In the mid-1930s, amid the Second World War and the Great Depression, competing forms of internationalism—the Communist International, Black Internationalism, the League of Nations—defined the political zeitgeist. In the United States as elsewhere, writers, artists, and activists weighed the possibilities and constraints of these and other formations, as individuals felt increasingly compelled to take a stand in world affairs. Yet even at a time when countless intellectuals embraced an internationalist politics, the cosmopolitan career of Jamaican-born writer Claude McKay stands out.
His extended sojourns took him from Jamaica to Tuskegee to New York City, then to London, Marseille, Moscow, and Morocco, among many more locales; and the global savoir faire borne of this nomadism infuses his final and recently discovered novel, Amiable with Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem, written by McKay in 1941 and unearthed in a Columbia University archive in 2009 by Jean-Christophe Cloutier, then a graduate student.
Expertly edited by Cloutier and Brent Hayes Edwards, the publication of Amiable with Big Teeth is indeed a monumental literary event, as the book’s dust jacket claims. The magnitude of this event, though, has less to do with the novel’s unforgettable gallery of Harlem’s politicos and tricksters and literati, or its time capsule depiction of black diaspora solidarity—unexpected literary gifts, to be sure—than with its treatment of a quirky but crucial conundrum: the puzzling nature of the relationship, or “love affair,” between blacks and Communists during the peak of internationalist activism.
Set against the backdrop of Fascist Italy’s gruesome invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, the plot sets in motion a rivalry between the “Aframerican”-based Hands to Ethiopia, led by Pablo Peixota, a Brazilian-born businessman, and the Soviet-backed White Friends of Ethiopia, headed up by Maxim Tasan, a mysterious Communist villain. Opening with a fundraising event convened in a Harlem church, Amiable with Big Teeth assembles a motley, effervescent cast of characters, including Professor Koazhy, a bombastic Afrocentrist and leader of the (self-described) Senegambians; Newton Castle, a servile black Communist; Lij Tekla Alamaya, a naive and endearing envoy from Ethiopia; and Seraphine Peixota, the spoiled but wily daughter of Pablo Peixota. Whereas the self-made Peixota père established his fortune in the numbers game, and has since become a respectable power broker in Harlem, Tasan appears to be supported by Party largesse.
Though Harlem truly throbs for Ethiopia—an independent country long idealized in the Pan-African imagination—this historical emergency provides the perfect backdrop to explore the ideological dramas of the Popular Front moment. The novel further pairs characters into mini-rivalries that play out on the ideological seesaw of communism/anticommunism. Politically, Amiable with Big Teeth wants to blast the communist side off the seesaw and into the ether, but what unfolds in this intricate narrative is a more complex and ambiguous affair.
In addition to the Fascist Italian and Nazi threats, Amiable with Big Teeth is alert to other rhetorical deployments of “fascism” circulating in the 1930s. In one chapter, titled “The Branding of a Black Fascist,” a respected black anticommunist named Dorsey Flagg attempts to deflect the “black fascist” smear campaign hurled at him by Newton Castle. But who, or what, is a black fascist? In 2000, Paul Gilroy wrote an essay titled “Black Fascism,” which highlights the reactionary modernism of Marcus Garvey’s back-to-Africa program alongside later initiatives by black political actors who sought “disastrous bond[s] across the color line.”1 Part of Garvey’s program included, under the aegis of diasporic restoration, the colonization of African land, especially the vaunted territory of Ethiopia. To some extent, one might add, Garvey and his progeny were also absorbing the sartorial, disciplinary, aspirational, and symbolic elements of the phenomenon that Susan Sontag called “fascinating fascism.”2
The Communist “love affair” with the African diaspora perplexes because there is relatively little, politically speaking, to be gained from it.
In his 2007 study Black Fascisms: African American Literature and Culture between the Wars, Mark Christian Thompson expands on Gilroy’s thesis by arguing that certain writers, including Garvey, Zora Neale Hurston, McKay, George Schuyler, and Richard Wright, “turned to fascism to advance their own needs.” “With the idea of the fascist state as their starting point,” writes Thompson, “these African American intellectuals appropriated and elaborated on fascist ideology as a means of revolutionary black nation building.”3
In rarer cases, this appropriation involved an equivocal or hostile attitude toward Jews, if not the outright expression of anti-Semitic vitriol. In late 1930s editorials, as Cloutier and Edwards point out, McKay cautioned black America against such appeals both at home and from abroad, even as he defended figures accused of anti-Semitism, like Sufi Abdul Hamid, the controversial Harlem labor leader and convert to Islam. The conventional wisdom on black and fascist alliances holds that, versus milquetoast or Janus-faced liberals, the fascists were at least honest and open about their racist convictions; on that basis and where mutual interests coincide, deals could be struck. If Elijah Muhammad sought to establish common ground with the KKK on segregation, for example, then the Nation of Islam could leverage that relationship into acquisition of property in the South: the key ingredient in Muhammad’s goal (shared by many before and since) to establish a sovereign and successful black nation within the nation.
But McKay seems not to take the idea of black fascism too seriously. In the novel, it is an invective concocted by communists in order to discredit anticommunists. Amiable with Big Teeth portrays Sufi Abdul Hamid, among other supposed black fascists, as a sympathetic figure. Beyond a sincere commitment to black people, what the worldly Dorsey Flagg has in common with Afrocentrists Hamid and Professor Koazhy is the label “black fascist” hurled at them by communists. The historical Hamid and the fictional Koazhy might disseminate dubious views in Harlem, but in this narrative they love black people and are dedicated to their empowerment, as they see it. More importantly, they have disciplined muscle at their command.
