“Amiable With Big Teeth – A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem,” by Claude McKay, 2017
Yeah, that is a weird title. This newly found and complete novel by Claude McKay, written in 1941 but never published until now, was found in the papers of another writer in 2009. McKay was one of the leading black writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Born in Jamaica, he lived outside the U.S. for many years in London, Paris and Tangiers. He attended the 4thCongress of the Communist International in 1922 with Max Eastman, meeting Trotsky, Zinoviev and Bukharin. He moved back to Harlem in the 1934, penniless.
The novel centers on the movement among black people to defend Ethiopia after Italy’s Mussolini invaded it in October 1935, and ended in May 1936 when fascist forces entered Addis Ababa. The subtext, as you might guess, is the role of mostly white “popular frontists’ in New York who attempt to take control of the movement from prominent black citizens of Harlem. At the time, the USSR was one of the only countries correctly opposing the Italian invasion in the League of Nations, while at the same time still selling oil and other products to Italy. As pointed out by black nationalists, no weapons or aid was sent to Haile Selassie by the USSR. This was unlike what happened in Spain during the 1936-1939 Civil War, when the USSR supplied the Popular Front government with supplies and volunteers. Roosevelt’s position on the invasion of Ethiopia (and Spain) was to do nothing, so the U.S. government was even more pathetic than the USSR in the face of fascism.
The black community in the U.S. normally did not pay attention to international events. But in this case it embraced Ethiopia as a comrade country, and turned out in the many thousands for rallies against the invasion by white Italy. It reminded black people of their own position in the U.S. as an oppressed national group, now mirrored in a vicious conquest of an old African kingdom by a European power.
McKay’s book is invaluable in presenting a picture of the cultural, social and political currents in New York and Harlem at the time. There are the “Senegambians’ who celebrate African culture. There are the preachers and the prominent ‘talented 10th’ some of whom who could ‘pass.’ There is party-going and bar-hopping and bad romance. There are early Muslim converts who crusade against white or Jewish businesses. Black nationalism, cultural nationalism, stunted forms of ‘class analysis,’ 2nd International socialists and high-society hedonism all gambol in the soup. There is also a taste of Rastafarianism, as it too was based on the adulation of Haile Selassie and Ethiopia starting in the 1930s.
The more elite elements of Harlem society, led by a businessman Pablo Piexota, a former numbers runner, band together with a representative of the Ethiopian government, Lij Alamaya, to raise funds and consciousness. At the same time, a mostly white group downtown, run by the Communist Party (CP), comes into competition. They insist that there should be only one group, and it should have both black and white members. The Harlem group disagrees, as they fear the splitting activities of the CP as well as the suspect role of white people, even ‘progressive’ white people.
These are familiar topics today, as a real united front between black and white and Latino workers is almost non-existent except in unions and very small efforts by socialist groups. Groups like “Black Lives Matter” are run by black people, while white people go to BLM events and play a small role. The existence of the ‘front group’ continues as well. There are sometimes actual ‘united fronts’ that last for one event or over time, and are not dominated by one political tendency to the exclusion of others. Then there is the sectarian version of the front group, which tries to exclude anyone who is from another tendency. In this book, the downtown group repeatedly denounces some of the members of the Harlem group as ‘Hitler-Mussolini-Trotskyite” fascists. (Yeah, an actual, real slogan…) Even though these members had been elected to their positions and had support in the black community.
The lead ‘villain’ is a CP member, Maxim Tasan, who spearheads the effort for a CP-dominated front against the invasion. Tasan says many things that make sense, but then displays his own disdain for ‘Aframericans,’ as McKay calls black people in the U.S. McKay shows liberal white people making bigoted suggestions, or applauding a black artist who shows black people in crude negative caricatures. The downtown CP eventually defeats the Harlem group in the political battle through various shenanigans, but an odd revenge is successful.
McKay’s intense animus towards the CP is the central plot pivot of the book. Some of the made-up exaggerations do not help convince the reader, and would have been more effective if they were more subtle or more realistic. But McKay wanted to make it overly obvious how deceitful the CP leadership was. Given the coming Hitler-Stalin peace pact in 1940, there is a bit of historical foreshadowing regarding betrayal here. McKay later moved to Chicago and became a Catholic in 1944. He died in 1948. This was his last book.
And I got it at the library!
February 19, 2018