Claude McKay's Lost Novel

— Ted McTaggart

Amiable with Big Teeth
By Claude McKay
Jean-Christophe Cloutier and Brent Hayes Edwards, editors
Penguin Hardcover Classics, 2017, 352 pages, $28.

ON NOVEMBER 25, 1922, the African-American revolutionary activist and writer Claude McKay (1889-1948) spoke before the Fourth Congress of the Communist International on the Black struggle and the tensions existing between white and Black socialists in the United States.

He spoke as a representative of the African Blood Brotherhood, an organization founded in 1919 dedicated to “absolute race equality — political, economic, social” as well as liberation “from the crushing weight of capitalism.”(1)

Soon after the African Blood Brother­hood merged with the American Commun­ist Party, contributing to the latter organization some of its earliest Black cadre.

Speaking before the Communist Inter­national plenary session, McKay acknowledged that “the Communist International is for the emancipation of all workers of the world without distinction of race or colour. And this stand of the Communist International is not just written on paper, as is the Fifteenth Amendment to the constitution of the United States of America; it is something real.”

Nevertheless, “there are still strong prejudices. . . among the American socialists and Communists. They do not want to take up the black question. . . And the greatest hindrance that Communists in the United States must overcome is that they must first of all free themselves from their attitudes toward blacks before they can succeed in reaching blacks through any form of radical propaganda.”(2)

Despite the recruitment of McKay and other members of the African Blood Brotherhood, the American Communist Party would not make major inroads into the Black working class until the following decade. The influence of the Communist Party on African-American (or Aframerican, in McKay’s stylization) writers, artists and intellectuals in the 1930s, particularly those associated with the Harlem Renaissance, has been well documented.

Black disillusionment with the Communist Party has also been explored in such celebrated works as Richard Wright’s American Hunger and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. It is to the latter group of works that McKay’s Amiable with Big Teeth belongs.

McKay’s manuscript, the full title of which is Amiable with Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem, was drafted in the first half of 1941 while the author lived in a small country farmhouse in Maine. The unpublished work was only unearthed in 2009 in the papers of Samuel Roth, and issued in Penguin’s “hardcover classic” series this past year, 75 years after its writing.

McKay had long since broken with the Communist Party. In their editorial introduction, Jean-Christophe Cloutier and Brent Hayes Edwards note that “In one 1939 piece in the New Leader, for instance, in which McKay discusses ‘the danger of Negroes coming under the control of Moscow-dominated Communists exploiting their grievances’. . . McKay goes so far as to declare that ‘the Communist dictatorship is a greater threat to humanity than the Nazi dictatorship.’” (Introduction, xxv)

A Novel and its Times

Publishing house E.P. Dutton agreed in January 1941 to pay McKay an advance of $500 as well as a weekly stipend of $25 while he worked on the novel.

On February 12, however, in a letter to mutual friend Max Eastman, Dutton president John Macrae expressed concern about McKay’s plans for the novel: “ It was the feeling of my literary adviser that we would not care to publish a novel so melodramatic as Claude McKay’s synopsis pictured it. . . I am taking the liberty of asking you, as far as you can, to give to Claude McKay of your wisdom and your critical sense of what a novel should be.” (Ibid, xxviii-xxix)

Dutton ultimately declined to publish the manuscript; aside from a number of oblique references in McKay’s personal correspondence, its existence remained widely unknown.

Amiable with Big Teeth is set in mid-1930s Harlem. The Communist International had recently made a dramatic shift in policy from the ultraleft “Third Period” to the Popular Front. Having only two years prior renounced any collaboration with reformist elements within the workers’ movement, thereby facilitating Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, the Comintern in 1935 sought unity with the liberal bourgeoisie at any cost, deferring the struggle for socialism indefinitely in order to defeat fascism.

Many in Harlem, as well as Chicago, Detroit and other major Black enclaves throughout the United States, paid close attention as Fascist Italy invaded Ethiopia. Historian Robin D.G. Kelley contextualizes this phenomenon:

“By the mid-1930s, a combination of events had radicalized a segment of the African American community. Black men and women had witnessed the incarceration of nine young men falsely accused of raping two white women near Scottsboro, Alabama; the lynching of Claude Neal in Florida; New Deal legislation leave millions of blacks jobless and landless; a callous economic system keep over half the black population in some cities unemployed; and groups like the Klan, the American Nazi Party, the White Legion, and the Black Shirts beat, rape, and humiliate their people without compunction. So when Mussolini invaded the only independent black African nation in 1935, their simmering anger turned to outrage.”(3)

In the wake of the invasion, many in Harlem’s Black community directed their anger toward Italian immigrants. Editors Cloutier and Edwards note the parallels between an anti-Italian protest depicted in McKay’s novel with a historic protest that turned violent outside the Bella Restaurant in Harlem in July 1936. (xiii)

Meanwhile Black Communists in Harlem, along with supporters of Marcus Garvey’s movement, were instrumental in setting up the Provisional Committee for the Defense of Ethiopia (PCDE), which promoted a “Hands Off Ethiopia” campaign to redirect widespread Black anger.

