Editorial | Claude McKay’s new relevance to Jamaica
The rediscovery of the manuscript a decade ago, and Penguin Classics’ publication this week of Claude McKay’s novel, Romance in Marseille, is a big deal in literary America. It should be in Jamaica, too. Perhaps the attention on McKay can be used to inspire a renaissance, of sorts, here.
Claude McKay was born in Clarendon, Jamaica, in 1889. He moved to the United States in 1912, where he became part of that intellectual and creative ferment of the 1920s that became known as the Harlem Renaissance – including an outpouring of writing, literary and otherwise, in which black creatives gave their own voice and legitimacy to their cultural experience.
Significantly, McKay was among the writers, alongside significant figures of the day, such as poets Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, and the writer and intellectual, Jessie Fauset, who contributed – five poems – to what came to be regarded as the movement’s defining publication, The New Negro, a 1925 anthology edited by another young, black intellectual, a Howard University professor, Alain Locke. A not-often noted fact of the period, and of The New Negro, is that another Jamaican, the Garveyite and early proponent of Jamaica’s independence, W.A. Domingo, was among its contributors.
The publication of Romance in Marseille as a novel comes more than 90 years after McKay began writing, and 72 years after his death in 1948. So, it says much about McKay that critics enthuse about the novel’s freshness, with its exploration of issues such as disability, the legacy of slavery and queer sex. Indeed, these are themes that are relevant in Jamaica today, given the country’s unresolved tensions from its colonial past, especially with regard to race, colour and class, as well as a still deeply entrenched homophobia.
A Marxist, who spent time in Russia and became disillusioned with communism relatively early, McKay was also bisexual, not the kind of theme that would be readily delved into by the Harlem movement, concerned as it was with the political elevation of black culture as its acceptance as being as good as the Eurocentric fare. As a seminal contributor to the Harlem Renaissance, this outing of McKay’s Romance in Marseille will perhaps require additional lenses through which to view, and analyse, the movement. The old perspective may not be exactly what it seemed.
Rex Nettleford, the intellectual and cultural critic, used to insist that many truths are divined via the creative imagination, with which Claude McKay was well endowed. But while Jamaica knows, and has claimed McKay, it has been in a perfunctory way. We don’t really know him. The embrace has not been deep and fulsome.
This week’s event is an opening, an opportunity for the exploration of McKay and a divining of truths exposed via his creative imagination – like the nostalgia of the poem The Tropics in New York, the martial defiance of If We Must Die, and the acceptance and embrace of a broad humanity, implied by Romance in Marseille.
In this regard, more than seven decades after McKay’s death and 91 years after he began writing his novel, the logic of a 156-year-old buggery law, which encroaches on the rights of the individual, diminishes the humanity of a large segment of our citizens and might have caused him to be jailed, isn’t sustainable. At the same time, the culture minister should, in conjunction with the appropriate institution, work towards a McKay revival in Jamaica, including the establishment of a biennial Claude McKay festival.