VOL.38. NO.1 MARCH 1992
Copyright reserved and reproduction without permission strictly forbidden
SPECIAL ISSUE on CLAUDE McKAY
ii Guest Editor's Foreword
1. Claude McKay's Birthday and the Unfinished Business of African-American
Wayne F. Cooper
5. Claude Mckay's Big Brother, U. Theo Mckay
10. A Psychohistoriographic Analysis of Claude McKay
Frederick W. Hickling
31. Sonnet for Claude Mckay (poem)
32 With Banjo by My Bed: Black French Writers Reading Claude McKay
40. "Only a Nigger Gal!" Race, Gender and the Politics of Education
55. Jekyll and Claude: The Erotics of Patronage in Claude
McKay's Banana Bottom
79. BOOK REVIEW
81. Notes on Contributors
82. Books Received
83. Instructions to Authors
(Cover Photographs by Kind Permission of The Institute of Jamaica )
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Roy Augier, Professor of History, Mona, Jamaica
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This issue of Caribbean Quarterly celebrates the centenary of the birth of Claude
McKay, writer par excellence of prose, poetry, novels and journalistic pieces. The
articles selected for this edition by our guest editor Mervyn Morris concentrate on the
literary writings of Claude McKay, but they go beyond critique and three are serious
analyses of the psychological and sociological forces that forged this gifted member of
the Jamaican constabulary force (a profession noted more for discipline and conver-
gence rather than for the fostering of the creative and divergent) into an international
Caribbean Quarterly welcomes Mervyn Morris, Reader and former Head of the
Department of English, Mona Campus, The University of the West Indies as the guest
editor of the Special Issue on Claude McKay.
This is a Special issue on Claude McKay, who was born a century ago in Claren-
McKay's biographer Wayne F. Cooper who, having previously accepted the year of
birth as 1889, now prefers 1890, lays out his reasons for the change; and notes that "the
problem of Claude McKay's birthday suggests that basic tasks remain to be done by all
who seek to understand him and his relation to his age."
Deliberately restricting himself to evidence in Mckay's own writings, psychiatrist
Frederick Hickling presents "a psychohistoriographic analysis" of McKay. dr. Hickling
first outlines his method and its origins.
Historian Jimmy Carnegie gives us a portrait of U. Theo, the elder brother who was,
for a crucially formative period, a surrogate father to Claude McKay.
We reprint here Bob Stewart's sonnet for Claude McKay, inveterate writer of
Bridget Jones describes and analyses McKay's interaction with Francophone
writers, including Senghor, Damas and Cesaire. Especially through his second novel,
Banjo, McKay had an influence on many significant writers in French.
The last two articles examine Banana Bottom, widely recognized as Mckay's best
novel. Carolyn Cooper considers issues of gender, sexuality, race, class and education.
In "Jekyll and Claude: the Erotics of Patronage in Claude McKay's Banana Bottom",
Rhonda Cobham explores McKay's rewritings of his relationship with Walter Jekyll.
The issue ends with a review of Wayne F. Cooper's biography.
* Menyn Morris, a noted poet and literary critic, is Reader in West Indian Literature in the
Department of Englsh, University of the West Indies at Mona.
CLAUDE MCKAY'S BIRTHDAY AND THE UNFINISHED
BUSINESS OF AFRICAN -AMERICAN SCHOLARSHIP
WAYNE F. COOPER
In 1989, as plans began to honor claude Mckay on the centenary of his birth,
questions still remained about the exact year he was born. What follows outlines the
problem, and provides one resolution on it. In the process, I have also taken the liberty
of suggesting that scholars should take steps to more fully document the life of Claude
Mckay and other pioneering Caribbean and African American writers in English.
In the 1960s when I began research on the life of Claude McKay, I noticed that early
references to Mckay's birth stated he has been born September 15, 1889, while later
references gave September 15, 1890 as his birthday. I accept September 15, 1889, as the
correct date because Jean Wagner, the authoritative French scholar of African
American poets, in his book Les Poetes Negres Des Etats-Unis, states that McKay's
daughter, Hope Mckay Virtue, has informed him that in the McKay family bible her
father's birth was listed as September 15, 1889.1 Beginning with the introductory
biographical sketch of Mckay in Harlem Shadows, Max Eastman had inexplicably
stated the year of McKay's birth to have been 1890. Thereafter, 1890 was generally given
as the year of his birth. Because of Wagner's prior work, I concluded that 1890 had
simply crept by error into Eastman's 1922 "Introduction" to Harlem Shadows and that it
had subsequently been accepted by editors and writers as the correct date. In my view,
it had been a change Mckay had simply never bothered to correct and for some reason
had himself adopted.2
After the publication of his selected poetry and prose in The Passion of Claude
McKay, in which I accepted 1889 as McKay's year of birth, I did further archival
research. In his letters to Alain Locke in the Locke papers at the Moorland-Spingarn
Research Center in the Howard University library, Washington, D.C., I found Mckay's
explanation for the 1922 change in his birth date. In a letter to Locke on June 4, 1927,
McKay severely criticized him for his editing of his poetry in the New Negro and in
another anthology, Four Negro Poets, which he had also recently edited. The larger
controversy with Locke I have dealt with elsewhere3 In this particular letter, however,
in addition to criticizing Locke's general editorial skills and integrity, he adds the
... you ignored the date of my birth that was given in
Harlem Shadows (my latest and most authentic
autobiographical note is printed there) and you went
and dug up an anterior date. it was after the publica-
tion of Spring in new Hampshire that my sister
[Rachel] verified the date 9it has been set back at
grade school so that I could be allowed to act as
assistant to the school master) and wrote me about it
in London. But I suppose you have such a passion
for discovering things and acting upon your own
initiative that you never considered it polite or ex-
pedient to ask me for the facts.'4
On July 1, 1927, in another letter to Simon and Schuster, the publishers of Four
Negro Poets, McKay stated emphatically, "May I also point out that in the biographical
note my age is wrongly given. I was born September 15, 1890."5
It is clear that McKay's statements to Locke and to Simon and Schuster contradict
the birthdate in the McKay family bible. To resolve the contradiction, one would have
to ascertain, if possible, when the birthdate was written in the bible. Was it written
shortly after his birth or was the bible purchased at a later date and the birthdates
written in it sometime near the time Claude began his job as an assistant to his brother
U'Theo, the school master referred to in his letter to Locke? Unless scholars can with
certainty date the writing in the family bible to the time of McKay's birth, I believe
McKay's statements in the two letters cited above should be accepted as the truth
concerning his correct birthdate. I myself accepted 1890 as the correct date in my recent
biography of him.6
It is certainly not usual for families everywhere at all periods of history to change
their children's birthdates if to do so it benefits in some way the children or the family
or both. this, it seems to me, has been especially true where schools are concerned and
the difference of a few weeks or months prevents a child's entering a school or leaving
it in order to work. I know that in my own childhood experience in the United States
during World War II, schools in my hometown of Mobile, Alabama were crowded with
the children of farm families who had moved there to work in war industries. Rules
regarding the age for entering schools were precise and parents often tried to fib
regarding birthdates in order to start their children's education a year earlier than
formally allowed. I cite this apparently unrelated example from another time and place
only to emphasize my belief that Mckay's story to Locke is a plausible one that should
be taken seriously.
The possibility remains, of course, that McKay simply wanted to prove that Locke,
with whom he was quarrelling because of Locke's alleged misuse of his poetry and his
ineptness as an editor, was wrong even in minor matters such as his birthday. In this way,
McKay could have been denying his own arbitrariness in allowing his birthdate to be
changed from 1889 to 1890. But such a probability is unlikely in my opinion. After all,
the whole point of Mckay's letter to Locke was Locke's unwillingness to consult McKay,
to ask Mckay's permission to use his poems, or to learn from his past editorial misjudge-
ments. From his perspective, Mckay had no reason to invent errors for Locke. They
were already present in abundance.
In sum, I believe 1890, not 1889, was the year of Mckay's birth, and I accepted 1890
as the correct year in my biography of McKay, although that contradicted my earlier
judgement in The Passion of Claude McKay. I certainly may be wrong. But scholarship,
after all, is a collective as well as an individual enterprise and if the problem of Claude
Mckay's "true" birthday is ever fully resolved I will welcome either correction or confir-
mation of my own opinion.
In the meantime, the problem of Claude McKay's birthday should serve to remind
us all of how problematic even the most elementary of "facts" can be in history. While my
biography of Claude McKay may currently be the fullest extant life of the man, the task
of completely documenting the life of Claude McKay remains far from finished. There
are several basic tasks remaining for McKay scholars. First, there are large, unedited,
and unpublished collections of Claude Mckay letters in private hands and in archives in
Europe, the United States, and perhaps, even in the Caribbean.7 These should be
located, read, selected, edited and published by an academic team of scholars who
believe in the lasting and universal significance of African American writers. Such a
project would vastly enlarge our documentary knowledge of Claude McKay and en-
hance the scholar's ability to arrive at verifiablefactual information.
Secondly, there is a clear need for definitive editions of Claude McKay's poetry,
fiction, and journalistic essays and prose. Together with his letters, his collected poetry
and prose would enable scholars to evaluate more precisely Mckay's art, his ideas, and
his relation to his fellow African American artists and to literature in general. to my
knowledge, only one scholar, Alan L. McLeod of Rider College in New Jersey, has
seriously contemplated a definitive edition of McKay's poems. His efforts and those of
others contemplating similar projects should be encouraged. Editorial and financial
difficulties standing in the way of such undertakings are not insurmountable and should
not forever deter serious scholarly projects.
Too often literary critics (and even historians) state what they think to be true
based on insufficient documentary knowledge. Their theories and opinions, however, if
they are to have lasting impact and significance, must be grounded in the rich fields of
existing archival evidence that currently lie largely undeveloped and under-utilized. The
expansion of knowledge in Claude Mckay scholarship and African American literature
can only be attained through the painstaking cultivation of archival sources. And such
research and analysis should be published in clearly edited volumes in order to open
further investigation by the widest possible readership.
In summary, the problem of Claude Mckay's birthday suggests that basic tasks
remain to be done by all who seek to understand him and his relation to his age.
1. Jean Wagner, Les Poetes Negres Des Etats-Unis: Le Sentiment Racial el Religieux dans la Poesie De.
P.L. Dunbar a L. Hughes (1890-1940) (Paris: Libraire Istra, 1963), 212. See Wayne Cooper, "Claude
McKay: The Evolution of a Negro Radical, 1889-1923." (M.A. thesis, Tulane University, 1964), 1,103 [n.2).
2. Max Eastman, "Introduction," in Claude Mckay, Harlem Shadows (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Com-
pany, 1922), ix-xxviii.
3. See Wayne F. Cooper, editor, The Passion of Claude Mckay: Selected Poetry and Prose, 1912-1948 (New
York: Schocken Books, 1973), 143-44; and Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance
(Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987), 194, 215, 224-26, 234, 239, 261, 319-20.
4. Letter from Claude McKay to Alain Locke, June 4,1927, in the Alain Locke Papers, Moorland-Spingarn
Research Center, Howard University Library, Washington, D.C.
5. Letter from Claude McKay to Simon and Schuster, July 1, 1927, in Ibid. the publishers forwarded this let-
ter to Locke.
6. Cooper, Claude Mckay, 7, 377 [n. 19).
7. For lists of the archival holdings and private papers I used for my biography of McKay, see my bibliog-
raphic statements in Claude McKay, 371-73,425-27.
CLAUDE McKAY'S BIG BROTHER, U. THEO McKAY
Uriah Theodore McKay (better known as U. Theo) was already eighteen an adult
by many of our current social measurements when his youngest brother, Claude was
born in 1890. Their parents were not at all typical of rural black Jamaicans. Thomas
Francis McKay, who married Hannah Ann (nee Edwards) in 1870 little more than a
generation after Emancipation and a mere five years after the Morant Bay Rebellion -
had the vote, which in those days indicated not only clear and fluent literacy but also the
ownership of property. Claude completed a potential sporting eleven of the McKay
family which had begun with Uriah Theodore in 1872.
U. Theo was to be a surrogate father and a considerable influence on Claude during
what were really formative years. In 1891, the year after Claude was born, U. Theo went
off to Mico Teacher's College. He became in later years one of the best examples of "the
Mico man", a type which has made an immense impression on the country, especially in
After graduating from Mico, U. Theo probably taught in elementary schools in or
near Kingston. Drawing on Claude McKay's My Green Hills ofJamaica, Wayne Cooper
tells us that in 1897 U. Theo paid one of his infrequent visits to Sunny Ville, the family
home in James Hill, Clarendon. That U. Theo's visits home were infrequent need not
suggest that there was any filial estrangement. In those days, and many years later, when
transportation within Jamaica was difficult and inordinately time-consuming, it was not
unusual for members of a family to be away from their parents for several years. (My
own father, in the early 1920s, after leaving Jamaica College where he had been a
boarder, went to work in Morant Bay and did not see his parents who lived at the other
end of the island, in Westmoreland, some four or five years after that.)
U. Theo visit home in 1897 was to be seminal in the life of Claude, because their
parents were sufficiently impressed with U. Theo to entrust the seven-year-old Claude
to his care. U. Theo was going off to teach in rural St. James. With eight surviving
children, the McKays may well have been glad to pass over the rearing of the youngest
to the oldest of them all. According to My Green Hills, for "about seven years" from
some time "in [his] sixth year" Claude lived with U. Theo and his wife. Cooper observes
that the confidence in U. Theo as a surrogate parent and educator "was not misplaced".
U. Theo and his wife were socially conservative. Claude was made to wear shoes,
and was forbidden to ride bareback. He was required instead to learn to ride properly
like the upper class children of the area. U. Theo was certainly strict on Claude, though
Cooper notes that to Claude he was less forbidding than their father.
As a child, U. Theo had received private tuition from English missionaries, William
Hataway and James Saunders, at the Bunyan School. As a young man at Mico he gained
honours in his first year while also covering some extra subjects. U. Theo received a
formal academic education in the natural sciences, mathematics, music and the
humanities, with a grounding in Latin and French. One can perhaps see in his early
education the source of the assurance with which he spoke and wrote on public issues
in later life.
Wayne Cooper writes:
"An exceptionally able and well placed black such as
U. Theo could reasonably expect to rise in the
island's social structure. A tall broad-shouldered
well-built young man with a keen mind, irrepressible
self-assurance and abundant energy. U. Theo in the
late 1890s stood on the threshold of a long and bril-
liant career. He would eventually emerge as a highly
successful planter, politician and civic leader well-
known throughout Jamaica."
The assessment probably needs just some adjustment based on local knowledge.
Much of U. Theo's achievement came because the "island's structure" was in large part
restrictive; he and others worked to build institutions to tackle that very problem.
U. Theo's career included more than fifteen years teaching in rural Jamaica, almost
half of these in Mount Carey in St. James and the rest back in his native Clarendon. He
taught even after he had gone into farming (like his father) and had obtained property
of his own. This was to become the foundation of his future life.
U. Theo, though a church leader, was an agnostic. His unusual private library, to
which Claude was given access, contained many works by free thinkers such as Charles
Darwin and Thomas Huxley. At Mount Carey U. Theo and his wife entertained many
churchpeople, including the rector; and one imagines there were some lively discus-
sions. But U. Theo was politically shrewd enough, even in those early days, not make his
views on religion public. As a head teacher he could not afford to offend the church;
and he genuinely admired the culture of the church, especially its music. Claude was to
claim that among U. Theo's achievements as a promoter of cultural activity (not the
least of his claims on our attention as a significant figure in Jamaican life) was that he
was the first person to arrange a performance of Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" in rural
U. Theo was also the organiser of "An Evening With Jamaican Writers" in 1912. (Let
us remember that we are talking about pre-World War I North Clarendon, not Urban
Kingston, Mandeville, Montego Bay or even Port Antonio which in those days were
the scene of much tourist, business, and therefore expatriate activity.) In the early 1940s,
when U. Theo then close to 70 organised another literary evening in Clarendon, he
featured the young Louise Bennett. One wonders how many Jamaicans in his age group,
or of his general background, would have taken such a step.
By 1904 U. Theo and his family had returned to Clarendon and had acquired
enough money to lease a large estate called Palmyra. He is supposed to have rented
some of it to local peasants, and Cooper describes him as "generating a whirlwind of
excitement by energetically plunging into the management of his new estate." This was
a man who was later to be a fruit agent involved with the famous Jamaica Banana
Producers Association. He was also to become a Vice-President of the significant
Jamaica Agricultural Society (the J.A.S.) and to serve in several other organizations.
Some of these other organizations helped to make U. Theo eminent as though they
were mostly parochial in nature, they were also to have national impact. He became the
leading figure in both the Clarendon Old Boys' and the Frankfield Citizens' Associa-
tions. U. Theo had become an elected member of the Parochial Board in 1912, but was
to make his mark more as a community leader and activist than as a politician. He
helped lay the groundwork for much that was to follow in Clarendon over the next
quarter century and more. Clarendon produced J.A.G. Smith, probably the most im-
portant legislator before 1944 and a figure considered by many to be worthy of National
Hero status. Other notables from Clarendon included Sam Rumble, a legendary "roots"
land reformer; Major Moxsy, a frequent newspaper contributor; and Edwin Allen (also
from the Frankfield area) who became Minister of Education. Giants such as Sir
Alexander Bustamante and Hugh Shearer became adopted sons of Clarendon.
U. Theo was a complex figure. Surprisingly for such an activist, he was a noted
member of the Government's Conciliation Board, very probably the one set up after the
labour troubles of 1919. His house was full of magazines and newspapers from England
and, like any orthodox English upper-class gentleman, he informed Who's Who in
Jamaica 1912-24 that he was a member of the Times Club of London.
He had become independent enough, financially, to leave teaching in 1910, before
he was 40. In 1911 he published in the Jamaica Times a letter in defence of the labourers
who worked on the roads and railways. (The railways were to become a radical hotbed.)
In later years U. Theo did more than contribute to the newspapers he made the news
himself on several occasions, and was recognized as one of the leading unofficial voices
of rural Jamaica if not indeed the island.
In 1919, in a widely publicised statement, he objected to the Government's trying to
discourage political discussions at J.A.S. branch meetings. U. Theo said that these
meetings were precisely where "small men" should be given the opportunity to "pontifi-
cate" on political and related matters. This was the kind of view that earned him praise
from DeLisser in the Gleaner for developing "national" spirit at Frankfield. (DeLisser
and the Gleaner were very much against Sir Leslie Probyn, the Governor of the day.)
In 1922 some twenty-two years before the new constitution of 1944, bringing adult
suffrage and the first national elections featuring political parties U. Theo, on the
platform of tlhe Jamaica People's Association, advocated self-government. His state-
ment does not seem to have caused much of a stir though, unlike some of the other
"radicals" of the time, U. Theo could not have been dismissed as a man of little
substance or as eccentric) like some of his substantial associates in the J.P.A. such as
Jack Palache and John Soulette).
In 1935, just after the period of Marcus Garvey's greatest local impact, and at a time
when Rastafarianism was growing, U. Theo McKay claimed publicly with consider-
able coverage that colour bitterness was caused more by the whites than by the
coloured people in Jamaica. It was a brave truth, coming from a "respectable" leader, a
man then over 60 and something of a patriarch in his community.
Finally, we can look at U. Theo's continued correspondence with his brother which
may have influenced the development of both. U. Theo made direct and indirect
contributions to the education of Claude. In addition to providing an intellectual
environment for the budding writer, he provided Claude with an important opportunity
to develop his articulation, by having him serve as a young assistant teacher. Claude in
turn, in later life, encouraged U. Theo in cultural activity, specifically writing though
he asked him not to write anything for Mary Gunard, whose anthology of essays on
black culture appeared in 1934. She had been given "glowing hospitality" by U. Theo
when she visited Jamaica, but no written work by either U. Theo McKay appeared in
the anthology. There was, however, a picture of U. Theo, by then a man of considerable
U. Theo treated Claude as an intellectual peer. The tone of the correspondence
between the brothers suggests that U. Theo was not given to pulling rank, despite his
greater age and experience. In a 1929 letter to Claude quoted by Cooper, U. Theo
wrote: "I believe in independence, especially intellectual independence." He continued:
"I still stand as a free man where revealed religion is concerned. Try as I may, I cannot
regard the teaching of priest and pulpit as anything but superstition."
U. Theo seems to have seen it as his duty to keep Claude up to date with what was
happening in Jamaica. In a letter to Claude in 1933, at the height of the Great
Depression in both the United States and Jamaica, U. Theo reported that his own
earnings as a fruit agent had dropped by some 90%; yet he was able to keep the balance
of the teacher and thinker. "At present," he wrote, "we are going through a very severe
depression the equal of which has not been experienced as far as the memory of living
man records. Very heavy winds hit us in November followed by drought that was [as]
prolonged as it [was] intense...[T]he immediate future shows little or no better
prospect. World conditions" note the lack of parochialism in the man from North
Clarendon "are not only appalling but very puzzling. It is rather a strange phenomenon
that prices should fall so dramatically now, that there should be so much unemployment
in spite of the terrible destruction caused by the Great War. And yet the world seems to
be more given to sport than ever and life is not held sacred as heretofore."
