The recently discovered manuscript of Claude McKay titled “Amiable with Big Teeth: A Novel Concerning the Love Affair between the Communists and the Black Sheep of Harlem” provides a rare framework of the ideas, events and world affairs that shaped the Harlem Renaissance after the First World War. In particular, it provides evidence of the connection between the Black Harlem and pan-African movements as well as the African-American activism of the earl and mid-20th century.
For instance, McKay’s work cites Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia as an important international event that maintained the Harlem Renaissance during its second half. It provides evidence that the renaissance continued being vibrant by turning its focus on international issues affecting the black people. Arguably, the manuscript develops a concrete and strong thesis stating that international issues dominated the tension between the communists and the black nationalists during the final half of the Harlem Renaissance.
In 2009, a Columbia graduate student named Jean-Christophe Cloutier, an intern at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library in Columbia, found an untouched manuscript published by Samuel L. Roth, a mid-20th century literary pariah known for publishing materials without permission. Noteworthy, there is little evidence that Roth and Mckay had personal, ideological or professional relations during their lifetimes. This suggests that Roth must have published McKay’s work without permission. Nevertheless, Roth’s work provides the modern scholarly fraternity with a good evidence of the connection between the Harlem Renaissance and the international affairs involving the blacks and the communists in the US. They are based on McKay’s personal experience and observations.
In the manuscript, Roth provides a clear indication that the manuscript belongs to Claude McKay. The manuscript was typewritten. However, it has numerous corrections throughout the entire story done by hand, providing evidence that McKay or Roth wanted to publish the novel after making the final corrections. Samuel Roth wrote his section called “Publisher’s Note” in which he states that McKay’s work was based on personal observations and experience in Harlem during the war between Ethiopia and Italy. As Mussolini invaded Ethiopia, the Ethiopian emperor sent envoys to the US, especially in the black dominated areas, to lobby for material and monetary support.
According to Roth, a number of envoys, organizations and refugees from Africa and other parts of the world descended “upon Harlem with diverse and different objectives”. Roth further notes that McKay’s work provides evidence that not all the envoys, organizations and refugees were genuinely on the side of Haile Selassie and Ethiopia. Instead, McKay provides evidence of a number of envoys, organizations and refugees that were fake or communists pretending to be sympathizers. They wanted to disclose Ethiopia’s foreign missions and secrets. Therefore, it is clear that Harlem played a significant role as the center for love-hate affair between the communists and the Pan-Africanists.
Consequently, Harlem remained an important field for various movements and factions years after the end of the First World War and defeat of Mussolini in Ethiopia. For instance, towards the end of the publisher’s note, Roth argues that Harlem remained a ground for increased movements, including the black Muslims who were difficult to understand and more dangerous than the previous groups. Roth ends the note by stating that McKay’s aim in developing the story was to present the choices open to the African-Americans in pushing for their rights and recognition.
Nevertheless, it is worth noting that McKay, despite being a black American and Pan-Africanist, does not show criticism or hatred for the communists in this manuscript. He attempts to describe the relationships between the two groups in Harlem and their inspirations from the international affairs such as the Italian-Ethiopian war. In fact, it is not possible to determine whether McKay was supportive of the communists or not. Accordingly, a major question that readers should consider is “was McKay a communist or a Pan-Africanist?”
It is worth noting that McKay was familiar with the events and the communities of Harlem. Born Festus Claudius McKay in 1889 in Claredon region of Jamaica, McKay migrated to South Carolina in 1912 and Kansas in 1913. He was a renowned African-American poet, writer and an influential figure during the Harlem Renaissance, after living in Harlem for a long time.
In this manuscript, McKay’s story is based on the events that took place while he was staying in Harlem during the Ethiopian-Italian war. In particular, the narrative revolves around a mission known as “The Hands to Ethiopia”, which was aggressively seeking for monetary and material aid to support Ethiopia during the war. He also mentions the characters and activities of a number of leading persons during the events. According to McKay, one of the envoys sent by the Ethiopians to lobby for funds was Lij Tekla Alamaya, a young, educated and humble Ethiopian.
