When Harlem Renaissance Novelist Claude McKay Decamped for the Port of Marseille

Struggling for cash in the late 1920s, Harlem Renaissance trailblazer Claude McKay found casual work as a docker in Marseille. Finally published this year, his Romance in Marseille illuminates the city with both personal emotion and a vivid class feeling — testament to the tough fight for solidarity among the migrant proletariat.

Claude McKay speaking at the Kremlin in Moscow.

In the opening passages of Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens describes how “Hindoos, Russians, Chinese, Spaniards, Portuguese, Englishmen, Frenchmen, Genoese, Neapolitans, Venetians, Greeks, Turks, descendants from all the builders of Babel, come to trade at Marseilles, sought the shade alike — taking refuge in any hiding-place from a sea too intensely blue to be looked at.” Indeed, ever since Alexandre Dumas published The Count of Monte Cristo in 1844, Marseille has occupied a special place in the literary imagination. In Wicked City, a cultural portrait of Marseille published last year, the late Nicholas Hewitt said France’s second city is best seen “as a reflection of the shifting preoccupations of the observer.”

We see this also in the writings of Claude McKay focused on Marseille. Having found casual work as a docker in the city while struggling for cash in the late 1920s, McKay wrote Banjo, subtitled “A Story Without a Plot” — a tale of a group of black migrants living hand-to-mouth in the city’s Vieux Port district. The title character takes his pseudonym from the instrument he plays and loves. But his full name, Lincoln Agrippa Daily, reflects the novel’s dual focus on both the humdrum joys and struggles of lumpenproletarian life on the one hand, and existential questions of identity, oppression, and liberation on the other.

It is testament to the range of McKay’s “shifting preoccupations” that his Romance in Marseille, finally published in 2020, can add as much as it does to a tapestry that is already so rich. He began work on this manuscript just months after the publication of Banjo, and it was initially comprised of unused material from the novel. Finally seeing the light of day ninety years later, it remains a recognizable portrait of precarious living — and an experiment in the ability of literature to effect change.

Out of the Shadows

After an apprenticeship to a cabinetmaker in his native Jamaica, McKay emigrated to segregated South Carolina in 1912, before studying at Kansas State University and then settling in New York. He spent a year in London, where he met future communist MPs Shapurji Saklatvala and Willie Gallacher, worked with Sylvia Pankhurst on the Workers’ Dreadnought, and criticized the racism of future Labour leader George Lansbury’s Daily Herald. He returned to New York in 1920, working on the socialist periodical the Liberator, and visited the Soviet Union in 1922, where he attended the Fourth Congress of the Communist International.

The same year, he published his poetry collection Harlem Shadows, which established him as a key figure of the Harlem Renaissance. Gradually growing more critical of communism, in 1938 he attacked the Bolsheviks’ lack of democracy and voiced fears that communists would capture “the entire colored group by cleverly controlling such organizations as the so-called National Negro Congress” in the United States.

Romance in Marseille was initially given the working title “The Jungle and the Bottoms,” and conceived, according to Gary Edward Holcomb and William J. Maxwell’s excellent introduction to the new Penguin Classics volume, as “another diffuse Marseille bouillabaisse.” But it ended up a story with significantly more of a plot than Banjo, addressing the value of lives in capitalist society, and discussing sexuality in detail explicit enough to scare off potential publishers in the 1930s.

Little Romanticism

The novel opens with Lafala, a West African sailor, in a New York hospital, where he “lay like a sawed-off stump and pondered the loss of his legs.” He has fled Marseille as a stowaway “on an impulse of self-disgust” after his girlfriend Aslima, “a burning brown mixed of Arab and negro and other wanton bloods,” who works in the sex trade, “snatched all his material assets.” Lafala is discovered, imprisoned in a toilet cubicle, and suffers frostbite to his legs.

But after winning $100,000 in a lawsuit against the shipping company, the world is his oyster. Returning to Marseille’s Vieux Port district (rendered in this novel as “Quayside”), he resumes his affair with Aslima and makes plans inspired by the “dark cry of ‘Back to Africa’” championed by Marcus Garvey. Once famed across Marseille for his dancing, Lafala has effectively exchanged his physical mobility for the economic and social variant.