There was, as we know, almost a full century between the Morant Bay Rebellion in
1865 and the granting of political Independence to Jamaica in 1962. During much of
that time, the teacher, the parson and the agricultural instructor were to be perhaps the
most important pillars of rural life. U. Theo McKay was to be important in education,
in church affairs (although he was not a believer), and in agriculture. He was a
businessman, a politician, a cultural promoter, and (perhaps most important ultimately)
a community leader who had national impact. His work in Clarendon clearly opened
the way for others. Claude McKay, on whom he had considerable influence intellectual-
ly, has become something of a father-figure in two related and significant literatures,
West Indian and Afro-American. There has been a brother, also deserves some atten-
My Green Hills of Jamaica by Claude McKay (Kingston: Heinemann Caribbean, 1979), pp. 13-22.
Claude mcKay: Sojourner In the Harlem Renaissance by Wayne C. Cooper (Baton Rouge: Louisiana
State University Press, 1987), pp. 7-8, 11, 13-20, 28, 49, 57, 64, 282-3. In these sections, Cooper relies heavi-
ly on Claude mcKay's My Green Hills of Jamaica for the factual information.
Some Aspects of Jamaica's Politics 1918-1938 by James Carnegie (Kingston: Institute of Jamaica, 1973),
pp. 27, 73, 100, 109, 116, 122, 138, 164. Carnegie relies heavily on the Jamaican newspapers of the day, espe-
cially the DaIly Gleaner and The Jamaica Times., Who's Who In Jamaica, 1921-4, p.168 Entry on U. T.
PSYCHO-HISTORIOGRAPHIC ANALYSIS OF CLAUDE McKAY
FREDERICK W. HICKLING
A basic component of psychoanalytic method is the examination of causal
relationship in individual's life by an historical analysis of events occurring at different
stages. The essential information is generated by "free associations" and other events of
psychic life as presented by the individual. (In the clinical setting these manifest mainly
as biological explorations and psychodynamic formulations.)
Psychoanalysis was first made popular by Sigmund Freud at the beginning of the
twentieth century, and the technique has been modified by a number of other therapists,
among them Jung, Adler, Fromm, Rank, Homey and Sullivan. In the main,
psychoanalytic explorations have been used as an adjunct or a vehicle for the transfor-
mation of abnormal behaviour into appropriate adaptive coping behaviour. In more
recent years, however, psychoanalytic techniques have been used in non- therapeutic
situations in the classification of human behaviour and also as a tool for the posthumous
understanding of famous or infamous persons. This form of psychohistorical analysis
has been gaining popularity, and involves the use of written biographical and
autobiographical material, as opposed to "live" free associations and other forms of
Made popular by Becker (1938) and in the Caribbean context by Goveia (1956),
the use of historiography is a well-known technique of analysis used by historians, their
materials for analysis deriving from published writings. Becker argues that historiog-
should be in some sense a phase of intellectual his-
tory, that phase of it which records what men have at
different times known and believed about the past,
the use they have made, in the service of their inter-
ests and aspirations, of their knowledge and beliefs,
and the underlying presuppositions which have
made their knowledge seem to them to be relevant
and their beliefs to be true. (Becker 1983, quoted in
Govieia 1956, p. 10).
Goveia, in her study of the Historiography of the British West Indies up to the end
of the Nineteenth Century, concludes that:
in history, time supplies the continuum but not the
principle of change. To discover that principle, it is
still necessary...to seek, beyond the narrative of
events, a wider understanding of the thoughts, habits
and institutions of a whole society. In the society
itself, in its purpose and in its adaptive processes,
will be found the true genesis of its history.(p. 177-
Goveia, was making a profound comment on the process of history as judged not
only by its content but also by its form, and she sought to identify the essence of this
process in relation to the English-speaking Caribbean. Schneider (1959) notes a gap
between historians (who tend to address themselves to the understanding of actual
events in all their detail) and psychiatrists (who tend to see things exclusively from a
biological perspective); and he suggests that the study of psychopathology should work
for the mutual advancement of history and biology.
The concept of psychohistoriography presented in this article originated as a tech-
nique for the integration of the science of psychopathology with a dialectic method of
historically formulating insights into the links between the individual and the social, and
for the identification of the process of history within a personal and individual level as a
template for present praxis and future synthesis.
The technique was developed in Jamaica during the 1970s in the clinical environ-
ment of Bellevue Hospital. The pressing clinical need at that time was to try to find a
psychosocial stimulator which would activate the process of insight, and then a change
at a group level in the hospital, at a time when an educationally diverse community of
nearly three thousand patients and two thousands workers sought to understand the
numerous clinical and sociological problems facing the institution. These Jamaican
people needed a method to focus the disparate realities of consciousness for the
production of organizational and social change. The method first originated at a group
level in which the analysis would be made on a chalk board or paper for all to see and
understand, but it was soon adapted for use with individuals, and has subsequently been
used in a wide variety of individual and collective situations (Hickling 1989).
The purpose of this paper is to provide a description of the method used for
individual psychohistoriographical analysis, and then apply it to the works of the well
known Jamaican writer Claude McKay. The selection of McKay as the subject of such
analysis was fortuitous, triggered by a conversation with the editor of this issue early in
1990. Here was an opportunity to apply the technique to a very special Jamaican whose
achievements make him worthy of close study, and here also was an opportunity to
demonstrate the method without breach of confidentiality, as the psychic communica-
tions have already been made public in the subject's writings.
This has already been described in the group context (Hickling 1989). Historical
facts are recorded on a graphic matrix which represents these facts in chronological
sequence within the framework of dialectic matrices such as race and class. The method
was adapted for individual use by widening the matrices to include other factors social,
political, work-related, educational, family, environmental, religious, creative, emotion-
al and sexual. The historical facts, whether obtained from "free association" in the
one-to-one relationship or, as in this case, from material written which others can see
and corroborate, are recorded on a two-dimensional graph on which a horizontal time
line bisects the graph, and the ten parameters mentioned above are arranged in a
specific relationship to each other and around the time line. These parameters have not
been represented in this particular arrangement arbitrarily; they represent significant
areas necessary for the understanding of psychological and psychopathological factors.
Each factor is represented by a written comment, and fitted into the graph in its
chronological time, and along a particular parameter. Each must therefore be verified
for "perceptual fit" before it can be recorded, and must represent in the analysis a
building block which is connected with others on the graph (in a manner which has been
subjected to the analytic process based on collective epistemology of the methods of
enquiry into the psyche).
On this graph of McKay's analysis (Appendix 1) appeared the horizontal time line
representing the period under consideration (1889/90-1948), with the social matrices
printed on the left hand margin of the graph. The historical material extracted from
Mckay's autobiographical works My Green Hills of Jamaica and A Long Way from
Home was recorded as a point on the two- dimensional chart. As the analysis
proceeded, clustering of events became visible.The clustered points on this graph were
then linked by vertical lines, establishing thematic insight lines of the major factors
influencing McKay's life. These insights were collated, and used as the construct around
which a psychological formulation was developed. McKay's poetry and fiction were
then used to corroborate the insights gained from the analysis, and to widen and test the
The thematic insight lines which clustered from McKay's analysis and that analytic
constructs I have assigned are presented as follows:
1. Power and the Clarendon Hills.
2. China Doll, Moonshine Baby.
3. A Poem to Agnes.
4. Free Thinkers.
5. The Heart of the Country.
6. The Lure of the City.
7. The Vagabond Poet.
8. The Thinker of thinkers.
9. The Black Collective.
10. Revolutionary Messenger.
12. The Empire Strikes Back.
13. Lest We Forget.
(1) CLARENDON (3) POEM TO (4) FREE (5) HEART OF THE (6) LURE OF THE
HILLS AGNES THINKERS COUNTRY CITY
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v isJa. whie
SU NYVILLE na
Fath r strict blade
FATHER ASH NTI scochma
FATHER siage lust
anglo saxon just
EDUCAO Elemer ary school
EDUCATION ------ __
MOO SHINE sM
PO ER B BY
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skin school at
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(7) VAGABOND (8)THINKER OF (9) BLACK (10) REVOLU (11) WRITER (12) EM
POET THINKERS COLLECTIVE TIONARY STRIKES
p 98 San a MESSENGER
a Ira r W men
marriedto my 3ce to ve a man CAR NA
Manda Atraitor I rids p 18a mar ge
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Pub sh ANTAR
poS n *It we FLAME H RLEM
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CARVEY E. DUBOIS
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orter.II, man n.
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-- -- ""* ---- ------- ;kb ana peak ---
dt n hHARLEM
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Seh Julius Calho
Hemmin Na. Pasain To beme Church
l r I arian b .
Du an Max p3Z HAR
BANANA METR I
HOME B RCELONA GR I
HARIF AINGFRTOWN L G
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the Bdck Nervous
Russian TOULON breakdown
BERLIN MOR IOCCO, SPAIN, USA-
US R MNarsei le AFRICA. America
PARIS NICE gienes
1923 1931 1940
VFNKA I (191)
I AM A POETIC Mo WRITER
WRITR nude b lived oEn BAC
NOT N model scp earnings
AGIT TOR wn er o hei EN
Sen KA YAMA
1.POWER AND THE CLARENDON HILLS
The first set of thematic lines clusters at his birth. In the opening section of My
Green Hills of Jamaica McKay is rooted in the hills of Clarendon, and defined as a
product of the land.
The road was red, very red. I remember during the
rainy season how that red clay would cake up on the
legs and feet of the old folks going to work their
patches of land, and the kids going to school. (My
Green Hills p. 1).
McKay establishes in that paragraph the dialectic connection between the old and
the young, and links them both to the land. The thematic lines of McKay's analysis link
the land with the church and his father, two major sources of power with which he
struggled for most of his life.
McKay immediately establishes his class background. "In our village we were poor
enough but very proud peasants" (p. 3) His father owned some 100 acres by the time
McKay left for the U.S.A. in 1912. McKay first mentions his parents on page 5, while
discussing the Mount Zion church and its bachelor minister. He does not specifically
mention his father until page 11, long after he has established a number of other facts
and significant psychic events. He introduces his father to us as he describes his sister's
exploits. From then on he tells mainly conflictual stories of his father, though always
with humour and with style. He quotes his father as saying: "I am not educating my boys
for any of these village girls no matter how pretty they may be" (pp. 11-12). McKay
identifies the Christian character of his father, "a Presbyterian Calvinist" who knew no
woman other than his wife. "A real black Scotchman (Sic). We boys wondered how his
education could have made him that way." Later, McKay informs us that his father was
stern but very just, "something of a village leader, as they have in Africa" (p. 60).
McKay was very proud of his father his way of life, his background, his principles -
but he still was in conflict with him. He describes the last time his father tried to whip
him: when McKay, age 14, stood up to his father. The narrative identifies the different
sides of his father and McKay's mixed feelings toward the man. Because McKay had
been away in Kingston during the 1907 earthquake, his father had been anxious to know
he was safe.
I remember the drayman stopped and I got off. My
father hugged and kissed me. It gave me the
strangest feeling my father's beard against my face
because I had never before been kissed by him. He
was always a very stern man; but now he must have
felt that I'd escaped from something terribly tragic
as he held me in his arms. (p. 55).
McKay, who declared himself "a hard little agnostic" (p. 41), was for most of his life
in serious opposition to the white Christian church of his upbringing in colonial Jamaica
at the turn of the century. McKay's writings suggest that he was angry with his father for
having bowed to the white man's mental yoke.
But McKay had clearly never completely rejected the concept of God. It is not
surprising that later in his life, when he was ill and undergoing serious physical and
mental deterioration, he negated the original negation and embraced God and the
Roman Catholic Church. McKay in his declining years, becoming his father, felt the
emotional and spiritual need of this authoritarian support.
This very significant contradiction is identified by McKay in the opening chapters of
his Jamaican autobiography, and is a recurrent concern. In Selected Poems the section
called "Baptism" reflects McKay's continuous struggle with spiritual and emotional
issues, moving steadily towards God as the conclusion. In the context of my psychohis-
toriographical analysis, this contradiction is revealed from the first construct line on
2. CHINA DOLL, MOONSHINE BABY
This construct line combines two chapter heading of My Green Hills as they reflect
symbolically the next set of contradictions. McKay uses the symbols of the pink-
cheeked, blue- eyed china doll to capture the racial contradiction embodied in the
cultural and ethnic identity of Jamaican blacks, immediately counterpoising the Moon-
shine baby as the black African symbol. "To us children, it was very weird, something
like a great enlarged china doll, which we had made ourselves....I am not sure but I think
my father told us that the making of these moonshine babies was an old African
custom..." (A Long Way p. 10). The moonshine baby challenges the china doll as a
culturally protective instrument embedded in his psyche (and presumably the psyche of
other children who participated in those games).
The person most featured in this period is his mother, for whom McKay expresses
exquisite tenderness. He tells us that she and her family came from Madagascar. Max
Eastman recounts an historical anecdote of the courage and grit of McKay's maternal
He learned in childhood how a family of his ances-
tors, brought over in chains from Madagascar, had
kept together by declaring a death strike on the
auction block. Each would kill himself, they vowed
solemnly, if they were sold to separate owners.
(Selected Poems p. 110)
McKay's memory of his mother was of a beautiful brown-skinned leader of the
church, generous to a fault, kind and loving; the veritable antithesis of her husband. We
also learn in this segment about his sister, and his love and respect for her. McKay
spends a lot of time describing women in his early life and his wonderfully positive
relationships with them. He declares his heterosexuality on a few occasions (My Green
Hills p. 12, his adolescent and adult life are with men. It is surprising to the analyst that
McKay does not ever describe his mother in the dialectical manner in which he
describes his father. His mother must have had a negative side, and must have expressed
some unpleasant attitudes. What is the significance of McKay's evident blindness in this
The psycho-historiographic analysis reveals that Claude McKay in his own writing
identifies his mother as being a powerful force in his life only after he had written about
the land, the church, and his father. Objectively, however, the chart reveals that she
existed as a major power in his life. The chart reveals a chronological space between age
2 and 13-14 which is devoid of any mention of his mother in his autobiographies. He
makes up for this omission by the plethora of poetry in which he expresses his fondness.
(See, for example, Selected Poem pp. 22 & 23.) But his writings do not express any
negative feelings towards her he may have harboured.
This construct line symbolizes the contradictions of ethnicity and gender inherent in
McKay's upbringing, and sets the stage for the understanding of some of his behaviour
in later life.
3. A POEM TO AGNES
It is hardly surprising that the next construct line symbolizes sexual conflicts, as
McKay recalls being shipped by his brother for some letters to Agnes, a girl in his
district whom he admired and charmed. In that period of McKay's life, his brother, U.
Theo McKay, had taken over the role of father, and with it the authority mantle. His
brother, a teacher trained at Mico College, had also taken over education and was an
early role model.
McKay describes his fascination with Agnes when he must have been seven or eight.
Agnes was a very pretty mulatto, somewhat lighter-skinned than himself. U. Theo
discovered the letters, which McKay informs us had been written for him by his friend
the stable-boy, and for the first time gave Claude a whipping. "He whipped me and said
he was astonished that a small boy like me could have such adult thoughts" (My Green
Hills pp. 17-18. McKay reports that he wrote in Jamaican dialect some years later a
poem to Agnes which was never published in a book, but which friends who read it told
him was one of his most touching.
It is not difficult to see therefore that this construct line represents the stage in
McKay's development where psychosexual issues were determined and became inter-
woven with male authority issues. McKay earned his brother's wrath at that time also for
riding away bareback on his brother's horse Mayfool. ("The Analysis of a Five-Year Old
Boy", 1909, by Sigmund Freud, links anger, the horse as a symbol, and authority
conflicts.) The experiences of anger and violence from his brother in reaction to
McKay's strong emotional feeling toward Agnes and other women created a strong
conflicting set of emotions in the child McKay describes a brief heterosexual relation-
ship with Manda several years later in New York (A Long Way p. 49), he describes a
number of male relationships in his late adolescent and early adult period; which raises
the questions as to the possibility of a sexual and emotional relationship with any of
Mack and Semrad (1%7) consider homosexuality a vicissitude of the Oedipal
complex, in that the resolution of the Oedipal conflict is based on a specific Oedipal
constellation. "Specifically, the child has identified with the parent of the opposite sex
chosen the parent of the same sex as a love object. Narcissistic factors also play an
important role in homosexuality: the choice of an object is based, in part, on its sexual
resemblance to the individual himself' (p. 308). Clues to contradictions in McKay's
psychosexual development can be found in this period of his life, represented in this
analysis by this construct line, "A Poem to Agnes".
4. FREE THINKERS
It is clear from his writings that McKay soon became aware of his keen intellect and
his voracious appetite for knowledge. His early exposure to literature ensured a solid
foundation for the literary pursuits which were to follow. His first taste of the city of
Kingston whetted his appetite for travel and the exploration of new lands (My Green
Hills p. 20). But the most important psychodynamic feature of this time was the
rejection of the authority with other youths, black Jamaicans like himself who were
seeking their own salvation outside of, or in spite of, the all-pervasive English colonial
authority system. he calls himself "an intelligent barefooted boy" who, like a growing
group of boys with similar background, began reasoning and studying in the facilities
provided by his colonial rulers. this was his group of free thinkers, preparing to deal
with the harsh realities of life. McKay was undoubtedly influenced also by the free-
thinkers' books of his brother's extensive library. As he grew older he began to under-
stand some of U. Theo's strategies for survival in the colonial environment; and his
relationship with his brother improved.
McKay was acutely aware of the prejudice of Jamaican colonial society, the relation-
ships and nuances of race, and the finely tuned differences between the persons with
different shades of skin. He describes the social conflicts emerging from the union of
one of the women of his village, an illiterate quadroon who went to live with a Sephardic
Jew from another district (My Green Hills p. 47). The lady's daughters were furious
with their father because he desired to marry this women, their mother, who had lived
with him dutifully for years. The story illustrates vividly the racism which grew up within
miscegenated Jamaicans families, and which exists till today.
McKay discusses family dynamics, race relations, bastardy, and the attitudes toward
interracial sex cohabitation. He writes up some of this in his chapter on the Woolsey
Mother Woolsey who was about ninety had taught
my mother her letters and she was always proud of it,
saying that my mother had been so much better at
learning her letters than all the other members of
Negro families around. It was from her that I
learned much about the slave system of Jamaica and
how it applied to the blacks, browns and near-
whites."(My Green Hills pp. 48-49).
5. THE HEART OF THE COUNTRY
Puberty sees McKay crystallizing a number of psychodynamic issues which have
already been mentioned. At age 14 he returns to his father in Sunnyville and confronts
him as a man. He is deeply moved by his mother's illness, and his cynicism hardens. His
own intellectual pursuits flourish, and his relation to the land as a farmer and worker
deepens. His personal skills in debating, choral singing and a number of other collective
village activities are sharpened. This construct line represents more a period of con-
solidation of existing psychological contradictions, and maturation, rather than a period
of qualitative psychodynamic development.
6. THE LURE OF THE CITY
This represents another significant watershed period. New issues emerge which
influence his life significantly. The most important must must be his meeting with
Walter Jekyll, the first in a series of educated white men, with power and social
influence, who entered McKay's life. McKay had an almost clandestine relationship
with Jekyll. He hid the relationship from his family and then from his working class
black friends. On p. 67 on My Green Hills he tells of how he packed his few things in an
old battered suitcase and went to Kingston. "I didn't want to tell Mr. Jekyll that I had
run away from home to be near him," he writes. Later he indicates the surprise of his
Constabulary Force friends when Mr. Jekyll came to see the Lieutenant Colonel about
releasing him. "I had kept a very close mouth about the relationship between Mr. Jekyll
and myself (My Green Hills p. 68). Mr. Jekyll used his enormous social influence to get
McKay discharged from the Constabulary.
That McKay should ever have joined the Constabulary Force is an extraordinary
thing, as he recognizes in the preface to Constab Ballads: "Let me confess it at once. I
had not in me the stuff that goes to the making of a good constable: for I am so
constituted that imagination outruns discretion, and it is my misfortune to have a most
improper sympathy with wrong-doers." He admits that he joined the Force out of
"One night I met a new friend who had been kept a
long time by the most beautiful prostitute in the city.
Now he was fed up too and wanted to get away from
it all. We both decided to go to Spanish Town to join
the Jamaica Constabulary" (My Green Hills pp. 67-
But it becomes clear that there are deeper motivations for joining the Force; these
relate to the authority conflicts which pursue McKay throughout his life. "We blacks are
all somewhat impatient of discipline, and to the natural impatience of my race there was
added, in my particular case, a peculiar sensitiveness which made certain forms of
discipline irksome, and a fierce hatred of injustice. Not that I ever openly rebelled; but
the rebellion was in my heart... to relieve my feelings, I wrote poems, and into them I
poured my heart in its various moods" (Constab ballads p. 7).
Oh! where are de faces I loved in de past,
De frien's dat I used to hold dear?
Oh say, have dey all turned away from me now
Because de red seam I wear?
Yet he had reason to be thankful years later in the Soviet Union when his experience
in the Jamaica Constabulary helped him to evaluate police security measures (A Long
Way p. 199).
It was Walter Jekyll who got him out of the Constabulary Force; and Jekyll who
encouraged him to continue writing dialect verse; who helped him get his first book of
verse, Songs of Jamaica, published; who introduced him to white men of power and
influence. the paradox is twofold: first, the white aristocrat facilitating the black
militant; and second, the intense male relationship. One product of that paradox was
McKay's migration to America.
