Newly discovered novel by the great chronicler of the Harlem Renaissance, a sweeping satire of clashing ideologies and ambitions north of 110th Street.
“The time was ungodly tough for God’s swarthy step-children”: written in 1941, McKay’s novel describes a time a few years earlier, when Harlem was alive with talk of African-American civil rights as Franklin Roosevelt entered his third term as president. The proponents of “Aframerican”—McKay’s coinage—self-determination have a new cause in an Ethiopia beset by an invasion on the part of fascist Italy. As the novel opens, a certain Pablo Peixota, said to be Brazilian, is at the head of a boisterous crowd gathered to honor the arrival of an envoy from Haile Selassie’s besieged throne; “the Emperor of Ethiopia had condescended,” McKay writes, “to send a representative as a token of his goodwill and to give encouragement and inspiration to the efforts of the Aframericans.” Most effortful of all is a strange fellow named Professor Koazhy, who arrives “bedecked in a uniform so rare, so gorgeous, it made the people prance and shout for joy.” He aims, it seems, to outdo the emperor himself in splendor, but the good professor has other intentions. So, too, do the local Communists, who, seeing a political movement building, can’t help but want to co-opt it: “the Hands to Ethiopia was not interesting as one means of defending Ethiopia, but only as an organization that might be captured by the Marxists to help expand the gargantuanesque inflated maw of the Popular Front.” Against this backdrop of rising contention are a string of characters who, with aims ranging from the noble to the self-serving, drop in and out of the narrative. McKay writes with broad, pointed humor without resorting to lampooning, although the symbolism gets a little heavier handed as it arrives at an unexpectedly violent close.
Full of now-arcane references to historical moments and political movements past but still engaging and well-paced.