In spite of the title and subject matter of the newly published book, there is little place for romanticism in either of McKay’s Marseille novels. The first two sections of Banjo do depict the “beach boys” as relatively effective in their way of life. Granted, they acknowledge, discuss, and dissect their oppression on a daily basis. But like the West Indian characters of Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners (1956), their status in society means the best they can do is seek the joys of the moment.

So, they secure occasional work, dodge law enforcement and deportation, share their spoils among one another, play music, dance, get joyously pissed on booze, get laid, and dream of past, present, and future. “They knew very little about governments, and cared less,” but as time goes on, they begin to notice signs of decreasing opportunities for black migrants. “They observed that colored crews on British ships west of Suez were becoming quite a phenomenon.”

This reflected shifting legal sands in the real-life French Third Republic. In 1926, a new law prohibited the employment of foreigners without specific workers’ permits. The final section of Banjo relates the resulting disintegration of the beach boys, as each seeks their own course of survival. Romance in Marseille is wholly set in this newly hostile environment, and paperwork has become enshrined not just in the functions of the state, but in the codes of Quayside too.

Aslima’s pimp Tatin bemoans that marriage would be “unthinkable” as she is “a woman whose card of identity was the yellow one of prostitution.” Even Lafala takes advantage of this codification of status by requiring Aslima to present her papers to collect the $100 he has left for her before sailing to Africa at the novel’s close so that Tatin cannot snatch it. Aslima, however, will swiftly find that her victory comes at an even greater cost than Lafala’s new-found wealth.

The most empowered paperwork in Romance in Marseille, however, is the text itself. McKay’s plot was inspired by two real-life stowaways who suffered amputations as a result of imprisonment at sea. One of these was McKay’s friend Nelson Simeon Dede. Like Lafala in the novel, Dede returned to Marseille with damages from the shipping company, only to be imprisoned for the crime of stowing away.

In a letter from January 1928, McKay implored the Fabre Line shipping company to petition for Dede’s release, noting that he planned to base a novel on his friend’s experience. A “happy story” was still possible, McKay slyly noted, in what Holcomb and Maxwell describe as “textual blackmail.”

But in a brilliant act of audacity, McKay then uses this episode as further material for the novel. St Dominique, the communist agitator who befriends Banjo — characterized by the editors as a fusion of the Senegalese communist Lamine Senghor and McKay himself — arrives at the shipping company’s offices armed with his own magazine clippings.

The shipping manager is impressed and promises to use his influence to have Lafala released, saying to St. Dominique “with a smile, ‘Now don’t go away and write anything bad about the company.’” McKay’s cheeky satisfaction at getting one up on management is surely confirmed by St Dominique’s “smiling back” reply: “I couldn’t now.”

Critical Stance

But using literature as affirmative paperwork is steeped in uneasy and dangerous compromise. In this meeting with the shipping company, St Dominique describes Lafala as an “ignorant uneducated savage.” According to critic James Smethurst, McKay’s “largely anti-communist autobiography” A Long Way From Home (1937) was “in part designed to rehabilitate him in the eyes of the US government.” His writings voice skepticism of both the black literati, in the United States and in France, and the formal Civil Rights Movement, rendered in Romance in Marseille as the Christian Unity of Negro Tribes — or CUNT for short.

McKay had criticized NAACP leader W. E. B. Du Bois for “sneering” at the Russian Revolution, and Du Bois panned McKay’s novel Home to Harlem (1928) for its “dirty subject” and lack of restraint or “any artistic unity.” Du Bois stated that the novel “nauseates me, and after the dirtiest parts of its filth I feel distinctly like taking a bath” — calling to mind Dennis Potter’s contention that George Orwell’s “nose was too near his mouth for his own good.” It is a matter for debate whether Potter’s invective is more applicable to McKay’s strength as novelist, or to Du Bois’s own weakness as critic.

Shortly after first meeting Lafala, St Dominique escorts him to the Seamen’s and Workers’ Club. In another dig at the socialist movement’s failure to connect with the black working class, McKay notes that this locale is “so far removed from the seamen’s haunts.” After being handed an array of political pamphlets, Lafala asks: “Is it the same as the Back-to-Africa organization?” St Dominque’s reply is telling of a conflict at the heart of Romance in Marseille:

[W]e can’t go back to Africa. You can as an individual. But we can’t as a people. Our movement is a bigger thing. Each group of workers must stay where it is but all fight the battle of the class struggle for a new society.