Now Mr. Jekyll wanted to know what I intended to do. He felt that I could not just
remain on the island as a poet or a peasant proprietor. He felt that I ought to do
something with. So I told him that I should like to to to America.
Mr. [Jekyll] was horrified. "America," he said,
"Claude, do you know how Negroes are treated in
America?" I said that I knew, but that America was a
great modern land and I wanted to go there. (My
Green Hills pp. 79-80).
7. THE VAGABOND POEt
Between 1912 (when he first went to the U.S.A.) and 1916, there is a gap in his
autobiographical accounts. Apart from the fact that he attended the Kansas State
College as an agricultural student, McKay tells us little about this period. He begins:
"But after a few years of study at the Kansas State College I was gripped with the lust to
wonder. The spirit of the vagabond, the daemon of some poets, had got hold of me. I
quit college....And so I became a vagabond but a vagabond with a purpose. I was
determined to find expression in writing" (A Long Way p. 4). He described his life in
America as a porter, a fireman, a busboy, a houseman, a waiter on the railway, a
restaurant owner in Harlem (A Long Way p. 131). He places himself firmly within the
black proletarian background in Jamaica as a farmer, a match-factory worker, and a
policeman. It is necessary for McKay to identify himself as proletarian very early in his
He describes vividly the realities of racism in the U.S.A. His famous poem "If We
Must Die" was forged in the crucible of racial lynchings and black resistance.
If we must die, 0 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!
(Selected Poems p. 36).
McKay cites the poem in his defence against radical criticism after his visit to
post-revolutionary Soviet Russia.
First published in Max Eastman's magazine The
Liberator, the poem was reprinted in every Negro
publication of any consequence. It forced its way
into the Negro pulpit (a most interesting
phenomenon for this black heretic). Ministers
ended their sermons with it, and the congregations
responded, Amen. It was repeated in Negro clubs
and Negro schools and at Negro mass meetings. (A
Long Way p. 227).
Here we have the interesting phenomenon of McKay musing with himself as he
reconsiders his experience of decades earlier, he claims not to have been aware that he
was becoming the Negro revolutionary messenger: "For I am so intensely subjective a
poet, that I was not aware, at the moment of writing, that I was transformed into a
medium to express a mass sentiment" (A Long Way pp. 227-28) "If We Must Die"
represents McKay at his finest, honing intellect and emotion to meet the vicious chal-
lenge of white racism.
In the U.S.A McKay becomes closely associated with three influential white men,
Frank Harris, Max Eastman, and "Mr. Gray", the last of whom (met through Walter
Jekyll) helped to finance his visit to England. Again the double paradox emerges: the
relationship of this black militant with liberal and radical white facilitators, and the
powerful male/male relationship. This latter is underlined further by the curious
friendship with a poor white pick-pocket named Michael (A Long Way pp. 45-46) who
keeps popping up. The contradiction is highlighted by an almost "throw-away" para-
graph in which, half-way through A Long Way from Home, McKay mentions for the
first time that he was a married man.
I was often in the company of a dancer who was
making a study of African masks for choreographic
purposes. One evening while he, my friend, Gladys
Wilson, and I were together in my diggings in Four-
teenth Street, a woman walked in to whom I had
been married seven years before. A little publicity,
even for a poor poet, might be an embarrassing
thing. The dancer exclaimed in a shocked tone,
"Why, I never knew that you were married!" I said
that nobody knew, excepting the witnesses, and that
they were many more things about me that he and
others didn't know.(A Long Way pp. 149-50).
Extraordinary that an event such as his marriage should be treated so scantily by
McKay. the question as to whether McKay was homosexual or at the very least bisexual
is never answered directly in the autobiographies. the psychohistoriographic analysis,
however, suggests he was one or the other, an extension of the psychosexual conflicts
8. THE THINKERS OF THINKERS
Through his white friends in New York he mixes with the cream of the intellectual
communities in Greenwich Village and elsewhere. He meets George Bernard Shaw and
H.G. Wells, he parties with Charlie Chaplin and Crystal Eastman. He is acclaimed
among them; they acknowledge him as a star among stars. Max Eastman writes: "And
the sonnet he called 'Baptism' is, I think, as fine an expression of courage to endure
anguish and grow stronger by it as we have in our language" (Selected Poems p. 111)
McKay himself acknowledges that he was a supreme poet among supreme poets, and a
thinker among thinkers. But as George Bernard Shaw remarked: "It must be tragic for
a sensitive Negro to be a poet....Poets remain poor..." (A Long Way p. 61). In the chapter
"He Who Gets Slapped" he describes the racist treatment he received as a dramatic
critic covering Leonid Andreyev's play He, the One Who Gets Slapped. Because of
McKay, he and his colleague were refused admission tot heir complimentary orchestra
seats and reassigned to the second balcony.
The important fact, with which I was suddenly
slapped in the face, was my color. I am a Negro He,
the One Who Gets Slapped....I had come to see a
tragic farce and I found myself unwillingly the hero
of one. He who got slapped was 1. As always in the
world-embracing Anglo-Saxon circus, the intel-
ligence, the sensibilities of the black clown were
slapped without mercy. (A Long Way pp. 144-45).
At a later stage in his life, he also had to defend himself against the critics who
singled him out for attack in The New Masses, the literary organ of the American
The critic also asserted that my novel, Home to Harlem, had no "class-conscious
action." When Jake in Home to Harlem refused to scab, wasn't that class-conscious?
And when he refused to pimp, didn't he demonstrate a high sense of social propriety?
Perhaps a higher sense than many of critical scribblers.
I did not come to knowing of Negro workers in an
academic way, by talking to black crowds at meet-
ings, nor in a bohemian way, by talking about them in
cafes. I knew the unskilled Negro worker of the city
by working with him as a porter and longshoreman
and as waiter on the railroad.(A Long Way p. 228).
9. THE BLACK COLLECTIVE
This construct line really is the same as the previous one (8), except that it is parallel,
but dialectically connected, with a similar kind of struggle going on in the black world as
the negro face struggled to find collective unity, a collective identity in those harsh
colonial times, when lynching and segregation existed in America. McKay met many of
the leaders. Though not uncritical, he seems to have been impressed most with Marcus
Garvey (My Green Hills p. 81); and he published articles in the organ of the Garvey
Movement, The Negro World, (A Long Way p. 67). He had become good friends with
the Editor, Hubert Harrison, of whom he writes: "Charlie Chaplin had met Hubert
Harrison at my office and admired his black Socratic head and its precise Encyclopedic
knowledge" (A Long Way p. 118). McKay describes how, when his friend Frank Harris
many years later was thinking of writing a book of contemporary portraits of negroes,
McKay identified those whom he regarded as leaders of the black collective. He singled
out Garvey, Florence Mills, Madame Walker of Black Beauty Culture fame, W.C.
Harvey who composed the St. Louis Blues, W.E. DuBois, George Washington Carver
who had been his teacher at Tuskegee, Booker T. Washington, and Paul Robeson.
I am inspired with a great hope for the Negro group.
And I am certain that it cannot find artistic self-
reliance in second-hand achievement. Though be-
cause of lack of common facilities and broad
cultural contacts a Negro's work may lack the tech-
nical perfection of a white person's, intrinsically it
must be compared with the white man's achieve-
ment and judged by the same standards. I think that
that is the only standard of criticism that Negro ar-
tists can aim at. (A Long Way p. 270).
McKay was acutely aware of a continuous struggle against blacks by white people,
and articulated the principle that only with a conscious development of black unity and
the black collective could the African people of the world survive the onslaught:
"even in Africa I was confronted by the specter, the
white terror always pursuing the black. There was no
escape anywhere from the white hound of Civiliza-
tion" (A Long Way p. 304).
He saw clearly the need for the black collective.
That's what Negroes need in American politics a
highly organized all-Negro group....We may feel in-
flated as individual Negroes sitting in on the councils
of the whites, but it means very little if our people
are not organized. Otherwise the whites will want to
tell us what is right for our people even against our
better thinking....What we need is our own group,
organized and officered entirely by Negroes...(A
Long Way p. 321)
The concept of the black collective emerges in his novels, particularly in Banjo.
McKay was deeply stirred by the idea of a real Negro renaissance.
"My idea of a renaissance was one of talented per-
sons of an ethnic or national group working in-
dividually or collectively in a common purpose and
creating things that would be typical of their group:
(A Long Way p. 321).
He had been greatly impressed by emphasis on group life, whether the idea behind
it was Communist co-operative or Fascist collective or regional autonomy, and he was a
strong advocate of a strong group spirit among Negroes (A Long Way pp. 349-350). the
essence of this is summarized in the final paragraphs of A Long Way from Home.
And Negroes will have to organize themselves and
learn from their mistakes....It goes without saying
that the future of the Negro is bound up with the
future system of world economy. And all progressive
social trends indicate that that system will be based
on the principle of labor for communal instead of
private profit....I suppose I have a poet's right to
imagine a great modern Negro leader.(A Long Way
Is the emergence of Nelson Mandela in 1990 perhaps a fulfillment of that vision?
10. REVOLUTIONARY MESSENGER
McKay's visit to the Soviet Union in 1922-23 helped to crystallize an aspect of his life
which had begun to emerge some years earlier. He went to the USSR to see the
revolution for himself and to measure the Negro revolution with the yardstick of the
Russian achievement. In the Soviet Union he became the darling of the Russian people,
above and beyond the esteem in which he was held by the Bolshevik Party. He was seen
"like a black icon in the flesh" (A Long Way p. 168), as an omen of good luck. He was
regarded as a literary celebrity (p. 185) and rubbed shoulders with the leaders of the
revolution Zinoviev, Trotsky, Radek, and countless others; with officers of the Soviet
Fleet, the Army and the Air Force; with the Red Cadets and the rank and file.
As an independent delegate to the fourth International he had to put the plight of
the American Negro into focus, in the context of dishonest accounts and vicious attacks
from the American Communist Party delegates who were also attending. He had to
define himself as the peasant turned proletarian which he was (p. 186) and to identify
himself as a poet and writer, not as an agitator or political organizer. This definition
helped clarify his role. He was a black revolutionary messenger putting the international
black struggle into focus and pointing the direction which that struggle would have to
He came out strongly against dictatorship of any kind, having lived under a Com-
munist dictatorship in Russia, two Fascist dictatorships in Europe and the French
colonial dictatorship in Morocco, and he noted that "even the dictatorships were
making concessions to the strong awakened group spirit of the peoples" (A Long Way
p. 349). But the essence of McKay's message was that the revolution for the Negroes
must be based on a black ideology with black organizations and institutions, and great
black leaders (p. 354). It is clear from his novel Banjo that he saw a promising direction
in Garvey's Back to Africa Movement, and a character in that novel believes that the
British Intelligence Service had instigated the prosecution and conviction of Garvey in
the United States (Banjo p. 102). Garvey was creating the Negro group, and was
becoming too successful. McKay's poem "The Negro's Tragedy" expresses the emotion-
al impetus to social action:
It is the Negro's tragedy I feel
Which binds me like a heavy iron chain,
It is the Negro's wounds I want to heal
Because I know the keenness of his pain...
(Selected Poems p. 50).
The psychohistoriograph shows us that the actualization of McKay's message came
in the period of his life when he committed his ideology to print for the world to see, a
beacon for black and white. He transforms his peasant-turned-proletarian message into
a well-honed philosophy, an articulated black ideology. He writes about black people,
their lives, their complexity, their struggle for survival in a hostile white world; or their
emotions and their idiosyncracies. But, most of all, he writes about the survival of black
people, base on his own experiences and those of the black folk he knew.
It should not be surprising that this construct line expresses the essence of many of
the lines discussed before. Most psychoanalytic theories recognize that in adulthood
there are rarely any significant new qualitative development issues. this period of life
represents adult psychological maturation, and consolidation of personality charac-
teristics, reflecting early life experiences and contradictions. From this analysis, there-
fore, we can expect McKay to write about issues of black survival, about authority and
power, about rebellion; about sympathy, and love, and caring, features which have all
surfaced in previous construct lines.
Characteristically, therefore, his fiction is unapologetically black, and he writes
mainly about black men: Banjo, Malty, Bugsie, Ginger, Ray and Taloufa in Banjo; Jake
and Ray in Home to Harlem. Although in his fiction he writes also of women, such as
Bita in Banana Bottom, and Latnah in Banjo, his autobiographical work has little room
for them, mentioning only five serious female relationships. there is Agnes, his first love
at age seven; and his sister-in-law (U. Theo's wife) in Montego Bay; then Mandy, the
American woman who looks after him in Harlem; then Carmina in France and Morocco
later in his life. He briefly mentions his wife, but not her name. And of course, he writes
about his mother, mainly in the poems.
This gender contradiction in his writings could be predicted from the earlier analysis
of his psychosexual contradictions. Not surprisingly, the only time he mentions
homosexuality is in the chapter on hiS friend Frank Harris.
Frank Harris was...such a great actor that in his talk
he actually became the character he was portraying.
And that is why some of the readers of his marvelous
biography of Oscar Wilde imagine that there was
something more than a platonic relationship be-
tween the two men. (A Long Way p. 267)
He certainly tries to deflect enquiry about his sexuality.
The peeping critic seems to know more about my
love life than I do myself. Perhaps it is necessary to
inform him that I have not lived without some ex-
perience. And I have never wanted to lie about life,
like the preaching black prudes wrapped up in the
borrowed robes of hypocritical white respectability.
I am entirely unobsessed by sex. (A Long Way pp.
McKay asserts definitively that in this period of his life he was dedicated to becom-
ing a writer, and would not be deterred.
I came out of Russia with my head on my shoulders
and my pen in my pocket and determined to write at
all costs, so long as I had a piece of bread to bite and
a room in which I could think and scribble. And in
ten years I wrote five books and many poems. Per-
haps too many (A Long Way p. 229)
12 THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
Paradoxically the psychohistoriograph of the last eight years of his life reveals little,
except that he became progressively more ill, eventually became a member of the
Roman Catholic Church, and died destitute. It is the paucity of information that gives
us the clue. So many famous black men have died defeated and penurious, embracing
organizations dialectically opposite to their world view and their life-long ideological
position. For most of his life McKay was an avowed agnostic, almost a hard- liner: "But
religion was an obstacle. I did not want to take a backward step in that direction." (A
Long Way p. 332). He was speaking of his experiences in Morocco in the thirties, but
less than ten years later he had turned full circle, and had become a Catholic convert.
Late in the lives of many revolutionary black leaders, the system in which they
struggle eventually overpowered them, forcing them into penury, ill health and a flight
into religion. It is likely that the result of such social stresses eventually forces a state of
clinical depression on the lives of these leaders, leading to dialectic mental conversions,
their destitution and their eventual death.
13. LEST WE FORGET
This construct line, which does not appear on the psychohistoriograph, is the
summation of the life of this great man. To see him entirely as a writer does not reflect
his total gestalt. he must be seen as a black revolutionary deriving his power and energy
from his peasant origins in the hills of Clarendon. His poetry was an instrument of the
militant struggle in which he was engaged. He forces us to place ourselves philosophi-
cally and psychologically in the context of race and class; and he indicates that, like most
Jamaicans, he grew up in the double bind of race and class. He subtly leads us to a
cultural interpretation of life and time, and encourages a dialectical analysis of
causality. He encourages us to apply the principles of liberation which his own and the
collective cultural historical experience of the race dictate the total political and
philosophical message which wasClaude McKay. He was the wise man of the revolution
who held a kind of elixir, the collective social knowledge challenging current epistemol-
Lest we forget, he describes his life, his human frailities, showing us that he had
human emotions and weaknesses which counterpoise the clarity of thought, the remark-
able expression, the depth of insight which his writing embodies.
Becker, C. (1938). "What is Historiography?" American historical Review 44: p. 20-28.
Freud, S. (1956). An Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-Year-Old Boy. Hogarth Press, London-.
Goveia, E.V. (1956). A Study of the Historiography of the British West Indies to the End of the
Nineteenth Century. Institute Panamericano de Geografia e Historia, Mexico.
Hickling, F.W. (1989). "Sociodrama in the Rehabilitation of Chronic Mentally III Patients". Hospital and
Community Psychiatry 40: 402406.
McKay, C. (1953). Selected Poems. Bookman Associates, New York.
McKay, C. (1970) A Long Way from Home. Harcourt Brace & World, New York.
McKay, C. (1979). My Green Hills of Jamaica. Heinemann Educational Books (Caribbean), Kingston.
Mack., J.E. & E.V. Semrad (1967). "Classical Psychoanalysis". A Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry
ed. [Initial(s)] Freedman & Kaplan. Williams and Watkins, Baltimore.
Schneider, K. (1959). Clinical Psychopathology, translated by M. Hamilton. Grune & Stratton, New York.
SONNET FOR CLAUDE McKAY
When young from flame soil, searching north to find
A continent to reap of endless fruit,
You heard your song words flourish in a wind
Of paper praise, you also wept, a severed root.
In tensing hope you showed your shoe-black face
And saw the clouds of promise bend down low.
The rain was white; but still you sought a place
Where island flesh and heat could easy flow.
Morocco, nigger Harlem, black Marseilles -
You found a deep, a dark return of blood
That bled your pen, set hands to strum and play
A song of dancing banjo brotherhood -
So far from home, so very long away,
In a jazz beat, back street African cafe.
BO B STEWART
from Cane Cut (Kingston: Savacou, 1988)
WITH 'BANJO' BY MY BED: BLACK FRENCH WRITERS
READING CLAUDE McKAY
Every historian of Negritude points to the role of Claude McKay when looking at the
influences which converged in Paris between the Wars, and gave birth to a dynamic new
ideology for black writers.1 Cessaire, Damas and Senghor have all paid tribute to
McKay, and a wealth of lesser figures refer to him, re-echoing various images and ideas.
It should be straightforward enough to date French translations of McKay's novels,
and the poems and key passages from Banjo which were featured in little magazines,
but real questions of influence also depend on personal affinities and are seldom easy
to establish. A nostalgic haze has made everything Black prewar quite Beautiful, and
every Left Bank drinking hole and bal negre a high old time. Marcer Cook, who was
there, has warned us not to confuse 'influence with coincidence'.2 A diverse group of
writers, American, Caribbean, African, were affirming black pride and rediscovering a
shared heritage. They promoted distinctive gifts of 'rhythm' and 'soul', a collective
spirit, conscious that in the struggle against past and present exploitation based on race,
culture had a role to play. Once World War II scattered most of the students and artists
concerned, national divergences became clearer, but again in the 1950s Paris became a
centre, and McKay found reads among a new generation of students from Africa and
Claude McKay spent relatively little time continuously in Paris, and though proud of
the success of Banjo may well have been aware until much later that it had achieved
the status of a cult novel or manifesto. He needed the kind of appreciation which
provided daily bread. Material needs kept his feet on the ground, and it is this grasp of
reality, combined with an extraordinary receptivity to all shades of emotional and
sensual experience, which underlies McKay's appeal, and still makes his response to the
black Francophone world worth reading. His sophisticated insight into French colonial
attitudes owed much to his Jamaican origins (it was up at Jekyll's home at Mavis Bank
that he had first begun to study French) but in Europe he was, and still is, more often
identified as an American.
Some key links in the chain of transmission from Harlem Renaissance to Negritude
have been identified: the sociable Martinican sisters, Paulette and Jane Nardal, who
held regular gatherings to welcome back writers and scholars. McKay was responsible
for first bringing along Alain Locke,4 and the French Guianese writer, Goncourt
prize-winner and colonial administrator, Rene Maran. Les continents, which Maran
co-edited with Prince Kojo Tovalou, carried an article by Locke citing McKay's poetry
in 1924,5 and when the Nardal sisters produced their bilingual Revue du Monde noir
(1930-32), they printed two poems in full with translation. In a final article on the
'Awakening of Racial Consciousness' Paulette Nardal invoked the work of McKay and
Langston Hughes, pointing out how black American writers were expressing themsel-
ves without the inferiority complex that inhibited their brothers in the Caribbean.
Until his novel made an impact, McKay typically figured among poets of the Harlem
Renaissance, linked with Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Jean Tommer, et al as a
critic of white racism and exploitation. The ironical 'Spring in Hew Hampshire', or the
stoical pride of 'The White House', which Senghor frequently quoted, supported this
view. While the Harlem poets were mainly known through anthologies, particularly
Alain Locke's rich source-book The New Negro (1925), and in translation, it was
thematic similarities which emerged: the celebration of black music and dance, protest
poetry dealing with segregation and violence, as for example in McKay's 'Negro
For them the dance is the true joy of life (...)
And yet they are outcasts of the earth,
A race oppressed and scorned by ruling man
In contrast, Banjo dealt with race relations within France and the French colonies,
speaking directly and critically to the successful, those scholarship-holders, privileged
and often light-skinned, who frequent the Parisian salons. As a West Indian, McKay
was never tempted to reason in terms of a simplified black/white dichotomy.
It seems as if the translation of Banjo circulated informally before publication in
book form by Rieder (1931), as Marcer Cook writes of the sensation it created one year
after appearing in the U.S. (1929). An extract from the beginning of Chapter XVI was
featured in the militant student pamphlet, Legitime defense (1932), no doubt attracting
additional attention. It is worth lingering over the content of the passage selected. It is
scarcely a discussion, more a harangue by Ray, the black Haitian writer and alter ego of
the author (cf. also Home to Harlem), addressing a 'Negro student from Martinique'.
