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Claude McKay's 'Romance'

By Howard Campbell
Observer senior writer

Sunday, February 23, 2020

A pivotal figure of the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920s, Jamaican-born Claude McKay was as provocative as Marcus Garvey, Langston Hughes, and other major players in arguably black intelligentsia's most exciting period. Seventy-two years after his death, a book deemed controversial for its time has been released.

Romance in Marseille, which the Jamaican wrote 90 years ago, was released on February 10 by Penguin Classics. It is inspired by the subculture of the eastern French city McKay visited.

The book's hero is Lafala, a West African sailor who loses his legs to frostbite after stowing away on a ship to the United States. Though his resilience allows him to overcome his disabilities, it is Lafala's inner circle of radicals, gays and prostitutes, that makes Romance in Marseille an intriguing read.

Gary Holcomb, a McKay scholar and professor of African American literature and studies at Ohio University, co-wrote the book's introduction. He was also instrumental in getting it published after years of legal obstacles.

“As a graduate student in the 1990s, I read about the unpublished typescript in Wayne F Cooper's Claude McKay, Rebel Sojourner of the Harlem Renaissance. Access to the novel has existed since the 1940s, though because it has been housed in archives only a handful of scholars have seen it,” Holcomb told the Jamaica Observer. “The Cooper biography stated that the novel had undergone two writing stages, with two titles, before becoming Romance in Marseille.”

The unpublished typescripts were at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, in Harlem; and the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University.

In 2015 when former Schomburg Center librarian Diana Lachatanere informed him that the legal hurdles had been removed, Holcomb saw the opportunity to finally get McKay's groundbreaking work in print.

Even though he is a McKay student, Holcomb discovered eye-opening aspects of the Clarendon-born writer's personal and professional life, in Romance in Marseille.

“I wasn't entirely surprised by Romance in Marseille's portrayal of subcultural life, as McKay's earlier fiction, Home to Harlem, [had] gay [male] characters. As well as a radical, McKay himself was queer,” Holcomb noted. “However, the novel did surprise me for several reasons, as it marks a radical departure from his earlier fiction. Breaking from his previous, more discursive novels, McKay decided that ' Romance' should have a plot. Indeed, the narrative verges on being a kind of proto-noir.”

McKay was born in Nairne Castle, Clarendon, in 1889. His family were reportedly middle class farmers, but literature sparked his interest from early.

By his early 20s, McKay had three poetry books published, including Jamaican Patois and Constab Ballads. Migrating to the United States in 1912, McKay attended the famed Tuskegee Institute in Alabama; while working on the Liberator, a Communist-leaning magazine, he wrote If we Must Die, a poem projecting the bloody race riots that shook the country in 1919.

Though his radical views and unyielding search for knowledge took him across the US, Europe and North Africa, McKay never returned to Jamaica. Holcomb blames this on constant surveillance by British authorities.

“I would note that British colonial rule accused McKay—somewhat correctly, actually—of being a Marxist revolutionary and prevented him from returning to Jamaica. This fact is rather sad, as he always saw the world from the perspective of the colonised seeking independence, and indicated that someday he would like to return to his native land,” he said.