The ‘Hands to Ethiopia’ was the leading organization formed by the Harlem black community under the leadership of Pablo Peixota, the chairperson. It had a number of other officials, including Newton Castle, the secretary and executive members such as Dorsey Flagg, Rev. Zebulon Trawl and Gloria Kendall, an employee of the organization. As the story develops, McKay shows the role of other leading characters’ including Maxim Tasan, a mysterious individual pretending to be a friend of the Hands to Ethiopia and Peixota’s wife Kezia and daughter Seraphine.
The characters of these individuals reveal the love-hate relationship between the communists and the Pan-Africanists in Harlem because they supported different sides of the Ethiopian-Italian war and other international affairs. In addition, the role of other African factions such as the Senegambians and their support to Ethiopia is portrayed through the character of Professor Koazhy, the leader of the Senegambians and renowned scholar in African history.
McKay’s narrative begins with the declaration “Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands to God”, which is quoted from the bible. McKay, who is probably the narrator of the story, provides the audience with the story of his experience during one of the events in Harlem. On a Sunday afternoon, he visits a function at the local church organized by The Hands to Ethiopia with the objective of creating awareness of Mussolini’s threat to Ethiopia and sourcing for monetary aid to the Ethiopian emperor. Pablo Peixota, the organization’s chair, is the organizer and the main speaker. The young Ethiopian envoy, the guest of honor during the event, has been sent from Ethiopia to deliver the emperor’s request for funds and support.
McKay portrays the support that the Harlem residents had for the Pan-African movements in the US and the world by describing the huge crowds that waited for the young emperor in the streets leading to the church. As Lij is driven towards the church, huge crowds of Harlem residents line up along the streets, clapping and shouting in appreciation of the young envoy.
However, behind the envoy, professor Koazhy is driven towards the church, wearing military regalia similar to the one worn by the older Ethiopian kings. Thus, he attracts massive applause from the crowd, which overshadows the appreciation give to the young envoy. However, Lij later informs his host Peixota and other members of the organization that the uniform was worn by the traditional African chiefs in Ethiopia and is almost obsolete.
In fact, this is a clear indication that Harlem was characterized by the ideology of Pan-Africanism and the desire to achieve the black identity, supported by recognition of their rights. By wearing the Ethiopian military regalia, professor Koazhy wanted to prove that Harlem was a major field that determined the future of the Pan-African movements in the US and the world. McKay shows that the Harlem community was supportive of these movements based on their long history of discrimination by the whites in the US, an idea that the professor wanted to invoke in order to encourage the residents to aid the threatened Ethiopia. Nevertheless, the existence of communists and other groups complicate the stance of Harlem during the Ethiopian-Italian war as McKay later describes.
Inside the church, Mckay provides evidence of the support the Harlem community had for certain groups and movements in the international arena. For instance, Peixota and his group were expecting the young envoy to give a speech that would compel the community to fund his nation. However, his humble nature and inability to identify himself with the true Ethiopia, especially by his clothing, failed to move the crowd. Instead, the crowd recognized Professor Koazhy as the true African in the group, demanding for his speech.
The gifted professor gave a speech, mainly educating the public about the history of Africa. Although the professor was aware that the blacks hate the whites in Harlem, he made the crowd appreciate the white man “for his role in writing and teaching African and Ethiopian history”. He argued that Africans and African-Americans did not know their history due to ignorance. In addition, he challenged Lij’s knowledge of his knowledge of Ethiopian history, which prompted the crowd to concentrate on his speech.
After completing his speech, the crowd started leaving the church. Nevertheless, the gifted Koazhy challenged the people to give what they had in their pockets “if surely you have appreciated my speech”. Within a few minutes, people of different backgrounds provided their monetary support for Ethiopia. This portrays the professor’s ability to use his academic prowess to invoke the people’s perceptions of the international affairs.
However, as the story progresses, it is revealed that Professor Koazhy is none other than Tasmin and a communist who was using the political euphoria created by the Italian-Ethiopian war for personal gains. Within one day, the organization was threatened by the existence of the fascists, communists and other groups that were interested in the euphoria in order to make monetary gains.
