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Previously Unpublished Claude McKay Manuscript Found

Portrait of Claude McKay by artist Warren Goodson

Jamaican novelist, poet and political activist Claude McKay got an expected birthday present this year as a previously unpublished manuscript was found and authenticated by two scholars, Columbia graduate student Jean-Christophe Cloutier and his advisor, Brent Hayes Edwards. The find was reported on on September 14, just a day before McKay’s 123rd birthday. McKay is credited with having ushered in the artistic and intellectual movement, the Harlem Renaissance with his 1922 poetry collection ‘Harlem Shadows’.

The manuscript, ‘Amiable With Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem’ is dated 1941 and was found in a university archive. The novel is set during The Great Depression that wrought economic havoc on the United States in the 1930s and is a satire filled with romance, political intrigue and scenes of black intellectual and artistic life. According to The New York Times, the novel offers a rare window through which to view Harlem on the verge of World War II. The manuscript was found among the belongings of publisher Samuel Roth, whose family had donated his belongings to his alma mater after his death.

Banana Bottom - McKay's last published novel during his lifetimeThough McKay left Jamaica at 23 years old and never returned, the international success of his writing marked him as one of the island’s earliest, and most significant voices. As the first black man to become a best seller in America, McKay’s work would also go on to influence a slew African American writers including Langston Hughes. His poem of protest “If We Must Die” was used as the rallying cry by Winston Churchill in World War II.

His writing provided much insight into African American life and was pivotal to their struggle for equal rights and self determination. But it was also filled with nostalgia for his homeland, as well as critical insights into Jamaican society, as McKay often returned to the hills of Clarendon where he grew up, through both poetry and prose. McKay is one of the earliest writers to use Jamaican Creole seriously and his novel Banana Bottom, published in 1933, has been described by Edward Baugh as a work of “path-finding significance” and of “continuing and immediate interest.” McKay published three novels in his lifetime, Banana Bottom, Banjo (1930) and Home to Harlem (1928). The novella ‘Harlem Glory: A Fragment of Aframerican Life” was published after McKay’s death in 1948.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the W.E.B Du Bois Institute for African and American Research, Harvard University, (as cited by the New York Times) described the find as a major discovery and pointed to its importance in deepening an understanding of the second half of the Harlem Rennaissance. “It dramatically expands the canon of novels written by Harlem Renaissance writers and, obviously, novels by Claude McKay.” Louis Gates Jr. said.

It seems indeed poetic, that so many years after the death of the man who wrote “I have forgotten much but still remember...” new words of his have been discovered making him all the more relevant to memory.