Romance in Marseille 
by Claude McKay.
Penguin, 208 pp., £12.99, May 2020, 978 0 14 313422 0
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When​ Claude McKay first visited Marseille he was immediately taken with the vagabond social life of the Vieux Port. In his early twenties he had moved from Jamaica to the US, where he spent a few years before setting off to travel Europe. He had reported for Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers’ Dreadnought in London, attended the Fourth World Congress of the Communist International in Petrograd and Moscow, and visited the cabarets of Berlin. But it was multicultural Marseille that made him feel most at ease. ‘It was a relief,’ he later wrote, ‘to live in among a great gang of black and brown humanity.’ His first visit to the city, in 1924, lasted only a few days, but it left a lasting impression and he was back two years later. He had already made friends in the city’s bars and cafés, and before long he was doing occasional shifts unloading cargo at the docks while working on his short stories.

McKay, who was born in 1889, is known as one of the foremost poets of the Harlem Renaissance – author of Harlem Shadows (1922), a collection of poems, and the novel Home to Harlem (1928). But his radicalism often put him at odds with Harlem’s Black intelligentsia: he decried its leadership’s social conservatism, its politics of racial uplift, its condescending attitude towards the experiences of working-class Black people. And his association with the Harlem Renaissance is further complicated by his absence during the height of the movement: between 1919 and 1934, he spent only two years in America.

The Vieux Port taught him a lot. The cast of characters in his two picaresque Marseille novels, Banjo (1929) and Romance in Marseille (written in 1933 but unpublished until last year), are thinly veiled fictionalisations of the motley crew of sailors, dockers, sex workers and café and bar owners he knew. For much of the early 20th century, Marseille was the main port of entry for migrants travelling as clandestins: stowaway passengers who illegally boarded commercial vessels bound for France. Clandestins had neither papers nor passports that could identify them to French authorities, so were often ascribed the status of ‘doubtful nationality’. This made them vulnerable to arrest or deportation, but it also characterised what the historian Jennifer Boittin calls the ‘Marseille system’: informal labour practices that fed on migrant workers’ insecurity and shaped the experience of a lumpenproletariat of Africans, West Indians, Arabs and Indians in the port and other cities around the Mediterranean.

The story of Romance in Marseille’s anti-hero Lafala was inspired by the stowaway tale of Nelson Simeon Dede, a Nigerian seaman who had arrived in the Vieux Port missing both legs and with new-found riches. McKay recounted the story in a letter to his literary agent. Dede had hidden in the hold of a French Fabre Company steamship bound for New York. The ship’s crew found him and he was locked away in a freezing-cold water closet for the rest of the journey, pleading to be let out. By the time the ship arrived in New York his feet were so badly frostbitten they had to be amputated: his legs were sawn off at the knee. Dede sued the company and was awarded a $17,000 settlement (his lawyer took a $5000 cut) and got prosthetic legs. It’s unclear how exactly Dede, as a stowaway, was able to win the case, but it’s more than possible that McKay threatened to leak the story to the Black press. McKay met him in Marseille, during Dede’s final visit before being deported to Nigeria.

In the novel’s opening scene, Lafala is being detained in an immigrants’ hospital in New York, recuperating from the amputation. He is approached by an African American man with a ‘huge black face, yellow teeth, in a badly moulded mouth’ who has a proposal. The man thinks that Lafala deserves some sort of compensation for the suffering the shipping company inflicted, and he offers to introduce him to a lawyer. At first, Lafala is irritated by the man, but as his chances of winning the case improve the ‘ignorant fellow Black’ is rechristened Black Angel. The man turns out to be Lafala’s saviour, sent from heaven to convert his stolen mobility into social ascent, and to negotiate a ‘limbs for cash’ bargain that provides a warped form of reparation for the disabling effects of racial capitalism.

Lafala turns out to be less than completely trustworthy. He had agreed a fifty-fifty split of the settlement with the lawyer, with his saviour to receive a portion. But he reneges on the deal, leaving Angel with only half what he had been promised. ‘But you wouldn’t mean to say I ain’t worf five-hundred dollars fohal I did?’ Angel asks. ‘Sure,’ Lafala replies, ‘but oh God! don’t ask me to pay, Angel. I’m an amputated man.’ Lafala’s change of fortune has changed him. McKay rejected his agent’s suggestion that he show his protagonist in a more sympathetic light: this wasn’t a story of racial uplift. Lafala’s behaviour challenges the idea of racial solidarity among Black people that was prominent in Harlem at the time.