However, Kelley writes that

“... the Party’s efforts were weakened by its opposition to the idea of recruiting African Americans for the Ethiopian army and by the Soviet Union’s weak stand vis-à-vis the invasion. During a League of Nations meeting in April 1935... Soviet delegate Maxim Litvinov did not condemn Italian aggression. To make matters worse, the New York Times ran an article in September claiming that the USSR had sent coal, tar, wheat, and oil to Italy at below market price. Both events outraged black supporters of the ‘Hands off Ethiopia’ campaign.”(4)

Conflicted Solidarity

Organizational questions of Harlem’s Ethiopia solidarity movement play a central role in McKay’s telling, making the novel’s early chapters in particular somewhat difficult to follow. It opens with a rally by the fictionalized “Hands to Ethiopia” committee to welcome Lij Tekla Alamaya, an envoy from Ethiopia, ostensibly sent as a representative of the exiled emperor Haile Selasse.

Following the demonstration, an organizing meeting for the committee is used to introduce the key characters and expound upon the conflicts that lead to the movement’s subsequent split. Against Communist Party member Newton Castle’s charges of “black chauvinism,” committee chairman Pablo Peixota defends the mass sentiment that had led the “Hands to Ethiopia” to oppose inclusion of whites.

“’The common people feel that Ethiopia was betrayed by the white nations,’ said Peixota. ‘And you’ve got to respect their feelings. It is unfair to say their stand is chauvinism. Ethiopia is fighting alone and I’m sure you’ll get a lot more out of an all-colored organization. . .’” (19)

Against Castle’s insistence that the League of Nations, and the Soviet Union in particular, are united in their defense of Ethiopia, Alamaya points out that “Italy is importing all the essential things she needs. The League of Nations is like those curious creatures that I hear exist in Haiti — the zombies. Dead nations which act as if they were living without knowing they are dead.”

When liberal professor Dorsey Flagg goes one step farther and points out that Russia, too, is selling war goods to Italy, Castle denounces Flagg as a “sodden foul-mouthed Trotskyite.” (19-20)

McKay goes out of his way to clarify that Flagg is not, in fact, a supporter of Leon Trotsky. Flagg “said the Fascists, Nazis, and Communists all believed in and practiced a ruthless dictatorship over the peoples. He was not a friend of Leon Trotsky but as a democrat, he had defended his right to express his opinions.

“He had opposed the Popular Front and its drive among Aframericans, because it was promoted by the Soviet Dictatorship. He could not imagine how a nation which held down millions. . . could be the chief sponsor of a People’s Front to safeguard democracy . . . The majority of the committeemen were with him. They all had a deep detestation of the Communists from observation of their propaganda tactics in the Aframerican community.” (76-77)

Frustrated by his inability to isolate and oust Flagg, who seems to be a surrogate for McKay, from the Hands to Ethiopia Committee, Castle storms off. Together with his cohort Maxim Tasan, a rather one-dimensional villain and personification of the Comintern in Harlem, Castle starts a rival organization under the banner of the Popular Front.

While McKay was right to be critical of the Popular Front-era politics of the Communist Party, it is hard to sympathize with the political conclusions he seems to draw in rejecting Communism.  Protagonist Peixota favorably cites Tammany Hall as an alternative:
Every group composing it has its own interests and the strength of its vote to protect them. Irish, Italians, Jews and the rest of us. It certainly isn’t God’s love among them holding them together in Tammany Hall. It’s just good old-fashioned horse-trading, but it works. And at last we Aframericans are breaking in, since we’re beginning to learn how to organize in a practical way. (255)

After the fall of Ethiopia, Peixota and Alamaya back an effort to oppose Communists’ recruitment of African-Americans to fight fascism in Spain.