In chapter 10, the Hands to Ethiopia organize a rally in the church of Rev. Zebulon Trawl, a pillar in the community who invites figures with contrary views and beliefs to his church to exchange opinions on matters of common interest. When the Communist-led White Friends of Ethiopia whip up an antifascist protest outside Reverend Zebulon’s church, where the Friends of Ethiopia committee have convened a meeting, the black men survey the crowd before taking action. As the clamor intensifies,
Professor Koazhy whispered to Sufi Abdul Hamid. Then he clapped his hands and boomed, “Senegambians! Senegambians!” And Sufi Abdul Hamid shouted, “Any Sufists in the crowd, step forward!” Quickly appeared a number of Professor Koazhy’s students, and the bodyguards of Sufi Abdul Hamid surrounded him. “Seize that flag,” Professor Koazhy commanded, “and stop that damned demonstration.”
They squelch the demonstration, but Peixota, for one, is “puzzled by the situation,” unable to grasp why the communists are so invested in their organization, the Hands to Ethiopia, or in black affairs more generally:
He saw what the White Friends, using Newton Castle as their instrument, were aiming at—the control of his organization. But he could not understand why they should seek such control, why they should be expending so much energy and subterfuge to obtain their ends. For he could not see the colored group as an effective asset in furthering the policy of Soviet Russia. If it were to win the colored people over to the Communist Party, their tactics were absurd, he thought, for political converts are not made by that type of propaganda.
If the hope to gain converts via propaganda is misguided, one reason that the Communists seek to control blacks is merely for the sake of wielding control: even an illusion of control can appear, to its wielders, like real power or legitimacy. But this explanation, as McKay understands, does not quite make sense in the Harlem context, since the group over whom the Communists seek control is itself relatively powerless. On the other hand, perhaps their (perceived) powerlessness in the United States redounds in tangible ways to Soviet power. Or maybe the “Aframericans” are not as powerless as Peixota imagines? As the novel shows, the Harlem elite are capable of mobilizing considerable capital and human resources, especially when their political passions are aroused.
But as I’ve argued elsewhere, if the energies expended by Communists in support of black empowerment were so disproportionate to any real or imagined benefits, then what was the point? In the reflections of Peixota quoted above, the key words are instrument, control, and ends: the novel foregrounds the absence of a coherent relationship among them. Even if the Soviet-Aframerican connection originates in politics, the novel suggests another kind of relationship altogether, insofar as the instrumental function intrinsic to political mobilization is absent or insignificant in this context. In one key definition, politics presumes some form of instrumentality—an articulation of means and ends—and requires some proportion between its causes and effects.
McKay doesn’t know the answer to this riddle, either, but Amiable with Big Teeth represents his attempt to work out the problem in fictional form. He tries hard to convince the reader that whatever motivates the Communists in Harlem, they cannot be trusted; they are up to no good. Yet by posing a seldom-asked question that it cannot resolve, the narrative destabilizes its own anticommunist critique and gestures toward a more profound insight. Symbolized by the enigmatic Tasan, the Comintern (or Third International) accrues a certain appeal by virtue of its surprisingly noninstrumental relation with black people. The Communist “love affair” with the African diaspora perplexes because there is relatively little, politically speaking, to be gained from it. The notion that the Soviet investment in racial equality simply served a useful geopolitical function is an inadequate explanation. Tasan so confounds Peixota because the latter can understand neither his motives nor his objectives.
If Tasan remains inscrutable, his work ethic is not. I will outwork you: it is difficult to avoid this ironic and irresistible impression. He works not only harder, but smarter. Because the Communists aim always to win, to prevail over enemies and to generate converts, he can focus on any problem at hand with ruthless efficiency. What enables such intensity, it’s worth noting, is the absence of any messy desires that might distract his focus and impede total victory, however that is defined in any given situation.
McKay also imbues Tasan (“an expert fixer of little as well as big things”) with an uncanny intuitiveness to match his pavement-pounding propaganda efforts. When Newton Castle, paralyzed by fear, abandons the body of a dead white woman and Party member, Tasan arrives just in time to prevent a crisis. A reporter from a salacious newspaper shows up on the scene right before Tasan drives off with the woman’s body, which he takes to a fellow-traveling doctor. “I beat him to it,” says the fixer. “I’m always here, there and everywhere, just at the right time.”
Aframericans, as Amiable with Big Teeth seems to imply, simply cannot compete with these masters of subversion. Despite earnest efforts, black America is hampered by too many internecine struggles and external strictures to respond adequately to Communist incursions. By the novel’s end, and in order for the black characters to regain a measure of self-respect, they must destroy the devilish Tasan, who knows “from experience … what it meant to be an ally of Satan.”
The novel stages Tasan’s demise in an elegant plot orchestrated by Professor Koazhy and his Senegambian disciples. With its demonstration of righteous black cunning, Tasan’s gruesome comeuppance is meant to satisfy; and for many readers, surely it does. Yet a perverse reading of the conclusion must ask a trickier question: why did Tasan—admittedly, an unlikely figure of love—sacrifice himself in a destructive sequence that he brought entirely upon himself, for reasons that are unclear?
For McKay’s villain, was Harlem merely an excursion into an exotic underworld, an interlude before the serious business awaiting him in the mounting Spanish Civil War (which eclipses Ethiopia in the public’s consciousness) or in the Soviet Union? Or were the irrepressible, sinister energies that Tasan directed toward Harlem’s “poor black sheep” suggestive of some elusive but signal truth about Communism and racial equality? If the Communist involvement in black politics evolved from a comradely yet tactical and exploitative relationship into an ultimately obsessive and self-destructive attachment—well, is that not after all a kind of love affair?