The fellow displays all the prejudices of the insecure mulatto, despising the Senegalese
(a blanket term for West Africans) as savages, but proud of that reactionary white
Creole, Napoleon's Empress Josephine. Ray takes him to task as one of the lost blacks,
brainwashed by their education. He reminds him that the true racial renaissance will be
achieved by 'getting down to our native roots and building up from our own people'.
Though sarcastic about 'mixed-bloods', Ray suggests a range of cultural resources: Irish
and Russian literature, Gandhi's philosophy, indigenous African languages. the return
to roots is not to be exclusive or blinkered but will draw nourishment from many
sources, guided by faith in the vigour and potential of the proletariat. The radical nature
of this challenge can hardly be exaggerated. Despite May 1968 and endemic student
protest, French intellectual discourse remains hierarchical and elitist in its assumptions,
the slippery glass pyramid of the Louvre its fitting symbol. With his Caribbean sen-
sitivity to class and colour, McKay is trying to invert the structure, to show his readers
that the coloniser's myth of cultural superiority has been used to divide Antillais from
Africans, inciting them to jostle up the ladder to the purest French, the lightest skin, the
most perfect assimilation into, if not rebirth in the likeness of, the Parisian archetype.
He is well aware of the political usefulness for France of using Caribbean ad-
ministrators in African colonies who do not identify with the "subject" races. Ray's
sermon to the alienated student is charged with McKay's own distrust for chauvinistic
French culture and his generous idealism. However, it should not be assumed that it was
only as a novel of ideas that Banjo made an Impact. The joyful scenes celebrating music
and dance: 'Ho! Secouez Qa!', helped legitimate the equation 'I am black therefore I
dance', the sketches of the Old Port of Marseille, the solidarity of its poor blacks (shown
for example at Bugsy's funeral, p. 260), the scrapes, the moral values (Latnah) became
as much of a classic warm-hearted portrait of this cosmopolitan milieu as did Marcel
Pagnol's 'Marius' trilogy for the native French.
Of the three founding fathers of the Negritude movement, Leopold Sedar Senghor,
the doyen, frequently quoted McKay. A typical example would be his concluding
quotation from Banjo to an audience at the Dakar Foyer France-Senegal in 1937,
reminding them that an authentic culture must be constructed from their African roots:
quite a revolutionary message in that place and time.7 In this earlier period he used
McKay and Harlem poets as evidence of the potential or a consciously black literature,
and has not failed since, in typical schoolmasterly style, to acknowledge what negritude
owed to Afro-American sources. His own poetic expression draws on images current in
the work of several poets featured in the New Negro anthology, including the antithesis
between the harsh mineral technology of white civilisation and the vitality and warmth
of black spirituality. A Senghor poem like 'A New York', a favourite of Edward Kamau
Brathwaite, may well owe something to McKay's vision of the hostile power of the
Cesaire too absorbed this climate of ideas, with its key metaphoric polarities and
emphatic assertions of the black man's privileged harmony with the natural world. But
equally he perceived that the claim for a specific black cultural birthright must be
accompanied by the demand for equal respect and equal rights. After composing a
research paper on the 'Theme of the South in the Negro-American literature of the
United States' in his final year at the Ecole Normale Superieure, he developed his ideas
in a much more significant context, Tropiques, a literary magazine he and Rene Menil
founded in Martinique during the Occupation of the island by pro-Nazi forces. By
describing the role of the black American poet in fighting white oppression, he could
issue a coded summons to Martinican intellectuals to identify with their own humiliated
people instead of yearning after Parisian recognition.9 Cesaire also praised Banjo for
creating a hero out of the 'ordinary Negro (...) drawn seriously and passionately', a
contribution to the project of replacing ludicrous stereotypes of the "exotic" with
authentic portraits of black experience.10
Nevertheless, however, much Senghor and Cesaire admired the poetry of McKay
and others, and drew inspiration from Banjo, the influence appears to have been more
theoretical than personal. their outstanding academic successes and leadership roles
tended to bring them increasingly into contact with French social and political elites,
whereas Leon Damas remained a more marginal figure, closer in temperament and
life-style to McKay. In his formative pre-war years, Damas moved between worlds
belonging to none, and when his family cut off his funds, knew a hand-to-mouth
existence in Paris of dead-end jobs relieved by wild sprees.
Damas used some lines from McKay's poem 'To The White Fiends' as epigraph for
his Pigments (1937), presenting forcefully his poetic persona as '... hot jazz, the collec-
tions of the Museum of Ethnography and the Negro writers (Claude Mactay (sic),
Langston Hughes and Alain Locke) have taught him the role and mission of his race'.12
Several concerns important to McKay surface in Damas's poetry: his best-known
poem, the dramatic monologue, 'Hoquet' (Hiccup), sums up a world of colour dis-
crimination in its punch line,13 recalling McKay's suspicious scorn for 'yaller niggers'
who divide the race by their class pretensions. We can surely read a clear allusion to
McKay in the little boy's demand for a banjo instead of piano lessons, especially as the
hero of one of Damas's rewritten folktales in Veillees noires is 'Cockroach-Guitar', a
vagabond musician much in demand for his irresistible rhythms. The title of another
early poem, 'Solde', picks up McKay's image of 'reach-me-down' Negro education:
'When the whites move out, we move in and take possession of the old dead stuff.'14
Damas wittily develops from mockery of alien formal clothes and behaviour to a harsh
critique of the hypocritical and violently repressive civilisationn' whose accomplice he
must become in the nhme of assimilation. The emblematic figure of the truant, the
wandering bad boy, haunts Damas's writing, a self-image in several of the Pigments, and
strong in the boozy extended poem, Black-Label. bamas shares the rueful lucidity of
McKay's hero Barclay in the story, 'Truant': a restless yearning for 'eternal inquietude',
even at the expense of home and security, but linked, as in McKay, to the demoralising
'great tradition of black servitude' which deprived most black breadwinners of
worthwhile employment, the analogy might be pursued: both writers became per-
manent exiles, exploring life through people and diverse places, rather than committing
themselves to one community, leaving a strongly self-centred body of work which yet
gave a sense of promise not wholly fulfilled. Both viewed with sharp insight and pungent
observation the social and psychological absurdities of racist thinking.
In poetic form Damas gave an important place to rhythm, more in the manner of
Langston Hughes than McKay, but he was alone among the first generation of
Negritude writers in writing poetry that was direct, slangy, accessible to the ordinary
reader, better performed than read on the page. He took his poetic cues from the blues
poets, but the prose of Banjo was also liberating, in the risks taken with jazz effects,
free-wheeling textual excitement not correctness and good taste.
McKay was jubilant to see a bookseller's window full of copies of Banjo on the
Avenue de l'Opera, and it is undoubtedly this work which has been most influential in
the Francophone world. Read as a source book for arguments against assimilation, as a
plea for mutual respect between blacks from Africa and the diaspora, or simply as a
rueful warm-hearted 'story without a plot', its impact extended well beyond the trio of
founders of Negritude.
Especially in the postwar period, when the Societe Africaine de Culture organised
lectures and two seminal congresses, when Presence africaine began publication, McKay
was again an obvious point of reference. For example, Guy Trirolien (1917-1988), a
Guadeloupean writer whose gentle talent was always ready to absorb the candences of
others, summons up strength by this association:
the voice of Cesaire and McKay
of Robeson and Guillen
will be stronger than your pride
higher than your skyscrapers
for it springs from the dark womb of suffering
The collection, Balles d'or (1961), explores typical Negritude topics in poems like
'Satchmo', 'Amerique', 'Black Beauty', though probably Senghor was to some extent an
intermediary (they were together in a German Stalag after the fall of France in 1940).
Tirolien himself later worked as an administrator in Africa, and in Feuilles vivantes au
matin (1977) comments with perceptive tolerance on social situations: racial dogmatism
has become for him a source of wasted potential, and he spent his last years sagely in his
Joseph Zobel, now widely known through Euzhan Palcy's appealing film version of
his semi-autobiographical novel, La Rue Cases-Negres, also belongs to the generation
influenced by McKay. though his hero Jose becomes a scholarship boy at the prestigious
Lycee Schoelcher, he is by no means co-opted into the Martinican ruling class, and
spends his evenings with the chauffeur Carmen, newly literate thanks to his young friend
and a passionate reader: 'He liked Balzac, Gorki, Tolstoy ... But the day I had him read
Banjo, by Claude McKay, he was beside himself with joy'.17 The less well-known sequel
to La rue Cases-Negres, initially entitled La fete a Paris (1953), and slightly revised as
Quand la neige aura fondu shows an influence from Banjo. Zobel takes care to stage-
manage debates between blacks of different origins, and reacts against the ignorant
scorn many West Indians displayed towards Africans. A scene where Jose comes face
to face with the first real African he has met betrays a touchingly clumsy idolatry:
'Ousmane Diop, standing in his dressing-gown of garnet-red with yellow edging, had the
hieratic beauty of a totem in the centre of the village'.18 Zobel conveys a sense of Paris
as a focal meeting point for blacks but his characters remain wooden, pegs on which to
hang attitudes to race. As is unfortunately the way with sequels, he fails to recapture the
intensely felt world of La rue Cases-Negres.
Among other novels composed by black students in Paris in the 1950's, in what
Merle Hodge calls the "Banjo cycle'"9, there is Ousmane Soce's Mirages de Paris (1955).
Soce highlights the obligatory presence of a copy of Banjo on the bookshelf of every
conscious black student at this time. But the author and film-maker who commands
most interest was largely self-taught, the Senegales Sembene Ousmane, whose prestige
in French-speaking Africa today is comparable to that of Soyinka or Ngugi. His first
novel, Le Docker noir2, set in Marseille, powerfully summons up the spirit of McKay:
the hero Diaw Falla is a docker immersed in the black community of the port, yet
striving to become a writer. Uncompromising in its concern to articulate a protest
against exploitation of black by white (Diaw's book on black history is published as her
own by a white writer, the brutal conditions for dock labour are detailed), the novel by
no means condones inter-ethnic hostility and patriarchal oppression of black by black.
Diaw, condemned to hard labour for life, becomes an exemplary sacrifice to a colonial
power whose justice is corrupted by racism. Stiffer and more sombre than Banjo, at
times melodramatic, this novel returns to McKay's 'Ditch' to comment on the interlock-
ing economic and ideological system through which colonialism denies humanity to its
victims. Sembene Ousmane has increasingly used the medium of film in order to reach
a wide public, but this early novel, published at his own expense and full of echoes of his
reading (Zola and Camus as well as McKay) already shows his stature: a rare blend of
dignified critical thinking and warmth of response.
The example of Sembene Ousmane incites the critic to daydream alive today
Claude McKay would surely have developed his interest in film beyond script reading
and crowd scenes for Rex Ingram Banjo as a great jazz movie? Bita Plant walking
again through the luxuriant green of Banana Bottom?
McKay's strength was his receptivity, to mood and moment, to writing from many
different sources, to the diversity as well as to the vital solidarities of the black world. If
he influenced many of those who has passed through the French educational system, it
may be because he evaluated with a keen mind its strengths and weaknesses. His letters
to William Bradley suggest a critical distance. Paris served him as a port of call on the
way from Moscow to North Africa, from Brittany or Spain, it was never the lodestar of
all intellectual activity. He relished the mordant wit of Voltaire, the work of Gide and
Maupassant, but saw the limitations of a literary culture which required subservience to
its norms of refinement, which, even while proclaiming Revolutionary ideals, sought to
impose its own intellectual mould. Not for him the straitjacket of the professional
A word finally on the question of translation, so far it has been too easily assumed
that on both sides of the Atlantic a unitary discourse labelled McKay was received and
proved a stimulating influence. The most alert of current critics warn us against such
simplifications. Michael Dash has shown how a Haitian translator like Rene Piquion
selectively heightened the impact of Harlem poets, including McKay, in accordance
with his own emphatically black agenda.21 Similarly Michael Fabre points to the unmis-
takeable shift of emphasis involved when for example McKay's 'people' is translated as
classese ouvriere' (working class), and the homespun 'folks' politicised to 'the people'.22
Whether translators or readers and whatever our first language, we are all reconstruct-
ing a personal version of Claude McKay. It is certain that Banjo had a powerful appeal
for blacks resisting French assimilation, but, like all McKay's best work, it also speaks to
any reader trying to find the 'spiritual passion and pride to be his human self in an
inhumanly alien world'.23
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. See for example Lilyan Kesteloot Les escrlvalns nolrs de langue francalse, Brussels: Universite Libre,
1965, especially Chapter V. Available in translation Temple U.P. 1974. The author collected valuable tes-
timony on the enduring impact of Banjo (interviews c. 1959). Also, more simplistically, Julio Finn Voices
of Negrilude, London: Quartet Books, 1988.
2. Mercer Cook 'Some Literary Contacts: African, West Indian, Afro-American' in Lloyd Brown ed. The
Black Writer In Africa and The Americas, Los Angeles: Hennessy & Ingalls, 1973, p. 119.
3. See A Long Way From Home, New York: Harcourt Brace, 1970, Chapter VI, but note Wayne Cooper's
view that 'Even as late as 1937, he probably had little idea of the influence he had exerted upon the
development of black French literature'.
4. Wayne F. Cooper Claude McKay, Louisiana State U.P., 1987, p. 215.
5. For all the contacts and publications in this period Michael Fabre's La Rive noire: De Harlem a la Seine
(Paris: Lieu Commun, 1985) is an invaluable guide. Chapter IV deals with McKay, the 'well-informed
6. See Eloise Briere 'Senghor et I'Amerique' in Sud, 17e an, 1987, papers of L.S. Senghor Colloque, Cerisy,
7. Text of the lecture in L.S. Senghor Liberte I: Negrltude et Humanisme, Paris: Seuil, 1964.
8. L.S. Senghor Poemes, Paris: Seuil, 1973, pp. 113-5. Brathwaite made a point of introducing the work of
Negritude poets to Caribbean students in the 1960s.
9. Kesteloot, p. 225.
10. Kesteloot, p. 80 ff. based on Troplques, 1941.
11. Extracted with an extra syllable on 'Afric' which mangles the metre. Cf. Selected Poems, p. 38.
12. Esprlt, 2e an, Nos. 23-4, 1934, p. 705. Note Christophe Dailly 'Leon Damas et al Negro-Renaissance,
Presence africalne, No. 112 (1979).
13. On this poem see R. Burton 'My Mother Who Fathered Me: "Hoquet" by Leon Damas', Journal of
West Indian Literature, Vol. 4, No. 1, January 1990, pp. 14-27.
14. Home to Harlem, New York: harper Brothers, 1928, p. 243.
15. 'Amerique', Balles d'or, Paris: Presence africaine, 1977, p. 69.
16. Guy TIrollen, de Marle-Galante a une poetique afro-antillalse, Paris: Editions Caribeennes/GEREF,
1990 (interviews ed. M. Tetu).
17. Quoted from the translation published as Black Shack Alley, London: Heinemann, 1980, p. 167.
18. Passage as translated in Merle Hodge's seminar paper 'Novels on the French Caribbean Intellectual in
France', Mona, 1975.
19.1bld, p. 11.
20. Paris: Presence africaine, 1973 (first published Editions Debresse, 1956). Available in translation as
Black Docker, Heinemann.
21. J. Michael Dash Haiti and the United States: National Stereotypes and the Literary Imagination, Lon-
don: Macmillan, 1988, p. 67.
22. Fabre Rive noire, p. 110.
23. Barnjo, p. 322.
"ONLY A NIGGER GAL!": RACE, GENDER AND THE POLITICS OF
EDUCATION IN CLAUDE McKAY'S BANANA BOTTOM1
A recurring fairy-tale motif in Afro-Jamaican folk culture is the persistent belief in
the instrumentality of book learning as an engine of upward social mobility. The
trajectory of the narrative of progress requires the "happy ending" of comic closure: the
miraculous reversal of fortune of a promising, poor, black character, who is rescued
from the unbiguitous threat of social disgrace by the redemptive power of formal
education. The classic literary treatment of the theme and its subversion is Trevor
Rhone's archetypal drama, Old Story Time, in which the countervailing folk belief in the
efficacy of obeah decidedly asserts itself.2
For girls it is usually blighting early pregnancy that seals their fate; for boys it is the
nonspecific threat of not "getting anywhere" in life becoming the rural small-scale
cultivator or worse, the urban "casual labourer of no fixed address" that the petty
criminal is so often defined as by the legal system. In the case of girls, this myth of
upward social mobility via education manifests itself at a very basic level as the
Cinderella "schoolgirl" syndrome: a class-focused pattern of rural/urban drift of poor
female relations to their somewhat more affluent relatives or family friends in
prosperous town or "in foreign." For boys, it is the assumption of "yard-boy" status at
one remove from the intimacy of the household, as in Michael Thelwell's The Harder
They Come. But the promise of mutual support in the extended family education in
exchange for domestic/yard work can degenerate into the active exploitation of the
powerless orphan-servant by the adoptive parent.
A racially constructed version of the more usual, class-based myth depends on the
mediation of a rich, white, and not entirely disinterested benefactor, and role model, in
the transformation process: the fairy godperson. Since racial mutation into the fullness
of whiteness is usually impossible (though there are cases of "passing", for example Ella
in Erna Brodber's Myal), a change of class, and with it increased social status, is often
the optimum good. In Claude McKay's Banana Bottom this pervasive myth of increased
social mobility by means of formal education is most melodramatically subverted in the
case of Herald Newton Day who literally "descend[s] from the dizzy heights of holiness
to the very bottom of the beast"4:
The rumour ran through the region that Herald
Newton Day had suddenly turned crazy and defiled
himself with a nanny goat. Consternation fell upon
that sweet rustic scene like a lightning ball of
destruction. And there was confusion among those
hill folk, which no ray of understanding could
penetrate. They were of one accord that only the
mighty African power of Evil could have spirited
Herald Newton Day away from his sermon and his
God, by the back premises of the teacher's cottage,
through the sweet-scented rose-apples and down to
the deep ferny gully to the tethered goat that was
feeding in the garden of Sister Kanah Christy. (p.
Day's improper path to the anarchistic garden leads him past the back premises of
the teacher's cottage into the animal delight of the deep fern gully.
Despite the best civilizing efforts of his English mentors, the Reverends Malcolm
and Priscilla Craig, the new day of promise that is heralded does not dawn, the strain of
the high calling to the ministry and the demands of its rigorous rhetorical language
cause Day's precipitous collapse. Indeed, he falls into the belly of the beast on the very
Sunday morning that he had planned to take Banana Bottom by storm with a sermon to
end all sermons:
Herald Newton worked carefully over his words
elaborating his sentences, rolling them along his
tongue, fixing them in paragraphs, pulling them out
and rearranging, going over each again and again
until he felt that he had not only found a perfect
sermon but that he had found the Perfect Way. (p.
His slippery slide from grace into "slackness"5 is foreshadowed in the excess of his
perfectionist aspirations, and especially in that overweening pride which precedes the
He possessed a good clear voice and used it effec-
tively, for the people listened eagerly, apparently
satisfied with his deliverance, but to the critical ear
there was a sound of too much oil on his tongue like
a person who was full of self-satisfaction and, con-
sidering his youth, on too intimate terms with God.
Day, perceived by the sympathetic villagers as a sacrificial victim to the power of
Obi, is spirited away to Panama, "the big hope of the poor disinherited peasant youths
of Jamaica and all those islands of the Caribbean Belt" (p. 293); the incident is
understood and fatalistically accepted as a kind of inevitable natural disaster:
God and Obi. Simply believing in life and magic,
they could reconcile any destiny of man with the
world of nature: destructive hurricanes,
earthquakes, drought and devastating floods. Grim-
ly they bowed under the inevitable and after the
passing of the dire episode or cruel calamity, they
bent themselves again with dark tenacity to the ever-
lasting tilling of the soil. (p. 176).
The story of Bita Plant, the central character of the novel, is a much more subtle
re-statement of the sting in the tale of Day's body/mind split: how to reconcile apparent-
ly conflicting goods the desirable material and intellectual benefits of formal educa-
tion balanced against the consequent devaluation of the distinctive pleasures of familiar
peasant life. Day's demise partially resolves Bita's own heightening sense of crisis, both
symbolically and practically. He was the intended husband selected by their mutual
benefactors; their marriage would have marked the fulfillment of the Craigs' ambitions
for their adopted children. Bita clearly understands what is expected of her:
It had never been lost upon her, from the time that
the Craigs adopted her after the rape, that she was
the subject of an experiment, and as she grew in
understanding she had voluntarily conceded herself
as one does to a mesmerist. Neither had she ever
been blind to the advantages of it as compared with
her peasant heritage. She had never had any anxiety,
never had. to think about the future. And now to
prolong that state indefinitely and for ever she had
simply to go straight through the motions of com-
pliance with automatic gestures in harmony with the
decorous righteousness of the mission life. Her title
essays at independence and the resultant passages
with Prisicilla Craig had indicated clearly the way
she would have to go if she were to reap the ripe
benefits of that experiment. (pp. 110-11).
The image of mesmerismm" reconnects Bita with the culture of obeah from which
she has been weaned. Indeed, the Craigs' adoption of her is a form of spirit thievery, in
the terms of Brodber's Myal, and their spirit must be exercised, at least in part, if she is
to achieve a measure of autonomy. So her body revolts:
But a moment of contact with Herald Newton and
her physical self recoiled from, as much as the
spiritual rebelled against, him. She longed to be free
from the irritation of his presence, so that she could
push the eventuality of their union far out of her
mind and then play without effort at the makebelief
of being engaged. But he was so inevitable. Always
intrusive and entirely lacking in intuition. She felt
that if she had to bear always that constant contact
she might just break out one day with something that
would destroy irreparably the whole fabric of the
plan that had been carefully charted for her. (p.
