“I cannot think of another novel that gives us such a rich and multilayered portrayal of black life,” Mr. Edwards continued. “There are scenes with artists in salons, in nightclubs, in queer nightclubs. It has almost a documentary aspect.”
The quote above actually echoes how I felt about Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem (his most famous work, published in 1928) when I was introduced to it in university, so it doesn’t surprise me that this descriptor applies to another McKay book, a recently discovered manuscript for the previously unpublished 1930s novel Amiable With Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem.
The title is a mouthful isn’t it?
Well, clearly it chomps into some big issues, not out of bounds for McKay whose work was rich with social commentary and social criticism. This is the man, after all, who wrote the fiery poem, If we must die:
If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
In the New York Times article, describing the discovery, authentification, and content of the new novel, McKay is described as a celebrated African American author of the Harlem Renaissance period (the period that boasted other literary stars like two of my all time favourites Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston). But Caribbean literati also think of him as one of its own. He is, after all, also the Jamaican born author of Banana Bottom (not a favourite of mine; definitely one of his classics but, for me, somehow lacking the vibrancy of Home to Harlem). Plus, his poetry collection Songs of Jamaica, released in 1912, is reportedly the first collection of poems published in Jamaican patois.
So, why am I telling you all this? No, it has nothing to do with Wadadli Pen but the discovery of this manuscript certainly has relevance to the Caribbean literary canon. And we are always all about that.