With his money secured, Lafala returns to Marseille, the ‘magnificent Mediterranean harbour … against which the thick scum of life foams and bubbles and breaks in a syrup of passion and desire’. There, he rekindles his relationship with Aslima, a sex worker from Marrakesh. Their relationship is unsettled by the presence of La Fleur Noire, a rival sex worker who competes for Lafala’s attention and money. Unlike Aslima, La Fleur doesn’t ‘go crazy over men’: she sleeps with them only for money and is devoted to her procurer, known as ‘the Greek girl’. She is also one of the novel’s many openly queer characters. For much of McKay’s life, the criminalisation of same-sex relationships in countries around the world dictated how, where and why he travelled. He presented a closeted version of himself in A Long Way from Home, his memoir of 1937, but Romance in Marseille offers a more intimate engagement with the community of queer workers McKay spent time with in Europe. The manuscript of the novel, completed while McKay was living in poverty in North Africa, was abandoned after several publishers turned it down: editors were uncomfortable with McKay’s casual treatment of queer characters and feared that it would not ‘be accepted by the American reading public’.

W.E.B. Du Bois said he felt unclean and in need of a bath after reading Home to Harlem. Romance in Marseille would have disturbed him even more: the novel refers to Aslima and Lafala as ‘sweet pigs’, ‘clean pigs’ or ‘loving pigs’, unashamedly reclaiming dignity for the low-life ways of Black proletarians. It’s hard not to read such passages as a swipe at the pretensions of Harlem’s Black bourgeoisie, and of the attitudes of the NAACP, which Du Bois helped found. McKay was determined to portray a version of Black life that, as his biographer Wayne Cooper wrote, was ‘far removed from the worries, frustrations and thwarted ambitions of the educated middle classes’. In McKay’s more pointed words, he wanted to avoid anything ‘fake, soft-headed and wine-watered’, to let his ‘Negro characters yarn and backbite and fuck like people the world over’.

Du Bois and other Harlem literati would have had trouble understanding the racial politics of interwar Marseille, but then even French Black intellectuals would have been puzzled. In Paris, diasporic Black people demarcated themselves based on race, but in Marseille, African and Black Caribbean migrants referred instead to their particular linguistic and national origins, making it more difficult to organise them or recruit them to radical Black organisations devoted to a united cause. One person who felt the difficulty was Lamine Senghor, a Senegalese communist and anti-imperialist who was active in Marseille when McKay first visited. In Romance in Marseille, Senghor appears as Étienne St Dominique, a mixed-race intellectual from Martinique who tries, and mostly fails, to organise the seamen of the Vieux Port. He wants the habitués of the Tout-va-Bien café to attend readings and lectures at the Seamen’s and Workers’ Club, but the club is in the ‘drabbest and least interesting proletarian and factory quarter of Marseille’, far from the thrills of the Vieux Port and of no interest to the quaysiders.

The seemingly irreconcilable distance between left intellectuals and workers is further explored through St Dominique’s relationship with Big Blonde, a broad-shouldered worker who looks like a ‘hero straight out of Joseph Conrad’. Big Blonde is something of an enigma around the Vieux Port: he spends his time working hard on the docks or courting Petit Frère, a sex worker ‘fascinating with his pale prettiness and challenging, deep, dark-ringed eyes and insolent mouth’. Pride, committed labour: he has all the characteristics of the socialist realist proletarian ideal – but he won’t join the workers’ union. Even so, despite their contrasting politics and sexuality, there is solidarity of a different kind between St Dominique and Big Blonde. When St Dominique is heckled at the Tout-va-Bien, Big Blonde intervenes, reminding the habitués that the Martiniquais is their ally. In turn, Big Blonde, who is often in trouble with the Marseille authorities, gets to hide at the Seamen’s and Workers’ Club when he is on the run.