Fortunately for her, Herald Newton Day breaks out first. Her recall from him is an
incipient revolt against the constraints of mission life which she is not yet able to
acknowledge openly. So she hides behind the masquerade of role play. But her revolt is
also more generally against the domestic containment and pious respectability of white,
middle-class marriage itself, not just Day. The theme of mergent black feminism,
organically connected to the reassertion of afro-centric folk values, is an important
ideological development in the novel.
The "rape" of Bita is the central figure in the pattern of the drama, encoding
overlapping and somewhat divergent ideological positions the folk and the feminist,
the native and the foreign, the oral and the scribal. In contemporary feminist imagery
rape embodies the violent subjection of the body of woman to the inscribing pen/is; it is
a literal disfiguring of the female text on which is written the penetrating discourse of
patriarchal authority. Mrs. Craig, described as "something of a feminist ... [who] sym-
pathized with the movement and subscribed to its literature," (p. 27) shares the spirit, if
not the language, of contemporary reading of rape. In a quaintly racist way, her analysis
does take into account the specific racial and cultural overtones of Bita's predicament,
a subtlety that is sometimes lost in the purely gendered critique of some white
"Sex was approached too easily .... It wasn't be-
cause these people were oversexed, but simply be-
cause they seemed to lack that check and control
that was supposed to be distinguishing of humanity
of a higher and more complex social order and that
they were apparently incapable of comprehending
the opprobium of breeding bastards in a Christian
community" (p. 16).
The laxity of this folk attitude to sexuality is articulated in the person of Sister Phibby
who "combined with her efficiency as midwife had the reputation of being preeminently
the village looselip" (p. 10). Her tolerance of slackness both sexual and verbal is evident
in her pragmatic, long-term view of the rape and her glee in the telling:
So Sister Phibby told the tale to Priscilla Craig. And
although she thought it was a sad thing as a good
Christian should, her wide brown face betrayed a
kind of primitive satisfaction as in a good thing done
early. Not so that of Priscilla Craig's. It was a face
full of high-class anxiety, a face that generations
upon generations of Northern training in reserve,
restraint and Christian righteousness had gone to
cultivate, a face fascinating in its thin benevolent
austerity. (p. 16).
The contrast in the two women's reading of thefigura of rape is vividly imaged in the
figure of the face as open book.
Further, the circumstances surrounding the "rape" are quite ambiguous, illustrating
not only the vulnerability of the peasantry in its upward social climb but also its
resilience in accepting with equanimity the twists and turns of mis-fortune. For Crazy
Bow, the "rapist," is himself a victim. Like Thelwell's Mad Isaac of The Harder They
Come, whom he prefigures, and Herald Newton Day. Crazy Bow collapses under the
strain of education beyond his community. Unlike Day who can no longer be accom-
modated within his own society, both Mad Isaac and Crazy Bow come to fulfil useful
roles as visionaries in their peasant community: Mad Isaac can "see" spirits; Crazy Bow
is an inspired musician. Genius is a familiar madness. Indeed, Bita is quite innocently
seduced into a "good thing" in Sister Phibby's terms by Crazy Bow's bewitching
Crazy Bow took up his fiddle, and sitting under a low
and shady guava tree he began to play. He played a
sweet tea-meeting love song. And as he played Bita
went creeping upon her hands and feet up the slope
to him and listened in the attitude of a bewitched
And when he had finished she clambered upon
him again and began kissing his face. Crazy Bow
tried to push her off. But Bita hugged and clung to
him passionately. Crazy Bow was blinded by tempta-
tion and lost control of himself and the deed was
done. (pp. 9-10).
Bita's innocent act of passionate self-exposure and Sister Phibby's "primitive satis-
faction" with the doing are vindicated by the unanimously envious response of the
community when Bita is adopted by the Craigs and later sent to be educated in England,
instead of merely going off in disgrace to relatives in Kingston, as her father had
Bita going abroad. The peasants were stunned by
the news and gossiped about nothing else. And there
was not a dark family in Banana Bottom and that
gorgeous stretch of tropical country that did not
wish one of their children had been in Bita's shoes
and had been instead the victim of Crazy Bow.
And the song was remembered in the hills again, but with honour to Bita.
'You may wrap up in silk,
You may trim her up with gold,
And the prince may come after
To ask for your daughter,
But Crazy Bow was first.' (pp. 29-30).
The cunning Jamaican proverb "every disappointment is for a blessing" verbalizes
the villagers' opportunistic sense of fate; they readily acknowledge the potential for
good that can arise out of direct evil. By contrast, outsiders like Mrs. Craig and Squire
Gensir, however liberal, tend to have a more straightforward view of these puzzling
Somewhat like Mrs. Craig, whose austere benevolence and rigid propriety are
satirized throughout the novel, Squire Gensir, a generally positive symbol of benign
tolerance, is diminished by McKay's gentle irony. The Squire, apparently modelled on
McKay's own mentor, Walter Jekyll, is an amateur anthropologist, made childshly
happy by his documentation of preoccupations in one sentence: "The peasants were his
hobby." (71) Despite his erudition and good intentions,Squire Gensir is unable to fully
understand the peasants' accommodative world view their simple acceptance of Day's
misfortune which is so similar in nature to Bita's. McKay's satire becomes more
But for Squire Gensir the thing was not so simple to
accept and understand. Being an enthusiast of the
simple life, he was like many enthusiasts, apt to un-
derestimate the underlying contradictions that may
inhere in his more preferable way of life. In spite of
the broad bases of his high erudition it was easy for
him to be puzzled by singular deviations from the
common and regular procession of daily living
around him, where an ignorant person (but who was
nevertheless in whole contact with life) might have
been aware. (p. 176).
Banana Bottom is structured oqn a number of seeming contradictions: erudition/ig-
norance, civilization/savagery, fragmentation/wholeness, foreign/native. When Marse
Arthur, "bastard near-white son of a wealthy country gentleman, enjoying all the local
privileges of his birth and position" (p. 264) attempts to foist himself on the adult Bita
in a truly perverse replay of the innocent "rape", the possibility of abuse seems to be
downplayed by the omniscient narrator:
Cases of adult rape were of rare occurrence in the colony and when they occurred
they were mainly among the English soldiers stationed inland far from the city a group
of them sometimes intimidating a peasant woman upon the lonely country road and
taking her into the bush.
But incidents similar to the encounter between
marse Arthur and Bita were frequent enough among
the young country folk and did not create any senti-
ment of popular disapproval. For it was not con-
sidered an unusual practice for a black rustic to
accost a maid and force her to love if he could. Many
a love match had begun that way, some ending in a
happy union. (pp. 263-4).
The narrator's contextualizing of the near-rape underscores the inherent difficulties
of imposing a single meaning on a set of complex cultural circumstances. But not all
readers will share the apparently complacent ambiguity of the narrator's construction
of this potentially rapacious confrontation, for "near-white" Marse Arthur shares the
gender, class and race privileges of the English soldiers: a natural right to the body of
the peasant woman. In a parodic inversion of the chivalric knight's defence of his
honour and his lady, Arthur plays the game of not so courtly bush love by the only rules
he knows, persuasive brute force:
Baffled by Bita's fencing, Marse Arthur was never-
theless undismayed and sharp with eagerness and as
they arrived at a point near the Cane River where
the path went deep down between high banks, he
grabbed Bita firmly by the breast, pressing her
against the bank and tried to kiss her. the sensation
of his fingers like claws closing upon her teats had
the opposite effect of what Marse Arthur expected.
It was a trick he had tried upon apparently reluctant
Ginger-town girls who had finally yielded. But it only
infuriated Bita. She would not let him have her
mouth, but kept turning her head, foiling his every
attempt and one moment it caught him violently
under the chin and his tongue was caught by his
teeth. (p. 262).
Voracious Arthur is forced to surrender: excalibur nipped in the bud(dy).5
The Arthur/Bita conformation thus becomes more than a covert love meeting
between an accosting black rustic and a coyly unwilling maid. It tests the precariousness
of Bita's own privilege as an educated Black woman in early twentieth-century Jamaica.
It foregrounds the varying values of gender, colour and class in the social equations of a
colonial society. Indeed, uneducated Marse Arthur is more of a "native" than Bita: "He
had only the rudiments of learning as he had shown an early aversion to books, which
neither public nor private teachers had been able to overcome, and he was more himself
and at ease speaking the Negro dialect than cultivated English" (p. 261). But other
factors speak more loudly than book-learning. Offended by Bita's biting rejection,
Arthur retaliates derisively:
'Be demned wid you!' he cried, releasing Bita with a
push. 'Wha' de hell you putting on style. You ought
to feel proud a gen'man like me want fer kiss you
when youse only a black gal.'
'But this is a different black girl, you disgusting pole-
'Diffran'! sneered Marse Arthur. 'S'pose you t'ink's
a blarsted big difference becaz youse ejicated. T'ink
youse as good as Lady -.* But fer all you ejication
an' putting on you nuttin' more'n a nigger gal.'
*The Governor's wife. (p. 262)
Bita's private response to this disturbing taunt is an act of auto-eroticism that
perfectly mirrors and parodies the male gaze. She is both subject and object of the text
she now writes on her own body, effacing the multiple scars of the near-rape:
'Only a nigger gal!' She undressed and looked at her
body in the long mirror of the old-fashioned
wardrobe. She caressed her breasts like maturing
pomegranates, her skin firm and smooth like the
sheath of a blossoming banana, her luxuriant hair,
close-curling like thick fibrous roots, gazed at her
own warm-brown eyes, the infallible indicators of
real human beauty.
Only a nigger gal!' Ah, but she was proud of being a
Negro girl. And no sneer, no sarcasm, no banal
ridicule of a ridiculous world could destroy her con-
fidence and pride in herself and make her ashamed
of that fine body that was the temple of her high
spirit. For she knew that she was a worthy human
being. She knew that she was beautiful. (p. 266).
The naturalistic sexual imagery of the first paragraph, with its indigenized echoes of
The Song of Solomon, modulates into the more mechanical moralizing of the second.
The high spiritual architecture of the biblical metaphor of the body as temple of the
living god is "defiled" by the bodily construction of Bita's spiritual identity. If the body
of woman, distorted in the image of a conventionally masculinized god, is up for grabs,
then that of the Black woman is even more so. The splendid eroticism of the naked Bita,
held up to the reader's gaze as she thoughtfully analyzes the consoling poetry of William
Blake, is one of the great moments of black feminist literary criticism. Bita's rereading
of her own body is mirrored in her deconstruction of Blake's "The Little Black Boy":
The black woman as object of her gaze, reviewing the representation of the black
subject (i.e. male) in the great, white patriarchal tradition, concluding that the poetry is
"splendid" (p. 268), though ideologically flawed. Blake, Shakespeare and Beethoven,
on whom Bita muses, represent the andro/eurocentric intellectual tradition from which
she, as Black Woman, is doubly alienated and to which she is fatally drawn.
The doubtful consolation that the educated Bita gets from Blake's poetry cannot
fully sooth the sting of Marse Arthur's jibe. She is a "nigger gal" and must work hard to
rationalize/stroke out the "only". It is in the folk wisdom that learns how to "tek bad tings
mek joke" that Bita finds sweet release in orgasmic laughter:
The constant image of the ugly little thing so insig-
nificant and yet so insistent brought sharply home to
Bita the sense and humour of the ridiculous in all
things and she exploded with laughter, loud, lilting,
riotous shaking, rustic black laughter until the little
thing was frightened, fits of laughter, gales and tor-
rents and storms of laughter until it was scared and
vanished to hell away. (p. 269).
The incident thus comes to a fulfilling, self-centred climax, the antithesis of the
Diametrically opposed to Marse Arthur is Jubban, who works as drayman in the
Plant household. Jubban, named for that healing plant of Jamaican folk medicine, is
presented as an exemplary character, embodying all the virtues of Afro-Jamaican
culture. It is Jubban who rescues Bita from Arthur's unwanted advances; it is also he
who saves her when she is almost possessed by the spirit in an excess of emotional zeal
during a Revival meeting. This act humanizes him in her eyes, transforming him from
anonymous labourer, "an outsider who worked for her father," to "a responsible person
in the family" (p. 252). A natural sympathy develops between them, which gradually
blossoms into sexual love. It is entirely appropriate that Jubban stakes his claim to Bita
in the context of a tea-meeting, that folk festivity at which the ritual unveiling of the
"queen" allows a man to purchase favours that he would not ordinarily enjoy7:
Many sixpences and shillings were placed in the
pewter plate upon the table at the door of the
queen's boudoir. But only one person dared the
price of a queen's kiss. And when Miss Delminto
learned who it was she proposed to Bita the substitu-
tion of another girl in her place. But Bita replied that
the person who had put down that amount to kiss the
queen ought to have the real one. She suspected that
the person knew who the queen was and she herself
was filled with curiosity.
When Bita saw Jubban appear in the plaited palm
arch of the boudoir she was all a trembling piece of
excitement. Jubban marched determinedly towards
his desire, the veil was lifted, Bita gave him her
mouth, and he planted a sweet kiss in it. (pp. 276-7).
Bita comes full circle back to the bosom of the folk; back to Banana Bottom. But she
makes detours along the way. Herald Newton Day is a cul-de-sac;7 Day's successor, the
super-sexed Hopping Dick, is the object of Mrs. Craig's decision: "A low peacock,' said
Mrs. Craig 'who murders his h's and altogether speaks in such a vile manner and you
an educated girl highly educated."' (p. 210) Dick and Day pull Bita in opposite
directions: body versus mind. Just as Day represents the failure of the bookish
peasantry to satisfy basic sexual needs appropriately, Dick embodies undomesticated
sexuality, averse to the social controls of middle-class respectability in marriage. Bita
falls under Hopping Dick's spell on her way from the market, that cultural crossroads
which functions as social leveller. Her response to the exoticism of the local market and
Hopping Dick is purely sensual:
The noises of the market were sweeter in her ears
than a symphony. Accents and rhythms, movements
and colours, nuances that might have passed un-
noticed if she had never gone away, were now
revealed to her in all their striking detail. And of the
foodstuff on view she felt an impulse to touch and
fondle a thousand times more than she wanted to
buy. (p. 41).
Bita has to be rescued from her infatuation with the flighty Hopping Dick. In an act
of "devilish ingenuity" (p. 225), Anty Nonny, with typical peasant cunning, collaborates
with the Craigs to engineer the elimination of Hopping Dick as a serious candidate for
marriage to Bita:
'Well, ah waiting on you to declare you'se'f, said
Me!' replied Hopping Dick. 'Ah couldn't think
'bouten marrying anybody when ah doan' have
nuttin'. (p. 224).
The aggravating Tack Tally is not at all a serious diversion. He exemplifies the ever
optimistic Jamaican male who feels that no woman is beyond him, whatever her "sta-
tion". In the words of one of the group of men in a grog shop who are assessing Hopping
Dick's chances with Bita:
'An' when a man tell you him is gwine mek a woman
doan' you start a-cryin' him down an' say him cyant,
because de woman is high up an' stylish an' nice-
speakin' an all. Fer de leetlest thing can mek a
woman fall, when a man can get away wid 'most
anything an' still stand 'pon his feet.' (p. 107).
Tack Tally, having snatched Bita's clothes which she had shed for a swim in the river,
is offended by her sharp response to his "little plesantry". His subsequent letter of
mixed "apolojoys" sends Bita (and the reader) into fits of laughter:
I beg to apolojoys for trying to mek a little plesantry
wid you as a genelman and you not a lady as big to
appreciate it. i not jest a fuul country naygur not
know nothing, but I is a pusson travelled far abroad
jest lak yousef an I is acquented wid all the etykwets.
Thas why I wait until you was all alone by yousef to
get a good introduction to you. I is sorry you did tek
it in sech a bad way and insult me lak a dawg but I is
willing to forgive you and even be a frien to you ef
you will tek that back. And ef you apreachiate frien-
ship between female and male I doan want to praise
meself too much but I doan tink you can fine a finer
pusson than me in Banana Bottom. I nebber tek an
insult lying down from nobody not eben a woman,
but you is one lady a man will tek almost anything
from. But ef it will pleas you to say I was sorry and
tink better of me I can fget eberyting an as I put my
pen down after writing this apolojoys I hope you feel
lak taking your pen up in response to send an
apolojoys to Yours Afeckshunly
Tack Tally. (p. 13).
McKay's replanting of Bita in Banana Bottom marks the resolution of the central
ideological conflict of the novel: the peaks of European education its literature, music,
religion and art versus the bottom side perspective of rural Jamaican peasant culture.
Crazy Bow and Newton Day are the starkest examples in the novel of the failure of the
local educational system to mediate between these often competing discourses. Conver-
sely, Bita, having developed her powers of discrimination through formal education
abroad, learns to accommodate the multiple forces that have shaped her sense of self:
every disappointment is for a blessing. she is not seduced into self-hate by her education
in England; she does not madly reject her folk origins. Instead, she becomes accus-
tomed to viewing her native life in perspective." (40). She now embodies the essential
eclecticism of the native intellectual.9
Priscilla Craig had intended to train Bita as an exhibit. She "had conceived the idea
of redeeming her from her past by a long period of education without any contact with
Banana Bottom, and at the finish she would be English trained and appearing in
everything but the colour of her skin." (p. 31)10 Bita's "past" is not only the sexual
"catastrophe," but the folk culture itself, in which secuality is viewed somewhat more
indulgently than Mrs. Craig would allow. But for Bita, education is not just a functional
commodity; it is a process of marriage into community.
Well, she thought, if my education has been wasted it
is a happy waste. they were right perhaps who said it
was wasted who believed that the real aims of educa-
tion were diplomas and degrees and to provide
things of snobbery and pretension like a ribbon on
the breast and a plume upon the hat to dazzle the
multitude. (p. 314).
The marriage of Bita and Jubban in true peasant style, after the birth of their child
- is the ultimate subversion of the fairy tale of upward social mobility through education.
Bita, an unwed mother, travelling the downward path of social sin to her drayman-hus-
band deconstructs the education she receives through the sterile charity of the Craigs.
Bita's choice of the earthly Jubban who speaks his feelings in kisses, somewhat like her
youthful seduction of Crazy Bow, is a free assertion of the lush sensuality that her
prudish upbringing with Priscilla Craig was designed to uproot. The prissy mrs. Craig
who annoys Rosyanna, her household help by pretending to be above sexual intercourse
with her own husband, fears for the success of her experiment with Bita, given "the
background of her race and its place in the Occidental idea of the universe" (93). Mrs.
Craig, in a moment of missionary anxiety muses about her experiment:
Suppose under that cultivated crust she was noways better than any of the herd of
common black wenches who took religion as a plaything and were often converted in
sian and went down to baptism with babies in their bellies. (93)
It is Hopping Dick who points to the full significance of Bita's marriage to Jubban,
his "breddah bridegroom." In an eloquent speech on the grand occasion of the double
wedding which marks the conclusion of the tale, in true comic spirit, Hopping Dick
'What big-big mens, doctors an' lawyahs an' teaches
an' prechas b'en mout'-waterin' fer, begin' and'
beseechin' an' nebber could a get dat was gived as
a free gift to mid breddah bridegroom. Jubban'
Hopping Dick, himself a minor beneficiary of Bita's freeness celebrates the class
victory of the peasantry over the bourgeoisie. The body of the educated black woman
becomes the contested territory over which men of all social classes jostle for
proprietorship or temporary occupation.
McKay's optimistic fiction interrogates the more usual placement of the black
woman at the botton of the scale of values of her colonialist society. In elevating Bita as
a privileged object of desire McKay anticipates the revisionist readings of race, class
and gender in contemporary black feminisms. Hopping Dick's emphasis on the freeness
of Bita's gift of self not only acknowledges the generous, non-commercial nature of
intercourse with Jubban, but also underscores the new sexual autonomy of the middle-
class black woman. Bita, released from the gender/class prison into which she has been
educated, is able to freely express the liberal sexual identity of "the herd of common
black wenches" that Mrs. Craig's experiment has failed to repress. After arl, Bita Plant
is a nigger gal; but not "only" so.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. An earlier version of this paper, entitled "Pascal in the Bush: Bita Plant's Banana Bottom," was
presented at the 9th Annual Conference on West Indian Literature, U.W.I.
