Over the past month, I’ve read Claude McKay’s Banjo (1929), his posthumously published Romance in Marseille (2020), and his memoir A Long Way from Home (1937). Numerous thematic threads run throughout these texts; however, as I read A Long Way from Home, one specific theme jumped out at me, specifically McKay’s discussion, at various points in his memoir, about the ways that racism and xenophobia do not disappear with the advent of a new social system that promises equality and equity. McKay highlights this during his travels in Soviet Russia a few years after the revolution and during his time in Marseille when he interacts with a French official. These moments echo what Martin Luther King, Jr. writes in Letter from Birmingham Jail: “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
During his time in Russia, McKay has dinner with an “English governess” who, “had married a second- or third-class Russian official.” The woman embraced Russia, curtsying every morning to a picture of Lenin in her living room. However, she maintained aspects of her old bourgeoisie life, because next to Lenin she had a picture of King George, representing the nation where she was born and her “adopted country.” As well, she had a picture of the former Czar hanging on the wall, with the Czarina scratched out. She had this, she said, because the Czar was King George’s cousin. From all indications, the woman loves Russia and chose to remain there following the Revolution.
However, her love for Russia and its burgeoning political system do not stymie her prejudices. When McKay goes to the restroom, he sees a handwritten sign above the toilet that reads, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” in English. He asks the woman about the sign, and she tells him, “When the Russians don’t understand, they will ask, because they are a curious people. I have to have these English hints around to remind them we are a superior people.” The woman makes it a point to “remind” her Russian visitors of her superiority because she is English. Even though she lives and works under the communist system, one that strove in its doctrine to unite all classes, she maintains her prejudices and her feelings of entitlement due to her nationality.
Along with the anecdote about the Englishwoman, McKay details a story he heard about Walter Newbold, “the first Communist candidate elected to the British House of Commons.” Upon his arrival in Moscow for the Fourth Congress of International Communism, a member from the Chinese Young Communists met Newbold in the lobby at the Lux Hotel. The Chinese man walked up to the Englishman and said, “Comrade Newbold — .”Before the man got out another word, Newbold responded, “Hello, C****.”
Immediately, Newbold’s anti-Chinese xenophobia kicked in, and he called the man a racial slur. The man told Newbold, “But Comrade Newbold, I am not a C****.” This did not deter Newbold, though, because before he turned and walked away, he asked the man, “Who told you that you weren’t?” Just like the Englishwoman, the ideals of class unity across borders for the betterment of society drifts away under deep rooted prejudices that do not easily get uprooted once someone buys into a new political and economic system.
Even when someone such as Le Corse proclaims the ideals of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité as he walks with McKay in Marseille, the prejudices and feelings of superiority manifest themselves. As McKay and Le Corse walk along the quay, the pair pass “a group of Senegalese.” Le Corse makes a gesture towards the group of individuals, and turning to McKay, he says, “They’re no good.” McKay, taken aback, rebuffs Le Corse’s comment by proclaiming, “I am just like them,” Of course, McKay refers to his phenotype here, saying that he is a Black man just as they are Black men, even though they are from different countries.
Le Corse tells McKay, “No, you’re American,” and the he proceeds to as his companion, “Why should you imagine yourself like them because you are of the same complexion?” Le Corse views McKay as different from the Senegalese due to their political and class positions. McKay comes from the United States; he is free. The Senegalese, however, are under French colonial control. They exist as subjects to Le Corse. They exist to serve Le Corse and to serve as a buffer between France and Germany in the Rhineland. In many ways, Le Corse’s statement echoes a statement that McKay heard from a Communist official in Russia who told him that Blacks needed to be won over to Communism because they would make “splendid soldiers.” The official essentially says that Black men would be best as cannon fodder, bullet sponges on the front line. McKay follows up the discussion of the Russian official by noting, “The head of the French General Staff had proclaimed to the world the same thing, that France with its African empire had an army of a hundred millions.”
Le Corse continues by telling McKay that while he shares a complexion with “Spaniards and Portuguese” he views himself as superior to them. As a result, he views himself as extremely superior to the Senegalese he encounters. Like the Germans, he views the Senegalese as a threat, especially when it comes to their interactions with White French women. Le Corse’s comments mirror characters in McKay’s novels and moments in William Gardner Smith’s The Stone Face where the main character, Simeon, a Black man from the United States, gets called “white” by his Algerian friends even though they look closer to the French than he does. They call him this because, like McKay, the French do not view Simeon as a threat, yet the French view the Algerians as a threat because they are French colonial subjects and revolting against colonization. (I plan to write about this some more in the future.)
Ultimately, no matter where he goes, prejudice arises. Even during his time in Morocco, where McKay says he felt the least “color conscious,” he “was confronted by the specter, the white terror always pursuing the black. There was no escape anywhere from the white hound of Civilization.” McKay highlights the ongoing prejudices that, no matter what societal change happens, remain rooted deep within the ground. They don’t pull up easily. To eradicate them, they must burn.
In the next post, I’ll continue this discussion some, specifically looking at what McKay says about the role of art in illuminating and educating. Until then, what are your thoughts? As always, let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.