One day, Lafala disappears: St Dominique suspects that the political police are to blame. But it turns out that, like many undocumented migrants, he has been detained by immigration authorities and charged with stowing away to New York. In prison, Lafala runs into Babel, a ‘huge West Indian from a British island’ who had been his ‘partner in stowing away’. Since leaving Marseille, Babel has been less fortunate than Lafala: on arrival in New York, he was immediately sent back to Marseille, and only narrowly escaped imprisonment by fleeing to North Africa. When he comes back to the Vieux Port he is arrested again and landed in jail with Lafala for the same offence. But then – because there can be solidarity between workers and intellectuals – St Dominique intervenes and persuades the authorities to release the two vagabonds. Suddenly they gain access to a form of citizenship that, as working-class migrants, they have always been denied.

Such deliverance isn’t available for everyone. Towards the end of Romance in Marseille the focus turns to Aslima, under threat from all quarters, especially from her procurer, who suspects her of keeping money from him. Banjo, McKay’s previous novel of Marseille, had celebrated a very masculine idea of Black vagabondage – buddies prowling the waterfront, drinking, getting into scrapes, chasing women. But now he wanted to show that there are alternatives to a male-only strategy of liberation. Aslima has direct experience of being enslaved: ‘The girl was worth a little prize, and someday a nice little sum could be realised on her virgin beauty,’ her ‘mistress’ thinks to herself when Aslima is still an adolescent living in Fez. But in Marseille she becomes a ‘strong and restless tigress’ whose ‘reckless’ behaviour often puts her at odds with both clients and management in the city’s brothels. She and La Fleur challenge conventional expectations of gender norms and relations, and are constantly longing for a world not ruled by men or the Marseille authorities. The defiance that functions as a queer resource of survival throughout the novel is driven by a longing for liberation that never materialises.

In September 1930, McKay abruptly left Europe for Morocco to work on a novel he described as ‘dealing with the religious customs and social life of the peasantry’ in Jamaica. The move shielded him, in part, from the effects of the Great Depression, but his writing wasn’t making much money for either him or his publisher. He was accused of being out of touch with Harlem, with fellow writers arguing that his fictional version of the neighbourhood too closely resembled Black Marseille. James Weldon Johnson, who had spent the 1920s as executive secretary of the NAACP, went further, suggesting that McKay needed to return to America. ‘I feel very strongly that you ought to come and stay. New York is your market, and the United States is your field.’ So with nowhere else to turn – and worn down by constant harassment from British and French colonial authorities for his suspected communist affiliations – McKay reluctantly travelled back to the US. He arrived in New York in February 1934, ill and penniless, after almost twelve years abroad.

For​ many destitute writers in the Depression-era US, the Federal Writers’ Project – part of Roosevelt’s New Deal – was a lifeline. Between 1936 and 1939, the FWP paid for McKay to collect material for its ambitious ‘Negroes in New York’ project on the lives of Black artists, diplomats, writers and other extraordinary figures who lived in the city. (Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright were also supported by the programme, though McKay was never close to either.) FWP resources allowed McKay to produce Harlem: Negro Metropolis (1940), a sociological study of cults, occultists and street-corner orators that includes discussions of Black luminaries such as Marcus Garvey, Father Divine and Sufi Abdul Hamid. This rich material would inevitably make its way into his fiction. But it wasn’t until 2009 that Jean-Christopher Cloutier unexpectedly came across another novel that had been buried in the archives. Amiable with Big Teeth was written in 1941 but has only now been published for the first time, with an introduction by Cloutier and Brent Hayes Edwards.* It was the last novel McKay wrote, and it does for 1930s Harlem what the other new discovery does for 1920s Marseille by opening the curtain on a more complex political landscape than any you expect.

The book is set against the backdrop of the Second Italo-Ethiopian War and deals with the tangled motives of Stalinists, Trotskyists, Black nationalists, Afrocentric occultists and Harlem scammers in their fundraising efforts to help Ethiopia defend itself against Mussolini’s invading army. In the opening scene, a parade organised by a Black-led group called Hands to Ethiopia proceeds through Harlem, with the Ethiopian envoy Lij Tekla Alamaya (‘a slight olive-coloured youth with large calf’s eyes’) at its helm. Before long tensions emerge within the organisation. Its chair, Pablo Peixota, a real-estate mogul with considerable influence in Harlem, suggests that Dorsey Flagg, a distinguished ‘professor in a recognised Aframerican college’ should accompany Alamaya on his fundraising tour. But another member of the group, Newton Castle, demands Flagg’s expulsion, bitterly accusing Flagg of being a ‘Trotskyite-Fascist’ with ‘anti-Soviet’ views. Flagg and Peixota soon suspect that Castle is a communist agent, tasked with infiltrating Hands to Ethiopia. Is this a deliberate attempt by the CPUSA to mobilise Black opposition to Italy’s invasion in order to further its end of building a Popular Front? While the phrase that lends the novel its striking title, ‘amiable with big teeth’, is never used in the text, the communists are referred to as wolves in sheep’s clothing who corrupt ‘God’s humble black sheep’ – the Black people of Harlem.