2. The Dictionary of Jamaican English notes of obeah: "...the derivation is prob multiple cf Efik ubio, 'a
thing or mixture of things, put in the ground, as a charm to cause sickness or death' (OED); also the base
of Twi bayifo, witch, wizard, sorcerer .... The practice of malignant magic as widely known in Jamaica. Its
origins are African; in practice it has never been clearly distinguished from MYAL: though the latter was
supposedly curative of the ills caused by thr former, both have shared the same methods to a great extent
(MYAL with some admixture of elements derived from Christianity)." The DJE definition of myal: "cf
Hausa maye, 1. Sorcerer, wizard; 2. Intoxication; return. (All of these senses are present in the Jamaican
use of the word.).... In recent use in the AFRICAN and similar cults: formal possession by the spirit of a
dead ancestor, and the dance done under possession." An alternative etymology for myal which admits
normal ambivalence is provided by the linguist Hazel Carter in personal communication with Maureen
Warner-Lewis, march 1985: "myal Mayaala, Kikongo, 'person/thing exercising control.'" In "Masks of the
Devil: Caribbean Images of Perverse Energy," unpublished conference paper, U.W.I., St. Augustine, 1991,
Warner-Lewis argues that the universe is governed by opposing energy flows, one, which is creative/sus-
taining ('good'), the other, destructive/negating ('evil'). The myal/obeah dichotomy seems to have its
genesis in an afro-centric cosmology where good and evil, though distinguishable, are derived from a com-
mon energy source. "For a popular account of the continuing belief in the power of obeas see "Obeahism -
booming industry in jamaica", The Weekend Star, Friday, march 2, 1990, p. 5, which claims; "Obeah is big
business in Jamaica. Indeed it is a close rival to the more popularly accepted religions.' See also the front
page report in the more respectable Sunday Gleaner, March 8, 1982, "Obeah Goes Commercial."
3. For example, the career of Herbert Delisser's Jane.
4. Claude McKay, Banana Bottom, New York, Harper and Row, 1933, p. 175.
5. Used in current Jamaican slang, used to mean, approximately, "sexual looseness"; in dancehall culture it
does not have the entirely negative connotations of middle-class 'impropriety". See, for example, my study,
"Slackness Hiding from Culture: Erotic Play in the Dancehall", Jamaica Journal, Vol. 22, No. 4, 12-20 and
Vol. 23, No. 1, 44-51.
6. "Buddy," Jamaican slang for "penis".
7. The child, Bita, has been seduced by Crazy Bow's tea-meeting song. On her return to Jamaica, she is
forced, in accordance with the Craig's sense of propriety, to forego the folk pleasures of events such as tea-
8. The French and "cul" images Day's narrative end.
9. McKay's optimism anticipates the work of a writer like Erna Brodber whose fictions both professional
and personal embody the working through of his ideal. See, for example, Edward Baugh's witty analysis
of Brodber's affectionately ironic relationship to the "great (literary) tradition" in "Belittling the Grate
Tradition, in Good Humour". in Michael Gilkes, Ed. Comedy and the Comic Vision, Barbados, U.W.I.
English Department, forthcoming. Consider also Brodber's establishment of b I a c k s p a c e, a learning
laboratory in her rural home in Woodside, St. Mary, which, in her own words, "links into constructive
dialogue the academy and the social field its studies."
10. Echoes of the case of Francis Williams, the 18th century Jamaican slave who was similarly adopted to be
trained in England. For an account of that early experiment see Edward Long, The History of Jamaica,
1774; rpt. (London: Frank Cass, 1970, vol. 11) 475-478. A nineteenth century female precursor of Bita, who
choose somewhat different alliances, is noted in Henry G. Murray's Manners and customs of the Country
a Generation Ago: Tom Kittle's Wake, Kingston: Jordan, 1877; reprinted in part in jean D'Costa and Bar-
bara Lalla, eds, Voices In Exile: Jamaican Texts of the 18th and 191h Centuries, Tuscaloosa: University
of Alabama Press, 1989. Old Betsy Whittaker, asked about the "accomplished" state of her daughter who
had been taken to England by her father to educated, derisively replies"...what de good a all him 'complish
an him no hab no sense?", 105.
JEKYLL AND CLAUDE: THE EROTICS OF PATRONAGE IN
CLAUDE McKAYS BANANA BOTTOM
Two "unnatural" acts occur in Banana Bottom, both of which seem shockingly
inappropriate in this bucolic narrative. McKay mentions the first almost parenthetically
on the second page of the novel as the heroine, Bita Plant, successfully completes her
debut as accompanist to the church choir of Banana Bottom:
Bita was was a girl with a past. Between the years of
twelve and thirteen she had peen raped. She had
been raped by crazy Bow Adair.(2)1
Crazy Bow is described as a gifted, near-white youth a genetic throwback to
European stock within a black family whose brilliant academic career is cut short
when his obsession with music and musical instruments turns his head. There is no
suggestion here or in later references to the rape that Bita feels traumatized by her
experience. She remembers only that she "had really never felt any resentment towards
[Crazy Bow]" (257) and she remains bewitched by his uncanny musical talent. Bita's
rape is the narrative pretext that brings her to the attention of the English missionaries
Malcolm and Priscilla Craig. In an effort to compensate for what they alone seem to
view as a heinous crime of violation, the Craigs adopt Bita and pay for her education in
England. Their intervention equips her for the role of sentient protagonist in McKay's
story. The other villagers see nothing unnatural in the connection between Bita's rape
and her improved status, and McKay notes that "there was not a dark family in Banana
Bottom and that gorgeous stretch of tropical country that did not wish one of their
children had been in Bita's shoes and had been instead the victim of Crazy Bow" (29).
The second "unnatural" act has more dire consequences. Halfway through the novel
the young Deacon, Herald Newton Day, who has been hand-picked by the Craigs to
marry Bita, is discovered in flagrante with Sister Christy's nanny goat. Herald Day's
action, in contrast to Bita's experience, sends him tumbling into disrepute in the eyes of
his fellow villagers. His disgrace is not so much on account of attitudes towards be-
stiality: the villagers accept Day's abberation as part of the unfolding drama between
the forces of good and evil for which the young man is a mere pawn in a battle of giants,
and the school teacher notes that such practices were not as uncommon as might be
supposed in agricultural villages. Instead, Day's escapade with the many goat restores
the natural order in the social hierarchy. He fails to live up to the moral codes ap-
propriate to his social aspirations, and is returned to the cultural and social obscurity
from which he was originally plucked.
In narrating these incidents, McKay seems to shift between a concern with the
peasants' desire to distance themselves from a state of nature, and a questioning of the
social hierarchies through which such aspirations were controlled. These were impor-
tant issues for McKay, as his own access to an intellectual life which took him far beyond
the limits of his Jamaican peasant village was a consequence of his unusual relationship
with a wealthy English recluse, Walter Jekyll. McKay reproduces many aspects of this
relationship in his fictional account of the friendship between his heroine and Squire
Gensir in Banana Bottom. the novel offers us a series of readings of the erotics of power
embedded in cross-racial relationships of patronage. In writing it, McKay set out to
prove that there were ways of narrating the relationship of cross-racial patronage that
acknowledge its tensions and tenderness without reducing the protege to a signifier for
his patron's desire. This essay argues that the excesses of the sexual relations that hedge
in the chaste minuet between Gensir and Bita speak to the anxieties which belied
McKay's proud posture of self-assurance in his own dealings with patrons, especially
when confronted with the prurient sexual expectations and the constant need to reaf-
firm the patron's cultural superiority that defined the white response to black creativity
in the early twentieth century.
McKay ran away from home and joined the police force when he was eighteen, so
that he could be nearer to Jekyll, who had offered to educate him (GH, 67).2 Jekyll
introduced McKay to European literature, languages, and philosophy.3 He gave the
youth access to an audience for his poetry among the Jamaican elite, and arranged
McKay's release from his police commission when his role as an enforcer of the law
became intolerable. Jekyll also organized the British publication of McKay's first two
volumes of dialect poetry, Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads, in 1912, and financed
McKay's migration to America later that same year. Over the next five years Jekyll
supported McKay's academic and business ventures generously (RSJ, 67, 70). McKay
never forgot his mentor's "gentleness and otherworldliness" (GH, 17): after Jekyll's
death in 1928 McKay eulogized him in the figure of Squire Gensir, Bita's mentor in
Banana Bottom, and McKay addressed the dedication in his novel to "Pacjo" the
peasants' affectionate nickname for the eccentric little Englishman.
The relationship between Bita and Gensir in Banana Bottom reproduces the
relationship between McKay and Jekyll, down to the books they share and the conver-
sations in which they engage. Given Jekyll's background and the historical context of his
friendship with McKay, there may have been a homoerotic dimension to their relation-
ship.4 But although McKay changes the sex of the protege in his story, which could have
allowed for a heterosexual rearticulation of any erotic undertones in his relationship
with Jekyll, he assiduously avoids any suggestion that the friendship between Bita and
Squire Gensir is anything but platonic. All the other characters in the novel seem to be
throwing themselves passionately into relationships with every conceivable object, but
at the point in the text when Bita's adult sexual needs assert themselves, McKay has her
swept away from Gensir's protective ambit by the insistent throbbing of the drums at a
revival meeting. from here she is snatched by her father's mule driver, Jubban, who
eventually becomes her lover and husband.
To understand this evasion we need to look more carefully at the expectations about
patronage that both Jekyll as mentor and McKay as his protege brought to their unusual
(unnatural?) friendship. Jekyll was a fin de siecle bohemian with agnostic leanings and
an aristocratic background (GH, 70; LW, 17; RSJ, 23n77). An ardent disciple of
Schopenhauer, whose work he translated into English, Jekyll deplored the enervation of
modern Western civilization. He made his retreat into the Jamaican countryside in an
attempt to reconnect with some form of unspoiled "natural" life. Jekyll collected
Jamaican folklore and shunned what he considered the Philistine society of the
Jamaican social elite. McKay first came to the English collector's attention when Jekyll
stopped to have his carriage repaired by the wheelwright to whom McKay was appren-
ticed. The wheelwright mentioned that his apprentice fancied himself a poet, who from
his perspective may have epitomized the enlightenment ideal of the noble savage.
McKay recounts Jekyll's initial response to his work:
He read my poetry one day. Then he laughed a lot,
and I became angry at the laughing because I
thought he was laughing at me. All these poems that
I gave him to read had been done in straight English,
but there was one short one about an ass that was
laden for the market laden with native vegetables -
who had suddenly sat down in the middle of the road
and wouldn't get up. Its owner was talking to it in the
Jamaican dialect, telling it to get up. That was the
poem that Mr. Jekyll was laughing about. He then
told me that he did not like my poems in straight
English they were repetitious. "But this," said he,
holding up the donkey poem, "this is the real thing.
The Jamaican dialect has never been put into
literary form except in my Anancy stories. Now is
your chance as a native boy to put the Jamaican
dialect into literary language. I am sure that your
poems will sell." (GH, 66-67)
Notwithstanding the monetary dread he expressed that Jekyll may have confused
him with the driver of donkeys in his poem or even the donkey itself McKay, in his
recollection of the incident, does not present himself as a noble savage. He understood
that he was "Mr. Jekyll's" social inferior but claimed the Englishman as a friend and
Jekyll was not McKay's only source of erudition or critical debate. McKay claims
that many of the peasant boys who were his friends were notorious for their skepticism
and iconoclasm (LW, 12). In addition, the black townships in rural Jamaica at this time
could boast small circles of well-read school teachers and professionals, and McKay
encountered a wide range of literature through such people. His older brother U. Theo
McKay had declared himself an agnostic at a time when the majority of educated
Jamaicans were deeply god-fearing. McKay probably owed his openness to Jekyll's
"pagan" ideas to his early exposure in his brother's home to the freethinkingg" debates
raging in Britain at the turn of the century that were followed avidly in the colonies.5
However, McKay's association of progressive ideas with a world beyond the limitations
of colonial Jamaica made him peculiar receptive to someone like Jekyll. McKay iden-
tified with all Jekyll's posture including, ironically, his mentor's sense of being cut off
from the "spontaneous" peasant culture, which in Jekyll's eyes McKay probably em-
bodied. The paradox becomes clear in McKay's initial response to Jekyll's suggestion
that he write in dialect:
...to us who were getting an education in the English
schools the Jamaican dialect was considered a vul-
gar tongue. It was the language of the peasants. All
cultivated people spoke English, straight English.
McKay's response dramatizes the distinction that many progressive colonials drew
between the legitimacy of the challenge to the status quo contained in the British
freethinking tradition and that expressed in the equally inconoclastic but socially
devalued native tradition. Ironically, Jekyll's championing of the native tradition in-
creased its esteem in McKay's eyes and led him subsequently to rethink his opposition
to using dialect. But Jekyll's appreciation of Jamaican speech did not mean that he
considered it intellectually sophisticated or that he approved of its subversive potential.
His typecasting of McKay as a native boy who ought to write in dialect may have been
prescriptive, and there remained for the young Jamaican a lingering desire to prove
that, in spite of his peasant origins, he too could write verse in "elevated language." As
McKay himself puts it, "I used to think I would show them something. Someday I would
write poetry in straight English and amaze and confound them...." (GH, 87)
"Them" in the above quotation refers to the literati among the "wealthy near whites
and the British and American residents" of Jamaica for whom, according to McKay,
Jekyll occasionally "trotted out" his protege (GH, 76). McKay directs his frustration
with the role of noble savage at them, rather than taking issue with his mentor who had
encouraged him to exploit this role. But elsewhere he registers his awareness of the
structure that Jekyll's perspective imposed on their relationship. On one occasion
Jekyll, who considered the then governor of Jamaica, Sydney Olivier, a middle-class
upstart,who lost his temper when Olivier attempted to invite himself to stay overnight
under Jekyll's roof. McKay recalls how Jekyll's strongly stated class bias on this oc-
casion prompted him to ask:
"But Mr. Jekyll, how can you tolerate me? I am
merely the son of a peasant." "Oh," said he, "English
gentlemen have always liked their peasants, it's the
ambitious middle class that we cannot tolerate."
There are many layers of ironic silence in McKay's retelling of this incident. On the
one hand we can almost feel the infinitesimal hesitation covered over by Jekyll's "Oh,"
as he tries to decide how to allay the fear of rejection implicit in his protege's question.
Faced with the choice of sentimentalizing their relationship or patronizing the youth, he
opts for patronage but manages in doing so to parody himself in the role of patron, thus
drawing any hint of ridicule away from McKay and on to himself. McKay returns the
favour in retelling the story by taking an ironic distance from his earlier naivete and
silently juxtaposing it to his sophisticated urbanity at the time of writing. By withholding
any comment on Jekyll's paternalism without distorting the kindness and genuine
affection which he felt motivated his mentor's response.
For all his deft self-parody, Jekyll remained firmly ensconced in his artistocratic
notions of class and racial hierarchy. He distrusted the new professional middle class in
England, to which the Fabian socialist governor Sydney Olivier belonged, and his
relationships with "his" peasants were only cordial so long as they recognized his feudal
rights as lord of the castle. Jekyll was quick to condemn any violation of the social order.
Writing in The Bible Untrustworthy, an agnostic publication, he faults Jesus for "not
car[ing] about social order; he disliked the upper classes and railed at them in words of
astonishing rancor." In the same trace Jekyll associates Christ's iconoclasm with the
violent, hyperbolic language of Jamaican peasants and warns that "obeying Christ's
literal injunctions would lead to anarchy" (259). In his collection of Jamaica Song and
Story, Jekyll's otherwise neutral or appreciative comments about a broad range of folk
customs acquire a punitive edge when he comments on folks songs connected with the
Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865. The local uprising resulted in the death of three white
functionaries and about four hundred Jamaican peasants. However, in a note to a song
about the Rebellion that he collected, Jekyll characterizes it as a near carnage of whites
which was only averted by the "prompt action of governor Eyre" (187-88). Jekyll's
comments suggest that, in spite of his desire for contact with the earth and spiritual
community with the tillers of the land, he still felt threatened by the possibility that their
feral energy could be turned at any time against him or his class.
Jekyll's ambivalence may have had its effect on his mentorship of McKay. Under his
tutelage, McKay wrote poems in dialect in which masters castigated their mules, or
prostitutes vilified policemen and other "upstart" members of the petite bourgeoisis.
However, Jekyll appears to have encouraged his protege to censor any militancy that
might have threatened what he considered the status quo. for example, McKay never
anthologized his poem "Gordon to the Oppressed Natives," in which (in contrast to
Jekyll) he celebrated the militancy of the Morant Bay rebels.6 This was one of McKay's
best known early poems. It had appeared in the Jamaica Times in 1912, alongside other
poems that were published subsequently in Constab Ballads. In the same year the poem
won a prize in an Empire poetry contest and it was a favorite recitation piece at local
concerts and debating societies.7 Nevertheless it is conspicuously absent from both of
the collections Jekyll facilitated.
Clearly there were limits to patronage, and to the freedom McKay's mentor was
prepared to allow him in their unequal relationship. McKay began to divest himself of
this element of Jekyll's patronage when he moved to America, where he felt freer to
publish poems in "straight English," as well as to express his militant views on social and
racial injustice in poems like the famous anti-lynching sonnet "If We Must Die." But
even at this remove the impulse of self-censorship in deference to his patron's wishes
lingered. In his autobiography, McKay records how, on the advice of an unnamed
English friend, he supressed "If We Must Die" in spite of its popularity, when he
published Spring in New Hampshire (1920), his first collection of american poems.
McKay's self-censorship aroused the ire of one of his newer white patrons, Frank
Harris, editor of Pearson's Magazine. McKay took to heart Harris's accusation that he
cared more for his mentor's sensibilities than for the people whose sacrifices his poem
celebrated, and he remembers vowing not to allow such false considerations of great
taste to influence his future decisions (LW, 97-99)
Whatever the sincerity of the bonds of friendship between Jekyll and McKay there-
fore, there were obvious strains in their relationship. It placed McKay in Jekyll's power
even as it allowed him that access to an intellectual life and artistic sensibility he so
coveted. McKay's dilemma recalls Foucault's attempt in The Use of Pleasure to explain
the dynamics of erotic friendships between boys and men in classical Greece. Foucault
remarks on the oscillation between a concern with the "natural or 'unnatural' character
of that kind of love" (221): natural because it united two masculine intellects and
affections in a friendship superior to the love of women, but unnatural because it placed
the youthful, receptive partner in a passive, and therefore potentially shameful,
relationship to another man. According to Foucault, "(s]ex
ual relations thus demanded particular behaviours on the part of both partners. A
consequence of the fact that the boy could not identify with the part he had to play [sic];
he was supposed to refuse, resist, flee, escape. He was also supposed to make his
consent, if he finally gave it, subject to conditions relating to the man to whom he
yielded (his merit, his status, his virtue) and to the benefit he could expect to gain from
him (a benefit that was rather shameful if it was only a question of money, but honorable
if it involved training for manhood, social connections for the future, or a lasting
As Foucault describes it, there is a degree of instability built into such transactions
on account of the need for both parties to maintain an understanding of their relation-
ship as both an act of reluctant acquiescence on the part of the youth and a form of ideal
fellowship between two mutually consenting parties. But neither Foucault nor the
classical Greek texts he cites succeed in conveying a sense of what was considered
honorable for the youth about the sexual aspect of such relationships. Foucault's
account, quoted above, is littered with evasions, qualifications and ellipses which sug-
gest that the older man's appropriation of the youth's body could not be named; that is,
not as long as the perceived passivity of the youth in the relationship remained a marked
term, opposed to the active role prescribed for a potential full citizen of the Greek
Even if we assume that the erotic aspects of the relationship between McKay and
Jekyll were not expressed through sexual acts, Jekyll's discursive appropriation of his
protege's identity placed McKay in a position of vulnerability similar to that ex-
perienced by the Greek youth in Foucault's account. Because of the social gulf between
the two men, McKay was the party who stood to lose most if he could not exercise
control over the definition of their relationship. Like Foucault's hypothetical youth,
McKay could only rationalize his status if he be could somehow read Jekyll's appropria-
tion of his identity as a benign act in which he acquiesced so as to achieve ultimately a
status that equalled or eclipsed that of his mentor. But whereas the Greek youth could
look forward to growing into full enfranchisement as a citizen within the Greek
democracy, there was no such social guarantee to diffuse the racial and structural
inequalities between McKay and his mentor. There can be little doubt that McKay and
Jekyll shared a friendship that transcended the limitations of their social and historical
context. But McKay ran the risk of being demeaned by his association with Jekyll
whenever his representation of their relationship obscured the distinction between his
allowing Jekyll to assign him the role of his desired object, the noble savage, and a sense
of himself as inhabiting that role.
In relation to Jekyll and in his later life McKay constantly walked the tightrope
between exploiting and being exploited by his meaning for his mentors. Within the
colonial system of meaning he embodied the savage, one step away from regressive
sexuality whose body linked the colonizers to (or separated them from) a state of nature
they both desired and feared. But in his self-representation McKay remains the youth
who acquiesces to his mentor's desire in exchange for intellectual pleasures denied him
on account of his social status. such distinctions must have seemed all the more urgent
when McKay became involved in the literary activity in New York and Paris leading up
to the Harlem Renaissance. Here, powerful white patrons overtly exploited the literary
and sexual talents of a range of black artists.9 McKay felt repulsed by the apparent ease
with which many of his black peers accepted these arrangements, and misinterpreted
such contact with whites as "a token of Negro breaking into upper- class white society"
(LW,321). Furthermore, the caste lines that separated black and white were much more
clearly drawn in North America than was the case in Jamaica.10 From McKay's point of
view, the cross-racial patronage he observed, unlike his earlier experience of Jekyll's
mentorship, did not facilitate black creativity. Instead, he saw many of these patrons as
"white lice crawling on black bodies" (LW, 337), whose attentions reinforced the supe-
riority of the patron's status, and affirmed by extension the viability of the protege's
body and intellect.
