Claude McKay was the first-ever best-selling black author. His novel Home to Harlem (1928) sold more than 50,000 copies, a huge number by the standards of the day. It told of the discrimination and poverty faced by the black underclass in 1920s New York City, as hundreds of thousands of Afro-Americans settled in the Depression-blighted cities of the North. But it also celebrated the intense cultural energy that emerged from this vast exodus from plantation to metropolis, an energy which expressed itself in the archetypal urban sound of jazz and the rich literature of the Harlem Renaissance.
McKay’s life was every bit as colourful as a piece of fiction. Born in Jamaica in 1890 into a poor rural family, he worked as a police constable before emigrating to the US at the age of 22. There he took several menial jobs and experienced poverty at first hand while learning his craft as poet and novelist. He was also a revolutionary, joining the Communist Party and travelling to the Soviet Union to denounce the racism and lynchings of the American South. His life was spent restlessly moving from the US, to Europe, to Africa, and back to the US, where he eventually settled, renouncing his Marxism and embracing Catholicism before his premature death in 1948.
McKay never returned to his native Jamaica, but his childhood, spent in the lush countryside of Clarendon Parish, features large in both his poetry and his fiction. He saw these early years as an idyll, a period of harmony in which natural beauty and a sense of community forged the innocent happiness of childhood. But McKay was not uncritically sentimental about colonial Jamaica in the early years of the 20th century. He knew that the great majority of black children were condemned to lives of menial labour and deprivation in a colour-coded and hierarchical society. He had had the good fortune to be bright, and to have an older brother who was a village schoolteacher, able to nurture his younger sibling’s intellectual development. His contemporaries were unlikely to encounter such advantages and faced enormous obstacles to self-improvement.
McKay’s most celebrated Jamaican novel, Banana Bottom, explores many of these issues. Set in a remote agricultural village community, it clearly reflects many of the author’s childhood experiences. In part a celebration of the best of rural life, it is also a powerful commentary on the pervasive power of racism and the conflict within Jamaican culture between “official” colonial attitudes and the beliefs and practices of the majority African-descended population.
I don’t know whether McKay had read George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, first published in 1916, but there is something similar in this novel’s central theme of a girl removed from her habitat and turned into something else. In this case, the social engineering is applied to Bita Plant, black daughter of a relatively successful local farmer, who has the misfortune to be raped at an early age by the village lunatic. This distressing experience allows the local English missionaries, Malcolm and Priscilla Craig, to intervene and send Bita away to England for a boarding-school education. Their idea, it becomes clear, is to create a cultured, morally irreproachable young woman who will make a wife fit for the Jamaican-born preacher who they hope will carry on their good works.
The novel begins with the return of Bita after her long English exile. It seems that the Craigs’ plan has worked, for she is effortlessly well mannered and educated, a beacon of comportment among the rough-and-ready youth of rustic Banana Bottom. Not that this makes her feel superior or self-conscious, for even an English boarding school has not corrupted Bita’s human warmth and modesty. Indeed, it rapidly becomes apparent that, although the peasant’s daughter has learned literary and musical accomplishment, she has not, in the most fundamental sense, changed. Bita’s return to Banana Bottom is like a return to life. Every detail of everyday existence is rich and colourful:
The noises of the market were sweeter in her ears than a symphony. Accents and rhythms, movements and colours, nuances that might have passed unnoticed if she had never gone away, were now revealed to her in all their striking detail.
To use the old formula, McKay is suggesting that while you can take the girl out of Banana Bottom, you can’t take Banana Bottom out of the girl. She may be versed in the attitudes of her English missionary protectors (evangelical Protestantism, strict moral conduct, respect for “high” culture), but she is also instinctively drawn to the life and values of her real community (tolerance, religious freedom, joie de vivre). McKay contrasts the formality and frigidity of the mission house with the simplicity and sensuality of village life, leaving us in no doubt as to what he feels to be authentic and desirable. While the Craigs disapprove of “their” Bita attending dances and associating with young men from the village, she feels increasingly drawn to a culture that has its roots in the soil and in the traditions of the Jamaican peasantry.
McKay has an important point to make about the negative impact on Jamaican life of an alien, essentially colonial, ideology. Throughout the novel he comments on the stupidity of a system that reserves civil service jobs for light-skinned individuals and disparages the culture of the majority. But there are also moments of considerable beauty and energy when McKay describes the rites and pleasures of rural life: dances, weddings, religious services. And there is even a wicked vein of humour in his treatment of the Craigs and the catastrophic collapse of their aspirations for Bita. The man they want her to marry, a smug and snobbish preacher named Herald Newton, finally encounters a bizarre and not entirely undeserved downfall when he is found by a parishioner engaged in intimate relations with a goat.
Happily, Bita avoids an arranged marriage with the goat-fancying Newton and marries a solid son of the earth, Jubban. This marks her return to the community of Banana Bottom and her embrace of all that is vital and life-affirming about the people she was born among. This positive outcome is assisted by one of the novel’s more curious characters, an expatriate and aristocratic Englishman named Squire Gensir, who has abandoned the coldness of his native land to live among the peasantry of Jamaica. Collecting folk songs and appreciating other expressions of folk culture, Squire Gensir voices McKay’s belief that the real creative force of the Caribbean lies in its deep-rooted rural traditions. Implausible he may seem, until one learns that McKay’s early education was encouraged and financially supported by an expatriate Englishman named Walter Jekyll.
In some senses Banana Bottom seems dated today, its critique of colonial values very much a product of its time. But McKay’s affection for his long-lost Jamaican village shines through the political message that he is keen to impart. Cold and hungry in the harsh world of Harlem, McKay often remembered a warmer world of solidarity and celebration, and it is that world, perhaps now no more than a nostalgic memory, that this novel so charmingly evokes.