Peixota and Flagg’s suspicions are confirmed when another organisation supporting the Ethiopian cause, the White Friends of Ethiopia, appears on the scene. Maxim Tasan, the mysterious communist pulling the strings, at first appears to be on the side of the Black Harlemites, but his intentions are sinister. To undermine support for Hands to Ethiopia, Tasan employs a startling array of schemes. He begins by engineering a police raid on an innocent gathering of friends of Peixota’s who meet every few months to play cards. He then makes manoeuvres to discredit Alamaya – presumably because he has turned against the White Friends – before persuading his secretary to pretend to be an Ethiopian princess and take Alamaya’s place. Hands to Ethiopia’s initiatives are thwarted at every turn, and Tasan and the Popular Front are soon everywhere in Harlem.

Tasan’s attitude towards Alamaya and the Harlemites is in many ways characteristic of the CPUSA’s treatment of Black ‘allies’ under the Stalinist Comintern. In the novel’s final pages, it transpires that Alamaya is himself a communist agent, recruited by the party in France and sent to Harlem to drum up Black support for the Popular Front. Alamaya accepts the mission because he believes that working with the communists gives him a better chance in the struggle for Ethiopia’s sovereignty. But then he finds out that the Soviets have been supplying arms to the Italians, and he realises he is just a pawn. Alamaya is alarmed by Tasan’s racism. When confronted about the arms treaty, Tasan snaps: ‘Ethiopia is only a land of howling black savages, over-sexed cannibals with many wives gorging themselves with raw meat.’

When McKay went to the Soviet Union to attend the Comintern’s Fourth World Congress in 1922, he found to his surprise that he was already something of a political celebrity. He discussed the ‘Negro Question’ – the question of Black people’s self-determination – with the ‘big Bolsheviks’, Zinoviev, Bukharin and Trotsky, and travelled the country educating the Soviets about Black people in America. (His book Negry v Amerike, published in the Soviet Union in 1923 but not in the West until 1979, was possibly the first Black-authored study of relations in the US between race and class.) In an address to the World Congress, he referred to the ‘great element of prejudice among the Socialists and Communists of America’. The greatest difficulty that American communists had to overcome was ‘the fact that they first have got to emancipate themselves from the ideas they entertain toward the Negroes before they can be able to reach the Negroes with any kind of radical propaganda’.

After 1935, when it became official Comintern policy to support the creation of Popular Fronts abroad, the question of Black self-determination was pushed aside and Black organisations forced to toe the party line. For McKay, who had been instrumental in shaping Comintern policy on the Negro Question, the Popular Front was a step backwards and, in some ways, a betrayal that hastened his break with communism. Other Black radicals also distanced themselves from the Comintern during these years: Wright, Ellison and Margaret Walker all expressed their deep disappointment at the Comintern’s failure to respond to the Negro Question. When it came to race, the Communists were simply not radical enough.

The Italo-Soviet pact of 1933 intensified McKay’s disillusionment – now bordering on hostility – with international communism. The treaty established strong trade links between the Soviet Union and Italy, and gave Mussolini access to the oil and gas he needed to launch his invasion of Ethiopia. The Trinidadian Pan-Africanist George Padmore, head of the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers and editor of The Negro Worker, was similarly dismayed and suggested in print that the Soviet Union was placing its own interests ahead of those of colonised Black people. He was quickly expelled from the Comintern and forced to resign his editorship.