In this exploitative environment, McKay clung to a version of his Jamaican ex-
perience in which blacks were proud and independent, and where friendships between
blacks and whites were conducted on terms of mutual respect. In the chapter of his
autobiography called "White Friends," McKay contrasts the sycophancy of black writers
to white patrons with the friendship between his father and a white missionary, which
McKay maintains was based on true affection and mutual respect. He compares his
father's kindness to his missionary friend with the contempt the elder McKay displayed
towards another white cleric whom he considered an opportunist and a thief. In
concluding McKay explains:
I make this digression about white friendship and my
father, because, like him, I have also had some white
friends in my life, friends from the upper class, the
middle class, and the lower and the very lowest class.
Maybe I have had more white than colored friends.
Perhaps I have been impractical in putting the emo-
tional above the social value of friendship, but
neither the color of my friends, nor the color of their
money, nor the color of their class has ever been of
much significance to me. It was more the color of
their minds, the warmth and depth of their sen-
sibility and affection, that influenced me. (LW, 37-
If in this passage McKay seems to protest too much, it may have been because he too
found it difficult to control the effects of the versions of patronage he so despised on his
own work and its reception. Much of McKay's writing was completed under the aegis of
one form of white patronage or another." When Home to Harlem appeared, McKay
was accused by other black intellectuals of pandering to the prurient tastes of his
patrons by writing without restraint about black sexuality.12 Conversely, in his autobiog-
raphy, McKay rails against white critics who combed through his poetry for evidence of
sexual excess in his life (LW, 89-90).
McKay's need to shield himself from the prurience and emotional violence of white
patronage undoubtedly contributed to him ambivalence about representing his own
sexuality in his writing, although he so fully identified with Jekyll's view that the am-
biguity of sexual repression, which led to the displacement of the erotic from the body
to the mind, was precisely the "problem" of modern society.13 In Both Home to Harlem
and Banjo, McKay presents us with pairs of male protagonists who function as Jekylll4
and Hyde alter egos for each other: the one sentient, intellectual, and culturally self-as-
sured, but lacking in the capacity for spontaneous hedonism of his less respectable alter
ego. the "Jekyll" figure in the dyad is typically a black West Indian with a background
similar to McKay's, but Mckay made a point of distancing himself from "Hyde" charac-
ters like the African American Jake in Home to Harlem who some critics assumed were
meant as self-portraits. Although he claimed he was "unobsessed by sex" and saw no
reason to avoid the topic in his novels "like the preaching black prudes wrapped up in
the borrowed robes of hypocritical white respectability," McKay nonetheless maintains,
"I couldn't indulge in such self-flattery as to claim Jake in Home to Harlem as a portrait
of myself. My damned white education has robbed me of much of the primitive vitality,
the pure stamina, the simple unswaggering strength of the Jakes of the Negro race" (LW
2, 28-9). Time and again, the West Indian character's desire for the unfettered eroticism
of his African-American friend is played off against his revulsion at his friend's coarse-
ness and seeming lack of intellectual depth.
The dichtomy is anticipated in an early dialect poem where the reader overhears
with the narrator the rebellious outburst of a "whoppin" big-tree boy" who has been
engaged to carry the wares of an itinerant Syrian peddler:
Nummo wuk at all fe me is my determination still;
Me no care damn wha' you say an' you can jes' do
wha' you will
Me deh go right back to to'n, yah' underneath' me old
All dem boys wid eboe-light dem, dem is waiting' deh
(Constab Ballads, 48)
The boy's outburst is framed by McKay's presentation of himself, the frustrated
policeman on duty, who finds he grudges the "big- tree boy" his lack of inhibition in
dealing with authority and asserting his right to pleasure:
Ah! I wish I know a little, jes' a little of de joy
Dat nature has bestowed on you, my whoppin' big-
In a phrase like "a little of de joy/Dat nature has bestowed on you" it is difficult to
decide whether McKay, under the guise of writing in dialect, is merely imitating the air
of world weary nostalgia that his mentor affected, or whether at this time he did feel
robbed through his special education and mentorship of a connection to the rebellious
aspects of the folk culture Jekyll so vehemently castigated. Here, as in the Jekyll and
Hyde relationship of the novels, the object of McKay's desire seems to be equally for
some ideal identification with nature as well as for his mentor's power to assign to the
other the role of nature's child.ls
Banana Bottom represents McKay's attempt to work through his early experience as
a protege from the vantage point of his later encounters with patronage in North
America. The novel plays out the fiction that the relationship between bita and her
mentor transcends the restrictive norms of its time, by presenting their friendship as
purely platonic and (therefore) free of exploitative intent. Yet, in every other relation-
ship, both social and sexual, to which McKay exposes his young heroine, the inequalities
of patronage that dogged McKay's relationship to Jekyll, and threatened even in
retrospect to undermine its equilibrium, reassert themselves, overwhelming the narra-
tive at times in their urgency, obscenity, and violence.
The friendship between Bita and her rapist, Crazy Bow, constitutes one re-writing of
the dynamic in the relationship between patron and protege. Here McKay reverses the
process by which he acquiesced in Jekyll's appropriation of his body as a semiotic
marker for "nature:" as the intuitively wise savage, in touch with the earth and with his
emotions. McKay inverts his racially and socially overdetermined role in relation to his
mentor by making his black character the cerebral one and his white and near-white
characters intuitive. Thus the near-white eccentric, Crazy Bow, embodies all the
qualities of savagery, intuition and communion with nature which Jekyll celebrated in
the Jamaican peasantry and assigned implicitly to McKay. McKay's tenderness and
rueful affection in his account of Jekyll's foibles in "My Green Hills of Jamaica" resonate
with Bita's memories of her rapist, who suddenly reappears one day when she is playing
the organ and indicates that he wishes to play...when he stretched out his hands and
touched the organ, she vacated the stool and he sat down immediately began playing.
Bita had really never felt any resentment towards him at any time, but now she was
gripped by a deep sorrow that a human being, a rare artist, should be deprived of the
ordinary faculties. But the thought came to her that perhaps he did not realize the lack
of them and was possibly a greater performer for that.
How bewitching was his playing! No wonder he had
magnetized her into that trouble of his adolescence.
If only she possessed a little of the magic of his
natural genius. (257)
Bita's later response to that other white eccentric, Squire Gensir, who McKay tells
us is a fictionalized version of Jekyll, is conveyed through a parallel evocation of
intuitive genius and musical seduction:
Perhaps Squire Gensir, because of the disparity of background, tradition, and race
between him and Bita, was more susceptible than the circumstances warranted to the
affinity of her mind with his, considering that she was also a member of the human
family.... He marvelled that Bita was devouring his profoundest books on religions and
their origins and scientific treatises the theory of the universe, the beginning of life, the
history of civilizations and the physiology of man and nature, and that she did not
merely parrot the ideas she picked up but interpreted them intelligently. On her side
Bita appreciated him more for his sensitive feeling and interpretation of music. Al-
though his knowledge of the famous great composers was exhaustive and discriminating
he was none the less enthusiastic about the lesser and sometimes anonymous ones. He
was ever alert and quick to seize on the best, the original in popular songs. simple
melodic strains and spontaneous chants, and he was the first to write down the folk
songs of the peasants. His ear was as keen as his memory was prodigious. (240-41) (my
In McKay's rewriting of the relationship between mentor and protege, Bita is
attracted by Gensir's musical intuition, so similar to that of Crazy Bow, rather than his
greater knowledge and social prestige. Moreover, McKay's presentation of Bita's inter-
action with both men fanfares agency on Bita rather than Crazy Bow or Squire Gensir.
Crazy Bow seems unable to resist Bita's power when he at first refuses then succumbs
to Bita's childish demands for music and caresses. Squire Gensir also is described as
"susceptible" to the affinity he discovers between himself and Bita, an affinity based on
the letters intellectual abilities rather than her intuitive faculties. Bita draws both men
to herself because through them she can gain access to a culture of sensibility.
Thus, in displacing his mentor as the voice of authority in this narrative of their
relationship, McKay seems to want to have it both ways: on one hand he reduces Gensir
to a mirror image of Crazy Bow, associating by implication the patron's appropriation
of his prtotege's identity with the violence of rape. At the same time he makes Bita's
ruefuly affection for both her patron and her rapist signs of her agency and largess
rather than a response to their exploitation or magnanimity.
The symmetry in McKay's presentation of the two men would seem to anticipate a
moment of consumption between Gensir and Bita, similar in spirit if not in detail to the
sexual encounter between Bita and Crazy Bow. But here the narrator's nerve fails.
Instead of allowing Gensir an overt erotic response to the affinity he feels with Bita,
McKay refers out of the blue to the fact that Bita "was also a member of the human
family." The almost Freudian slip re-establishes the huge social gulf that McKay's
conferral of agency on Bita would have us evade; in relation to Gensir, Bita is barely a
member of the human family, in the same way that, in relation to Crazy Bow, she
remains ultimately a victim of abuse. Moreover, Bita is no longer a child and Gensir is
no village idiot. No amount of finessing could produce a consummation of their
relationship that did not undermine in some way Bita's claim to equality and human
dignity in relation to Gensir. The assertion of Bita's precarious claim to membership in
the human race also elicits the memory of Herald Day's bestiality, a playing out of
desire that did indeed go beyond the boundaries of the human family. Through this
association McKay warns that Gensir also risks reducing himself to the level of Herald
Day if his attraction is not expressed in a form that acknowledges the full humanity of
the object of this patronage.
McKay's introduction to music and ideas was facilitated in part by his friendship
with Jekyll, but in the novel Bita's education takes place before Squire Gensir enters the
narrative. The time shift necessitates the introduction of two other white mentors: the
missionaries Malcolm and Priscilla Craig. Their presence allows McKay to transpose
his unease about the social and racial inequalities which undergirded the economy of
patronage on to less sympathetically drawn characters. here, too, issues of power and
social control are worked out around competing attitudes toward sexuality. McKay is
merciless in his satire of Mrs. Craig's over-refined sense of decorum, which compels her
to hide the "evidence" that she has spent the night in her husband's bed (her bedroom
slippers) from her maid. The missionary's association of sensuality with barbarism has
its effect on Bita, who must decide how much reveal of her participation in a village tea
meeting a social activity the Englishwoman considers primitive. Although she need not
submit her social life to Mrs. Craig's censure, the idea of not saying where she has been
makes Bita feel "uncomfortably little and cheap":
It was ugly. Not her idea of living. To do things of
which she was ashamed. Her native pride rose
against that. And also her education. There was a
great pride of tradition behind that education. It was
a code that an imperial proud nation had prepared
and authorized for her selectest and most favoured
sons and daughter. And by a strange fate she, an
alien child of enslaved people, had been trained in
its principles. (205)
McKay presents Bita's spirited independence evenhandedly. as the product of her
British education and her native pride. The hypocrisy that Priscilla Craig evinces,
however, suggests that Bita's good breeding rather than the British example has been
the more salient influence. It is symptomatic of the novel's ambivalent discourse on
nature that McKay in this instance seems anxious to claim for his heroine precisely that
intuitive sensibility from which he distance Bita in his representation of her friendships
with Gensir and Crazy Bow. On this occasion, Priscilla Craig is mollified by the
information that Squire Gensir had chaperoned Bita at the tea meeting. But her
response dramatizes the extent to which Bita's need for a mentor to supervise or
validate her social interactions is created by the evaluation of her culture vis-a-vis that
of her patron. Trapped within her patron's definition of culture, Bita must either cut her
ties to the folk or approach them through the aegis of a white mentor.
It is hardly surprising that McKay connects Mrs. Craig, even unambiguously than
Gensir, with Herald Day's sins of presumption and hypocrisy. Priscilla Craig pushes the
match between Day and Bita and she is appropriately mortified by his fall from grace.
However McKay goes even further, redirecting at Mrs. Craig the charge of "unnatural-
ness" through which her proteges' aspirations are undermined. Once more, he drives his
critique home by evoking an aberrant sexuality linking the patron with the object of her
patronage. This time, however, aberrance is configured as the displacement of "natural"
bodily responses by "unnatural" mental responses to the erotic. At a lecture by a fellow
missionary of African masks, Mrs. Craig's internal reverie on the divine wisdom which
ensures her race its place among the Elect is shattered when the African masks on the
walls seems to detach themselves and begin dancing around her:
Priscilla remained transfixed, deprived of voice to
shriek her utter terror among those bodiless bar-
baric faces circling and darting towards her bobbing
up and down with that mad grinning. And now it
seemed that Patou was among them, Patou
shrunken to a grinning face, and suddenly she too
was in motion and madly whirling round and round
with the weird dancing masks. (199)
Priscilla's dream expresses her anxiety about losing control of the black intellectual
potential she nurtures, epitomized by the presence among the dancing heads of her
retarded son Patou, and her own inability to resist the erotic pull of the dance. But the
masks and faces in Priscilla Craig's fantasy are eroticized by their very disembodiment.
They recall McKay's critique of the displacement of the body by the intellect as an
erotic object in Western culture. From this perspective Crazy Bow's desire for Bita's
body can be revalued as a "natural" act, while Mrs. Craig's desire for Bita's head is
represented as "unnatural."
While the parables of Crazy Bow and Priscilla Craig rewrite the narrative of
patronage so as to undercut the power of the mentor, the cautionary tales of Herald
Day's career and a number of other sexual encounters to which McKay exposes Bita
explore the anxieties inherent in the role of the protege. Day doubles for Bita in the role
of protege in much the same way that Priscilla Craig doubles for Gensir in the role of
patron, since his presence allows McKay to isolate the less savory aspects of the
protege's role from the person of his ideal protege. The Craig's adopt Bita rather than
Herald because they are uneasy with the contrast created between their white idiot son,
Patou, and an intelligent black boy. Clearly, Day's potential achievement is infinitely
more threatening to the dominant culture than Bita's, since he is both male and black.
What seems less clear, however, is why his potential should have seemed so threatening
to his creator: so much so, that McKay subjects him to the most punitive forms of
retribution meted out to any character in the novel.
One way to explain Day's characterization may be to approach him via Foucault's
distinction between the youth who occupies a certain role in relation to his mentor and
the youth who internalizes or enjoys this role. Unlike Bita, day defends his position of
social and intellectual inferiority in relation to his white patrons. Day accepts Gensir's
agnosticism, for instance, as appropriate in a white person, but when Bita suggests that
she shares these views he responds, "You're not a white person to go crazy from
education." Rather than a defence of her agnosticism, Day's comment elicits from Bita
an impassioned critique of the assumption behind his words:
"Mr. Day!" cried Bita. "This is not the first time
you've used that 'white person' phrase to me in that
invidious sense. Let me tell you right now that a
white person is just like any other human being to
me. I thank God that although I was brought up and
educated among white people, I have never wanted
to be anything but myself." (169)
Bita's diatribe is reminiscent of McKay's claims to independence and equality in his
friendships with whites. Yet Day's subsequent fall from grace lends credibility to the
arguments for white superiority. Significantly, Squire Gensir speculates that Day's
aberration may have been the result of excessive intellectual effort for which the young
deacon is not naturally endowed.
And yet, given what we know of the blurred lines McKay draws and redraws in the
novel around what constitutes the natural and what the unnatural, it is difficult to be
sure how we would have us read this incident. On the one hand, Day's arousal by the
nanny goat is the "natural" act par excellence: like Crazy Bow's rape of Bita it is an
"unmediated" physical response to a material stimulus, and no less a person than the
village school teacher reminds us that such acts were not uncommon in agricultural
villages. On the other hand, day's actions occur during his preparation for a sermon on
the text "Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his ways?" there is more than a hint in
the narrative that his inappropriate behaviour is a response to mental fantasies elicited
by the biblical allusions to "unclean" practices he encounters in preparing his sermon -
fantasies that are heightened by the heady access to power over the word that his first
public ascent to the pulpit occasions. If this is indeed the case, then Day's fall is both the
result of his internalizing of a sense of himself as less than his patrons symbolized in his
desire for and fear of public access to the word as well as the result of his having
embraced too literally Western culture's eroticization of the word. Day becomes what
McKay most feared to be: the racial sycophant willing to sell himself to any white friend
who would confer meaning on his existence, as well as the deracinated black man who,
like his prurient white patrons, is capable of sexual arousal only through the mental
voyeurism of reading about transgressive acts. his end is, of necessity. igominious.
McKay's blurring of the distinctions between natural and unnatural acts begs the
question as to whether the transcendence of physicality in the relationship between Bita
and Gensir may not also be read as "unnatural." the one occasion in the text where the
platonic quality of their friendship seems to verge on something more overtly erotic is a
purely cerebral moment. It occurs shortly after Bita's betrothal to Herald Day when she
asks Squire Gensir if he has ever been in love. Squire Gensir admits to one early passion
and mentions that the woman he loved had married a friend who was the son of a
well-known poet. Bita is a great admirer of the unnamed poet's work, and the effect of
Gensir's information in instantaneous:
She had never imagined that she would have any
knowledge other than out of books of the reality of
[that poet]. Yet here in her obscure island home
conversing with her was a man who had known him
in the flesh. Right then a change took place in her
idea of the squire. There was a transfiguration and a
romantic cloud seemed to descend and envelope
him before her eyes.
She began practising a minuet from Mozart that he
had open on the piano. But all the time her head was
full of the thought: How strange he is! How strange
he is! No white person had ever touched her with
such a feeling of otherworldliness as this man. (127)
What eroticizes Gensir for Bita in this exchange is not his prowess with other women
or his success in competition against other men but his association, albeit at a great
remove, with a British literary icon who epitomizes for Bita the object of her cultural
desire. This is as close to a moment of consummation as we experience in the novel. It
is analogous to that elusive moment in Foucault's narrative when the youth could
honorably consider giving himself to his mentor, not merely on account of his desire for
material wealth or personal prestige but because, in the protege's eyes, his mentor was
now synonymous with merit, virtue and status, and because the physical consummation
of their relationship could identify the youth with the noblest manifestations of culture
which his society had to offer.
McKay may wish to make a distinction here between the desire for whiteness
displayed by Bita and Herald Day respectively (an appreciation of "the colour of the
mind" rather then the color of class or money?). But his strictures on the transgressive
nature of the erotic when displaced from the body to the mind prepare us to read this
moment as one of great danger and anxiety.
Furthermore Gensir's cultural world has no way of accommodating Bita's desire for
identification and inclusion, and immediately in McKay's text the magic is shattered. As
Bita leaves, Gensir is accosted by a boorish local white planter busha Glengley, who,
watching Bita's retreating figure, says "with a leer: 'Nice girl, eh?"' (128). Glengley's
innuendo places the most obvious construction which a person of his class and race
would have put on the friendship between a white man and a young black girl at the time
- that Bita was no more than a black body to be violated at will by white men like Gensir
and Glengley. Gensir defends Bita's honor in the iciest tones he can muster, but later in
the novel Glengley's son does attempt to exercise his droit de seigneur over Bita as she
takes a short-cut through the Glengley estate.16
McKay's anxiety that any attempt to unite physical and intellectual desire could
reduce him to that status or noble savage which he sometimes felt his white patrons
needed him to occupy, is placed out in the discovery and humiliation of Herald Day's
bestial act and Bita's near violation at Glengley's hands. But there remained a longing,
already present in his dialect poems, and reasserted in his description of the relation-
ship between Bita and Crazy Bow, for a spiritual state that could connect him without
moral blight to an earlier state of "natural" sensuality. Critics have read Bita's marriage
to Jubban as McKay's attempt to reconcile the cerebral and physical aspects of his
desire.17 But if we suppress for a moment the easy identification of McKay with Bita, it
becomes clear that the attributes Mckay associates with is sensuous characters in Home
to Harlem and Banjo are distributed in Banana Bottom between two characters: the
debonair and suggestively named Hopping Dick, who throws around his "Panama
money" and flirts outrageously with Bita; and the taciturn intuitive man of the soil,
Jubban, whom Bita eventually marries. However, the role of the sentient voyeur that we
associate in the other novels with McKay himself if occupied at the outset of Banana
Bottom by Squire Gensir. within this configuration Bita's body serves to unite the
sensuous Jubban and the sensual Hopping Dick with the sentient Gensir.
Bita's marriage to Jubban is the most striking enactment of this three-way relation-
ship between competing aspects of her creator's personality. Gensir gives her away at a
double wedding at which the other groom is Hopping Dick. In the speeches following
the formalizing of their vows, Hopping Dick speaks on behalf of both grooms since
Jubban, as always, is silent. Like Gensir, who as "father giver" divests himself of his
symbolic rights in Bita, Hopping Dick takes the opportunity in this toast to the brides to
give over any rights he may still feel towards Bita to Jubban. But since Jubban stakes no
linguistic claims of his own, we are left with the sense of a precarious truce between the
three men, based on their agreement for the moment to forego their claims on Bita's
body or mind. Rather than resolving any internal conflict within the psyche of Bita, the
arrangement functions to stabilize without challenging the competing claims of all three
In the geometry of this figure, the character of Bita stands as an empty signifier
within the text; the space enclosed by the lines of desire that triangulate the opposing
instincts within the person of McKay. She provides a connection to Jubban and the land
for that alienated cerebral aspect of McKay represented at moments in the text by the
figure of Gensir. Bita's education is also the symbol of gentility that legitimatizes the
transition from peasant to proprietor for her husband Jubban in much the same way
that Black jamaicans of McKay's generation used their education and claims to intellec-
tual maturity to demand the transfer of political power from their colonial "patrons' to
themselves. Lastly, Bita's good-natured tolerance for the feckless Hopping Dick
validates the Dionysian picaresque element in peasant society that was increasingly
associated with an emergent urban proletariat in Jamaica and New York, to which
mcKay, when he was not in the company of his powerful patrons, actually belonged.