Such prescriptive politics were always at odds with McKay’s self-professed desire “to be foot loose,” which he cited in A Long Way From Home as the reason he had left the Liberator’s staff for the Soviet Union: “to escape from the pit of sex and poverty, from domestic death . . . from the suffocating ghetto of colour consciousness,” he elaborates. “Call Lafala’s hard-earned jackpot reparations for slavery, if you like, in imaginative miniature,” Holcomb and Maxwell note in the introduction. And yet the limitations of individual liberation are plain to see. Lafala is only footloose enough to migrate legally thanks to the loss of his feet.

Outside the Mainstream

The anthem of Banjo is Papa Charlie Jackson’s “Shake That Thing,” radical and exhilarating in its recklessness and inclusivity. The nearest equivalent in the world of Romance in Marseille, at least after Lafala’s disablement, is “slow and pretty and sounded like a sentimental tango.” Proudly introduced and sung by Lafala’s fellow stowaway Babel, it catches on among the dreamers of Quayside as they dance the night away:

I was stricken by the moon,
I was smitten by the moon,
Crazy for the fairy moon,
It lighted my heart and it caused me to roam
Far away from my loving wife waiting at home

Wandering away from the norms and expectations of mainstream society, the people of Quayside come to life. Sexuality is never far away in McKay’s writing, but it is most explicit in Romance in Marseille. When St Dominique is facing accusations of betraying Lafala, “a white Quaysider known as Big Blonde barged in” and promptly leads the intellectual and one of his accusers on an all-night bender with his lover, Petit Frère.

The dockworker Big Blonde is “like a hero straight out of Joseph Conrad,” salt-of-the-earth but with “no interest in the workers’ unions.” This episode is a distinctly compassionate portrayal of gay life. But while Big Blonde appears to be accepted by the Quayside community, his sexuality — like that of McKay, who had relationships with both women and men — still positions him as an outsider.

Meanwhile, Aslima’s primary rival on the escort scene is La Fleur Noire, who is “different from most of us,” “hates men,” and goes home to “that Greek girl.” Both women are cast as bright and strong-willed — but more distinctively as hyper-sexualized schemers. Unlike the title character’s love interest Latnah in Banjo, neither are permitted to participate in the male friendship group as anything close to equals.

So, it is hard to accept, even at the dramatic conclusion, the editors’ contention that Romance in Marseille “insists on the importance of black women in the rebinding of the black world.” It is closer to what Smethurst identifies in Banjo, namely a “profoundly masculinist vision that is as troubling in whom it excludes as it is exhilarating in its celebration of sexual, cultural and economic liberation.”

In a description resembling that of Dickens, Romance in Marseille describes the Mediterranean metropolis “wide open in the shape of an enormous fan splashed with violent colors.” McKay’s Marseille is nothing if not multiracial. But in his most intense description of the city’s human topography, class still takes center stage:

Port of seamen’s dreams and their nightmares… Port of innumerable ships, blowing out, booming in, riding the docks, blessing the town with sweaty activity and giving sustenance to worker and boss, peddler and prostitute, pimp and panhandler. Port of the fascinating, forbidding and tumultuous Quayside against which the thick scum of life foams and bubbles and breaks in a syrup of passion and desire.

Jonathan Meades, who has lived in Marseille for a decade, describes the city as “a place where multiculturalism is a banal fact of life rather than an imposed piety to be observed.” Listed by nationality, Dickens’s traders are each inserted in his narrative to lend credence to an outsider’s vision of bustling merchant cosmopolitanism. McKay turns this on its head, deploying his “innumerable ships” in the narrative service of the city and its inhabitants.

As the literature professor Joel Nickels argues in analyzing Banjo, McKay does not seek to “celebrate any kind of cosmopolitan ethic of humanitarianism, tolerance, or hybridity” which is “administratively implementable.” Infusing his vision of the city with both class consciousness and personal emotion, McKay sets out a vision for an unrealized, and perhaps unrealizable, working-class internationalism: one that values individual expression as much as solidarity.