance (University Press of Florida, 2007).
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