Deprived of language, Jubban can become the land without having to speak the role of
noble savage or voice the iconoclastic hyperbolic sentiments jekyll disapproved of in the
peasantry. Removed from physicality, Gensir can make love to Bita through words
without succumbing to the weaknesses of the flesh which he found so diverting in a
character like Hopping Dick but which, in a man of education and culture would have
seemed as aberrant as Herald Day's adventure. Relieved of the necessity to think,
Hopping dick can escape to deacon's fate and enjoy the "natural" sensuality for which
McKay and his mentor both claimed they longed. Through the mediation of Bita's
presence each of these men is able to evade the contradictions inherent in the roles they
play in relation to each other.
This careful stalemate is undermined by the strength of the friendship between Bita
and Gensir: the one relationship that involves real passion. Compared to it there seems
to be precious little erotic energy in the relationship Bita has with Jubban. Nor, for that
matter, is there anything particularly passionate about Bita's stubborn flirtation with
Hopping Dick. It is Squire Gensir whose presence or absence stirs Bita to the core,
whose opinion she treasures most, who worries out loud about her, and is distressed
when he cannot protect her. His books and music and conversation delight her, and
once she marries he wastes away and dies, as if his continued living presence would have
compromised her tepid union with Jubban too severely. There is a particularly telling
moment during the wedding procession when Bita's horse bolts and all three men are
forced to give chase. In a passage so laden with sublimated sexuality that it seems almost
obtrusive within the text, Gensir explains his decision after this event to bequeath his
horse, a fine-bred animal, to Jubban, the driver of mules:
He explained to Bita, in making the gift, that riding
so hard the day of the wedding has stirred up
memories of his fox-hunting days. they were disturb-
ing and he had decided that he did not need a norse
any more. No doubt Jubban could make better use
of the horse than he.
Bita replied that if the memories were pleasant ones,
she thought it was fine to remember them. but
Squire Gensir replied that he did not want to be in
constant contact with things that reminded him too
forcibly of a past he had renounced. (307)
The subversive power of this barely repressed attraction constantly threatens to
overwhelm the ostensible romantic thread within the narrative and we are left once
more wondering why McKay did not simply provide some sort of closure or consumma-
tion to this relationship, even at the cost of making his story a tragedy of forbidden
Perhaps McKay remained unable to move beyond his contradictory needs to
embrace his mentor as a friend while eclipsing his power as a representative of the
enemy. Like Foucault's unequal partners, both McKay and his patron, despite their
divergent social status, shared a common acceptance of the structural terms which
defined their relationship. Jekyll may have celebrated the unencumbered sensuality of a
distant and bucolic past but, like Schopenhauer and the school of nineteenth-century
philosophy he represented, he ultimately accepted his loss of innocence as a necessary
loss, a painfully inflicted tribal scar that marked the intellectual maturity and cultural
superiority of western civilization. So too McKay. For all his nostalgia for the Jamaican
peasantry, McKay's desire for a return to a state of nature never seems more urgent
than his need to affirm his loss. He professed to feel contempt for that racially defined
circle of status and power which other Black artists clamored to enter, yet he guarded
fiercely his right to speak from within its protective ambit. Even at the point in the novel
where he pours scorn on the hypocrisy and unnaturalnesss" of Priscilla Craig, she
remains associated in his mind with the "great tradition" of an "imperial proud nation."
For a brief moment, when Bita is snatched from Gensir's protective ambit by the
insistent throbbing of the revival drums, we glimpse another cultural force that seems
potentially stronger than that represented by Gensir, but Bita is quickly removed from
its influence by Jubban before she can come under its way.
Lacking a fully articulated alternative to the best that Gensir's world represents,
McKay's novel remains dominated by the very forces of cultural hegemony which Bita's
characterization as an independently-minded black intellectual calls into question. Like
Foucault in his examination of erotic friendships between Greek men and youth,
McKay must constantly defer the moment of consummation in the relationship between
mentor and protege, or risk confronting the assumptions about power and powerless-
ness built into such opposing categories as active/passive, black/white, or natural/un-
natural. His narrative strategy allows him to maintain that his protagonists can
transcend the hierarchies through which their respective societies construct meaning
without challenging the ways in which such hierarchies situated wh6le cultures in
relation to each other. Had he allowed Bita and Gensir to articulate their desire for
each other in overtly physical terms, Mckay would have been forced to affirm even more
directly than he does how superior he considered Gensir's culture and, by extension,
how unattainable the ideal of the perfect relationship between patron and protege
As it is, it could be argued that, despite Gensir's death and his displacement in Bita's
affections by Jubban, the Squire nevertheless has the last word in her story. Bita
symbolically eclipses Gensir in the village hierarchy when she inherits his house and
library after his death, thus taking control of the cultural space he had formerly oc-
cupied. But the silent, essential peasant she marries can be read as the embodiment of
all Gensir's fantasies about the unspoiled native. Rather than challenging the terms of
his mentor's discourse, McKay, by allowing Bita to assume Gensir's role, in fact
facilitates the consummation of the relationship with an idealized notion of the folk for
which his own mentor had longed. Indeed, since Jubban is effectively deprived of
language, there is no discourse within the narrative that could have allowed for the
consummation of this relationship on terms other than Gensir's.
McKay's choice of the silent Jubban as Bita's deus ex machine suggests that though
McKay may have appreciated the vitality of Jubban's language, which Jekyll urged him
to exploit in his early dialect poems, he had yet to find a way of claiming it as a vehicle
through which to challenge or subvert Jekyll's cultural assumptions when writing about
their relationship. Without recourse to Jubban's language, McKay is foiled by the
poststructuralist double blind in Western discourse whereby, as Jacques Derrida writes
in "Structures Sign and Play,"
"we have no language no syntax and lexicon which
is alien tot his history; we cannot utter a single
destructive proposition which has not already
slipped into the form, the logic, and the implicit
postulations of precisely what it seeks to contest."(8)
And yet such a reading seems unnecessarily reductive, as it makes Jubban's silence
tantamount to a denial of his agency within the text. Jubban rarely speaks, and it is hard
to imagine that a character like Bita who is so irrestibly drawn to the seductive power of
her mentor's discourse could be aroused by his silence. Indeed our own enamourment
as readers with language and the eroticization of the word makes it difficult for us to
take seriously such ambivalent arguments as mcKay does offer in support of this
"natural" man. yet, as Homi Bhabha points out in "Signs Taken for Wonders," the
inscrutability of the native may be his strongest suit, since the colonial subject can never
be fully defined or accounted for in the terms of his master's discourse (173). Jubban
acts. And though his actions he supplants all rivals for Bita's affection. He is the only
character in the novel whose sexuality remains unmediated by the language of the
master. Jubban's most erotically charged moment is McKay's description of him singing
folk songs to the horses and mules that belong to Bita's father as he grooms them, and
McKay makes a point of telling us that Jubban alone can pick ticks from under the tail
of one particularly bad-tempered horse without being kicked in the groin (252). com-
pared to Herald Day's grotesque penetration of the nanny goat and Gensir's hysterical
fear of the excitement he experiences while riding his horse, Jubban's relationship to
this animal exudes both tenderness and mastery, and these are the qualities through
which he domesticates Bita's colonial intellect and passion for the word. Mckay's
engendering of his protege as feminine allows him to accommodate this alternative
resolution of the drama of thwarted desire between patron and protege: he circumvents
the politics of race through the hierarchies of gender.
For later-twentieth-century readers, McKay's banana Bottom provokes contradic-
tory responses to unresolved conflicts. Bita's substitution for McKay in the narrative of
patronage elides the homoerotic element in the relationship between patron and
protege that it rewrites. If we read the novel as a triumph of the imagination over
mundane social codes, then Gensir's discourse wins out over Jubban, and the text
demonstrates how the marriage of true minds transcends the boundaries of race and
class. If we read Jubban's silence as "natural" and subversive, then Jubban wins out over
Gensir, and the invincibility of the native psyche in the face of colonial appropriation is
reaffirmed. But both readings blot out the material female body of Bita, just as Bita's
very inscription in the text erases the material male body of McKay.
McKay's dilemma has continued to haunt Caribbean writers of subsequent genera-
tions. His parable of the older expatriate patron who chaperons a young female protege
through her rediscovery of her "roots" has been retold in George Lamming's Season of
Adventure (1960) and, even more directly, in Erna Brodber's Myal (1988). In lamming's
novel, there is no Jubban to pull the heroine away from the distressing and anomalous
desires unleashed by the clash of native and colonial values: the protagonist must
flounder alone through the conflicting pulls of culture and class. In Myal Brodber
returns to McKay's turn-of- the-century Jamaican village and submerges both patron
and protege in the powerful spiritual forces of the folk culture in ways that allow for a
coming together of those aspects of both cultures which best challenge the deformities
of colonial patronage. At the time in which he wrote, however, neither of these options
may have seemed viable to McKay. His novel is a passionate paean to the one man who,
more than anyone in McKay's experience, was willing to affirm his cultural worth and
grant him access to the worlds he desired, and who seemed to ask for nothing in return
but McKay's own self.
1. Banana Bottom was published by Harper in 1933. All quotations from the novel are taken from the 1961
edition, republished by Harper and Row.
2. Most of the information about McKay's friendship with Jekyll that follows appears in McKay's autobiog-
raphy, A Long Way From Home (hereafter LW), pp. 13-17, 38-39 and 59; the autobiographical fragment
My Green Hills of Jamaica (hereafter GH), chapters 16- 20; and from Wayne Cooper's definitive biog-
raphy, Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance (hereafter RSJ).
3. Under Jekyll's tutelage McKay read Pope, Milton, the Elizabethan lyricists, the late Victorian poets,
Dante, Leopardi, Goethe, Baudelaire, Wilde, and Whitman as well as a wide range of nineteenth-century
philosophers, including Jekyll's favorites: Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and Sopinoza (LW, 13-14).
4. McKay's bisexuality is well documented by Cooper (cf. RSJ, 75, 150) and Jekyll was almost certainly
homosexual. Cooper mentions Jekyll's long intimate friendship with Ernest Boyle who followed Jekyll to
Jamaica after he settled there permanently in 1895 (RSJ, 30). Cooper also points out that in a 1918 essay
discussing Wilde, Edward Carpenter, and Walt Whitman as three of the writers whose work he discussed
with Jekyll. Cooper reads this grouping as an indirect acknowledgment on McKay's part that
homosexuality was at least a theme in his education through Jekyll (RSJ, 30- 31). In addition there was a
well established tradition of men of Jekyll's station in the colonies taking homosexual lovers of subor-
dinate social status (cf. Ronald Hyman, Britain's Imperial Century, 135-147). Cooper points out that Jekyll
had another mentoring relationship with a promising singer, Johnny Lyons, after McKay left Jamaica, and
that when he died he left his entire library to an unnamed Jamaican peasant whom McKay's brother
describes as "an ignorant fellow from Hanover Parish" (RSJ, 31). However, McKay stresses that Jekyll's
lifestyle was extremely ascetic, and it would be completely in character for a late victorian of his ec-
centricity to have eschewed all forms of overt sexual expression.
5. McKay lists Arnold's Literature and dogma, Draper's The conflict Between Religion and Science,
Heckel's the Riddle of the Universe, and a number of Herbert Spencer's works among those he first en-
countered in his brother's library (GH, 19). Periodicals and novels carried by the village library included
The Spectator, The Windsor, the weekly times, the New York Herald and the novels of Mrs. Gaskell, Char-
les Dickens, Walter Scott, Mrs. Humphrey Ward, Marie Corelli, and Mrs. Henry Wood, whose East Lynne
was a favorite of McKay's (GH, 44; Lw, 12). Mckay also mentions having encountered several turn-of-the
century treatises on sexuality in his brother's library, but he does not identify these by name (LW, 245).
6. See Jamaica times (4th March, 1912): 20. McKay's poem anticipates many of the sentiments expressed in
his later sonnets on racial injustice. I quote the first and last two stanzas from it here for comparison:
O you sons of Afric's soil,
Dying' in a foreign land,
Crushed beneath' de moil and toil,
Break, break de oppressor's hand
shake de burden off your backs,
Show de tyrants dat you're strong;
Fight for freedom's rights, you blacks!
Ring de slaves' old battle-song!
Gordon's heart here bleeds for you,
He will lead to victory-
We will conquer every foe
Or together gladly die.
7. See Tom Redcam's review of "an All-Jamaican Entertainment," Jamaica times (15th June 1912): 11 for a
description of one such performance at the James Hill literary society in Clarendon. The announcement of
McKay's first prize in "T.P.'s Federal Band of Song," a competition run from england for aspiring poets
scattered throughout the Empire, appears in Jamaica times (4th May 1912): 20.
8. David Halperin's essay on "The Democratic Body: Prostitution and Citizenship in classical Athens: goes
even further than I do here as he reads the shame that was associated with the receptive partner in a
homosexual relationship as well as the disenfranchisement of homosexual prostitutes in classical Greece as
evidence of the way in which the ideas of full citizenship in Athens was worked out around the notion of
the inviolability of the male citizen's body. conversely, he reads the unbiquity of affordable prostitutes of
both sexes as affirming the citizen's right to exercise his phallic prerogative with respect to the bodies of
9. See David Lewi's When Harlem was in Vogue (98-103) for a survey of the major white patrons of Black
culture during the 1920s and 1930s and a discussion of their motives. Lewis records the misgivings ex-
pressed by McKay and W.E.B. Dubois about the literary implications of such patronage (175-8), while Eric
Garber in his essay on "The Lesbian Subculture of Jazz-Age Harlem" cities many examples of its sexual im-
10. Conversely, one could argue, as Trumper does at the end of George Lamming's novel In the Castle of
My Skin, that the racial lines in the Caribbean were so much part of the status quo that they became in-
visible within the social discourse or were mediated purely by class. In Harlem, Paris and London during
the interwar years many of these boundaries were being transgressed in the highly charged atmosphere of
racial intimacy within bohemian circles. McKay may have felt insecure because distinctions he took for
granted in Jamaica had to be reasserted or refigured in this more volatile social situation.
11. The editor Max Eastman was a faithful friend and financial supporter of McKay for decades. John
Reed's wealthy widow, Louise Bryant Bullit, supplied McKay with the funds to live in Europe and North
Africa while he was writing Home to Harlem (LW, 2534) McKay also received generous handouts from
the cinema magnate Rex Ingram while he was in Europe (LW, 272). His first trip to England was financed
by a Mr. Gray, an associate of Jekyll's who was trying to found a utopian colony for artists and intellectuals
in Singapore (LW, 38ff).
12. See for example DuBois's vitriolic attack on Home to Harlem, in "The Browsing Reader," in which he
claims that after reading McKay's novel he felt distinctly in need of a bath. Du Bois accuses McKay of
catering to "that prurient demand on the part of white folks for a porayal in negroes of that utter licen-
tiousness which convention holds white folk back from enjoying if enjoying it can be labelled" (20).
13. For further discussion of McKay's position, see Michael Stoff on "Claude McKay and the Cult of
Primitivism." Like other critics, Stoff sees Banana Bottom as coming closest to resolving the crisis of intel-
lect versus instinct in McKay's writing a reading my essay challenges.
14. The Pun may not be entirely fortuitous. Cooper cites a letter from Jekyll's brother Herbert to the ar-
chivist Frank Cundall in jamaica in which herbert claims that Walter was friendly with Robert Louis
Stevenson in the 1890s and probably lent his name to Stevenson's fictional Dr. Jekyll. Cooper implies that
the real Jekyll may have left England when he did in 1895 to avoid the notoriety created by possible paral-
lels between his eccentricities and those of Stevenson's character (cf. RSJ, 23 n77 & 78).
15. Homi Bhabha anticipates my argument here when he points out in "Of Mimcry and Men" the dif-
ference between what he calls the "colonial articulation of man and his doubles and that which Foucault
describes [in the Order of Things II, Chap. 9) as 'thinking the unthough,' which for nineteenth-century
Europe is the ending of man's alienation by reconciling gim with his essence" (132). Bhabha uses this dis-
tinction to argue that colonial discourse about the nature of the colonized subject articulates the
colonizer's desire for an authentic historical consciousness. My argument takes his notion of mimicry a
step further as it sees the ways in which the native's discourse refracts and attempts to appropriate the
colonizer's desire for authenticity as articulating the desire of the colonized for the colonizer's power.
16. McKay makes Glengley fills "near white" like Crazy Bow. Thus, even as he allows Bita to describe her
persecutor as a "slimy white hog" (263), McKay seems to imply that a "pure" white man might have acted
17. Mervyn Morris's discussion in "Contending Values: The Prose Fiction of Claude McKay" of the two
poles of behaviour represented by Ray and Jake in Home to Harlem connects the unresolved conflicts in
their relationship with McKay's later presentation of Bita. James Giles in Claude McKay calls Banana Bot-
tom McKay's "best artistic statement of the ideal wedding of instinct with intellect" and sees its main char-
acter, Bita, as making "an intellect" and sees its main character, Bita, as making "a believable commitment
to such an ideal" (20). Maria Diedrich in Kimmunismus Im afroamerlkanlsche Roman argues that be-
cause she is a woman, Bita, in McKay's eyes, cannot suppress her sexuality, so "the spiritual conflict is ul-
timately resolved through her sexuality a solution in keeping with the ideals of the Harlem Renaissance,
which points to the influences of Dadaism, Expressionism, and Freudianism on McKay" (p. 93, my transla-
tion). Rupert and Maureen Lewis in "Claude McKay's Jamaica" see Bita's marriage to Jubban as an unsuc-
cessful attempt by McKay to resolve class and race contradictions in his own experience.
Wayne F. Cooper, Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance,
Louisiana State University Press, 1987, 369 pp.
The Passion of Claude McKay, Wayne F. Cooper's comprehensive anthology
(Schocken Books, 1973), gave convenient access to useful material that was not yet
generally known and which enhanced our understanding of McKay. By his Claude
McKay: Rebel Sojoumer in the Harlem Renaissance, Dr. Cooper has put us further in his
This is a scrupulous well-researched biography. Wayne Cooper has interviewed
many persons who knew the man. He has made extensive use of McKay's own writings,
many of them autobiographical, and has examined widely scattered documents, some
not yet available in libraries. from citations in the biography, the William Aspenwall
Bradley Papers (in private possession) would seem to be of particular interest. Bradley,
an American living in Paris, was from 1926 until 1932 Home to Harlem, Banjo,
Gingertown McKay's long-suffering and efficient literary agent.
Locating McKay historically in colonial Jamaica (for example), the Harlem
Renaissance, English politics in the 1920s, the Russian revolution, the development of
Negritude, the post- Depression United States Cooper also reminds us that many of
the ideas McKay explored some decades ago are of continuing significance: such as the
importance of black community, the relation between Marxism and race, and the
relation between politics and art.
Sympathetic but not uncritical, this biography ably portrays the complex, often
troublesome personality and the maverick intelligence of Claude McKay. It argues
throughout that awareness of his early life and influences in Jamaica is essential to an
understanding of the later McKay. "McKay's personality, as well as the major elements
of his creative life and aesthetic tendencies, were already formed by the time he left
Jamaica in 1912 at the age of twenty-two. In his adult life he tended to repeat certain
fundamental behavioral patterns that had been established during his early years in
The book gives plenty of information about the lifelong wanderings of Claude
McKay in the United States, England; the Soviet Union, Germany, France, North
Africa; his ambivalence; his relationships with family, friends and patrons, from Walter
Jekyll to the Roman Catholic church. Intellectually independent, McKay was constantly
in need of psychological and practical support: "on a personal level, his private life
remained fixed within a cycle of dependence upon a succession of father-figures."
Cooper traces the development of McKay's literary and political opinions, supplying
details of the many ideological debates in which he became involved. He offers an
account of McKay's books and the critical reception of them. Of particular note is his
warm commendation of McKay's non-fiction prose, particularly Harlem: Negro
This absorbing biography makes a substantial contribution to our knowledge of
NOTES ON CONTRIBUTORS
a writer, is Training Manager at Grace Kennedy
and Co Ltd.
is an Associate professor at Amherst College in the
is a senior lecturer in the Department of English,
the University of the West Indies, Mona.
a writer who has written extensively on Claude McKay.
is a consultant psychaitrist.
lectures at the Roehampton Institute in the United
a poet, teaches at Trinity School in New York
(Reviews of these books are invited. Interested persons should write the Editor quoting
the titles) of the books) concerned prior to reviewing them.)
Integration and Participatory Development :Selected Papers and proceedings of the
Second Conference of Caribbean EconomistsEd. J. Wedderbum Friedrick Ebert Stiftlung
F.E.S. in collaboration with the Association of Caribbean Economists. (ACE) Nov. 1990
I.S.B.N. 976. 8096. 07.X
Under the Storyteller's Spell. Folk Tales from the Caribbean Editor Faustin Charles
Adult Education Basic Shills Culture Development and Culture Roger Van 'I Rood
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Supplement to a Guide to Source Materials for the Study of Barbados History, 1627-
1834, Jerome S.Handler, pp.89 ISBN 0- 916617-35-1 The John Carter Brown Library and
the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, Rhode Island 1991
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Storm Signals: Structural Adjustment and Development Alternatives in the Caribbean,
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