Apart from Koazhy, other executive members of Peixota’s organization are doubtable, especially their motives and political stance. For instance, it is also revealed that individuals like Dorsey Flagg were fascists whose main objective was not only to make money out of the Ethiopian issue, but to again information about the progress and tactics used by Ethiopia to gain international support against the fascist Mussolini. Nevertheless, it is an ideological conflict and people like Flagg cannot be forced out of the executive office because of his influence and ability to attract potential donors.
Moreover, members of the group as well as their potential donors and strategists are involved in competitions of political and social ideologies. For instance, Tasmin is an anti-fascist. He says that it is wrong to work with fascists like Flagg, yet Flagg has never associated himself with the movement. McKay attempts to describe the hostilities between individuals and groups. They suspect each other of being a member of some international organizations and movements. This phenomenon dominates throughout the story, with individuals attempting to brand others based on their perceptions of race, international groups or movements.
The population in Harlem during the second phase of the renaissance was full of suspicions and competitions. In this manuscript, every person wants to fit in the most popular movement, especially the Pan-African movements and other groups that are anti-Hitler or anti-Mussolini. Nevertheless, it is evident that most of the individuals in Harlem are possessed with the sense of belonging as well as making fortunes out of any prevailing opportunity.
In addition, it is ironic that various groups that were making monetary gains from any international event that took place in 1920s dominated the Harlem Renaissance. Specifically, the international events that involved some aspects of racism were important to the cartels and other groups that pretended to fund various factions in the foreign nations.
In this case, Lij Amalaya is among the Ethiopian envoys being used to solicit for funds, but the degree of transparency and accountability is relatively low. Ironically, Peixota, the chairperson of The Hands to Ethiopia, obtained illicit money from gambling after his immigration from Brazil. In fact, he is not an African-America. Evidently, he is attempting to obtain fame for his role as a philanthropist and anti-racist. According to McKay, Peixota’s wealth, which was obtained illegally, is being used to fund projects, especially those helping the colored women and children in New York. Similarly, he wants to create a good public image by soliciting funds for the Ethiopians.
The ideas of racial identity and relationships are also portrayed in the manuscript. Mackay uses charterers like Seraphine and Gloria Kendall to explore this issue. For example, it is evident that Seraphine is a beautiful American girl, but she has not developed interest in American males despite her age. McKay shows her pride and inability to form relationships with white, colored or black males because she belongs to an unknown race. Similarly, Gloria Kendall’s complexity does not allow her to fit in any of the races in Harlem.
Therefore, it seems that these women are more interested in foreign men than in their fellow Americans. They tend to like foreigners because they develop interest in the young Ethiopian envoy. In addition, they wanted to become famous for their ability to marry a famous envoy and an important figure in the Ethiopian emperor. It appears that the women use their natural charm and abilities to persuade foreign men. However, they have to compete for the foreign males in Harlem. McKay uses the competition and suspicion between Seraphine and Kendall to portray this theme. Seraphine wins because of her father’s influence and ability to host Lij Alamaya, although Pexiota disproves her love for the Ethiopian.
In addition, the young women are looking for freedom and different ideologies from the daily topics that their parents and other males are discussing. For instance, Seraphine decides to leave her parents’ house in search of freedom after noting that the parents are not willing to appreciate her love for Lij Alamaya. She decides to leave her office and job in father’s business in search of freedom. Although she is aware that she will not get a better job, she is willing to stay with Bunche, her friend, for the sake of her freedom. Moreover, she is interested in the relationship with Lij, although she understands that the young envoy is in the country for a special and diplomatic mission.
In conclusion, it is evident that the second and final phase of the Harlem Renaissance was characterized with the competition between ideologies, which are were mainly foreign. In order to fit in the social movements and groups, a person’s sociopolitical ideologies and race are considered important. In addition, the popular ideology at a given time was considered the right movement. For instance, McKay uses the Ethiopian-Italian war to show the divisions between the people in Harlem.
In this case, the societies tend to believe that the Pan-African movements as well as those with anti-fascist and anti-communist ideologies are right. Nevertheless, the Harlem Renaissance was full of suspicion and hatred between various groups. McKay uses the arrival of the young Ethiopian envoy in Harlem to describe how these groups were making use of the availing opportunities to popularize themselves, make money and compete with others. However, individual interests play a significant role, with leaders of these groups attempting to improve their public images and make fortunes while pretending to support the foreign movements.