But while McKay’s final novel is scathing about the CPUSA’s propaganda work, it also takes aim at the Black bourgeois groups that were so ineffective in organising the Harlem masses. For McKay, self-determination was not merely a matter of guaranteeing civil rights or removing the barriers to Black political and economic power – as it was for the NAACP – or of creating a nation wherever Black people were an oppressed minority. The real goal, as he saw it, was to support independent Black organisations that could reinvigorate the American labour movement, something the communists, Garveyites and NAACP had all proved incapable of. Later in the novel, after Hands to Ethiopia has been infiltrated and neutralised, all hope of action disintegrates: ‘The popular Aframerican leaders, beaten and discouraged, could not be whipped together again into the first line of propaganda activity, and the masses were apathetic. The comrades paraded and slugged their slogans into the air, but the communist leadership was weak and ineffective without the support of the local leaders.’ Harlem’s bourgeois leadership is too easily discouraged, while the communists fail to see that they need the help of local leaders to recruit the Harlemites.

Much of McKay’s early work – including the poems in Harlem Shadows so often celebrated for peaceably ushering in the Harlem Renaissance – was produced in response to a moment of political tumult: the emergence of the Third International in 1919, the violently suppressed race riots in American cities later that year. But by the mid-1930s, McKay had no real place in the communist movement, or in Harlem’s Black literary circles, or in Garvey’s Back-to-Africa movement. ‘In his vocation as writer, poet and intellectual,’ Wayne Cooper wrote in his 1987 biography, ‘McKay never found a comfortable niche.’ It’s no wonder. He had launched critiques of every dominant left discourse in the US and had alienated both communist and Black intellectuals with his biting polemics. How to make sense of McKay’s shifting and often conflicting radicalism?

One starting point is his lifelong admiration for Irish nationalism, and the lessons he drew from the Irish Literary Revival. In the summer of 1920, he attended a rally in support of the Irish cause in Trafalgar Square and wrote a summary of the event, ‘How Black Sees Green and Red’, for Max Eastman’s The Liberator in New York: ‘With both hands and my bag full of literature I had to find a way for hearty handshakes and brief chats with Sinn Féin communists and regular Sinn Féiners. I caught a glimpse also of proud representatives of the Sinn Féin bourgeoisie. For that day at least I was filled with the spirit of Irish nationalism – although I am black!’

In London, Berlin, Paris and Marseille, McKay had come into contact with the future leaders of several anti-colonial revolutions and been inspired by their passionate demands for self-determination. Self-determination, he continued to insist, meant much more than economic independence: it was driven by a hunger for freedom among people like the peasant farmers he had known as a boy in the hills of Jamaica. He was proud to have been ‘born and reared a peasant’ and ‘loved to think of communism liberating millions of city folk to go back to the land’. Cooper implies that these attachments were somehow at odds with McKay’s radicalism and demonstrated his ‘limitations as a communist theoretician’. But some of the most innovative and important Marxist thinkers of the 20th century – C.L.R. James, George Padmore – came from colonised Caribbean countries and recognised the central role the peasantry was to play in anti-colonial revolutions. Lenin – the only communist McKay writes of admiringly in his memoir (‘out of all the big Bolshevik leaders, I had desired most to have a personal word from Lenin’) – shared this conviction. ‘It is one thing to draw up fantastic plans for building socialism by means of all sorts of workers’ associations,’ he wrote in ‘On C0-operation’. ‘But it is quite another thing to learn to build it practically, in such a way every small peasant may take part in the work of reconstruction.’

Like Padmore and James, McKay never truly broke with Lenin. And he didn’t let his anti-Stalinism distort his critique of imperialism or support of anti-colonial liberation movements in Trinidad, Ireland, Ethiopia or Jamaica. In a letter to Max Eastman written not long before he died in 1948, McKay chastised his friend and mentor for seeking to justify some of the manifestations of US and British imperialism. ‘I do not think,’ he wrote, ‘that … the democracies have anything to offer’ the people of Asia and Africa. I should say to the so-called democracies of the United States and Great Britain: set your own house in order and try not to scare up a war against Soviet Russia.’

At the very end of Amiable with Big Teeth, Alamaya angrily confronts Tasan. If he had to make a choice, Alamaya says, he ‘would prefer the European wolves as real wolves to the Comintern wolves hiding in fleece’. But unlike his final novel’s protagonist, McKay never did prefer the real wolf – no matter how disastrously ‘the love affair between the communists and the poor black sheep of Harlem’ had turned out.

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