Although Peixota was initially reluctant, “because all his sympathies went with the Loyalists,” Lij Alamaya “considered it a despicable thing that the friends were dragging the prostrate body of his nation into the campaign for the Spanish Loyalists. To him it was like the defiling of a corpse. He knew that the idea originated in the mind of Maxim Tasan. And he knew that Tasan felt nothing but contempt for Ethiopia.” (259)

“Savage Delineations”

Elsewhere in the novel, McKay offers more insightful views on the disingenuous anti-racism of white Communists.

Of particular interest is the chapter entitled “Art and Race.” Somewhat of a digression from the main story, this chapter introduces Dixon Davis Lee (known in art circles as Dèdé), a Black artist who accepts the encouragement of magazine editor and Popular Front adherent Pat Conman to “make your Aframericans brutal and bloody and big with life — ‘bawdacious’ as they say in Harlem.”

Lee’s paintings “featured the Southern black in the cotton field and in the chain gang and in his cabin; a porter, handyman, roustabout and entertainer. Lee overcame the unconscious habit of making his Aframerican features appear like ‘stereotype whites,’ but he could not make them look human. Upon the powerful energetic bodies he invariably placed gorilla-like heads, with incredibly vacant, vicious and depraved faces . . . Sometimes in his drawings Lee created a white figure as a foil to his black, in which he reverted to his originally unsophisticated manner: the white faces were always rose-pink sweet, like the girl on the magazine cover.” (220-221)

Lee at one point accepts an invitation to visit the clubhouse of the Ante-Bellum Club of New York, an organization comprising descendents of slave owners. “The members of the Ante-Bellum Club had imagined that artist Dèdé Lee, who so perfectly rendered the popular Southern point of view in his art, was white.” (223)

Nevertheless, at a gathering of liberal adherents of the Popular Front, Lee is lauded by several speakers for revealing through his artwork the essence of the Aframerican soul. Only Flagg challenges this prevailing view:

”I suspect that you white people see in these savage delineations what you expect the Aframericans to be because of your vile treatment of them. You experience a vicarious thrill from the artist’s version of the abysmal depravity of others . . . We refuse to accept this exhibition as the interpretation of the Aframerican soul. It is if anything an assault upon the sanctuary of our soul. Praise the work of Mr. Lee for its power, its originality and artistry. But do not try to convince us that of such is the black man’s soul. We need Raphaels to picture the mothers of the race with their children, Millets to show us black workers in the field and Gauguins to pain the exquisite beauty of brown flesh.” (230-231)

While this chapter is effective as polemic, Lee and Conman play no role in later chapters, leaving the reader thinking it was an excerpt from a different story entirely.

The plot of Amiable with Big Teeth is entertaining though largely forgettable, with the exception of a surprisingly gruesome ending involving ritual human sacrifice. One gets the impression it was something of an afterthought to McKay who, despite prose that is at times inspired, might have done better to write a historical monograph about the role of the Popular Front-era Communist Party on the Ethiopia solidarity movement in Harlem.

Having read early fragments of the manuscript, Max Eastman wrote to McKay in April 1941 and said “I am vividly interested in your characters, and that’s the main thing.” (quoted by Cloutier and Edwards, xxxi) While a number of the characters are indeed well developed and compelling, this is somewhat undermined by crude caricatures of Communists as either nefarious instigators or hapless stooges.

Despite the political bankruptcy of Stalinism, such oversimplification is undignified of a mind as brilliant as McKay’s. It is only fair to remember that Amiable with Big Teeth is, essentially, a first draft — had he been encouraged to revise the manuscript prior to publication, many of its weaknesses would have likely been lessened, if not eliminated entirely.

Although the novel can, in the 21st century, be appreciated as something more than just a historical curiosity, it is difficult to imagine a commercial publishing house taking on the challenge of marketing such an unusual book. While its publication is welcome, it is unlikely to have a major impact on Claude McKay’s literary legacy.


  1. Riddell, John, ed. Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012, 803n.
    back to text
  2. Ibid, 807-808.
    back to text
  3. Kelley, Robin D.G. Race Rebels: Culture, Politics and the Black Working Class. New York: The Free Press, 1994, 128.
    back to text
  4. Kelley, 131.
    back to text

January-February 2018, ATC 192

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <b> </b> <br> <br /> <a> </a> <em> </em> <strong> </strong> <cite> </cite> <code> </code> <ul> </ul> <ol> </ol> <li> </li> <dl> </dl> <dt> </dt> <dd> </dd> <div> </div> <img> <style> <font> </font> <blockquote> </blockquote> <hr>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.