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A Legless Black Man Comes Into a Windfall in This Biting Satire

Unpublished during McKay’s lifetime, “Romance in Marseille” is the second novel by the author to appear recently, following the 2017 publication of “Amiable With Big Teeth,” a book written in 1941 that remained completely unknown until the scholar Jean-Christophe Cloutier stumbled upon the typescript in an archive a decade ago. Together, the books signal a remarkable revival for a writer who, when he died in 1948, had seen all the work he published during his lifetime, including four poetry volumes, three novels, an autobiography and a major study of black life in Harlem, fall out of print.

McKay has long been celebrated as one of the most distinguished voices of the Harlem Renaissance — his 1922 poetry collection “Harlem Shadows” is often cited as one of the books that inaugurated the movement — but much of his legacy is still underappreciated. Part of the challenge is the sheer breadth of his activity, as a poet, political activist and social critic as well as a novelist.

Although he corresponded and collaborated with some Harlem intellectuals, McKay, who was born in Jamaica, spent most of the 1920s outside New York and moved in much broader circles: He met with George Bernard Shaw and worked for Sylvia Pankhurst in London; he saw Isadora Duncan dance in her studio in Nice; he haunted cafes in Tangier with Paul Bowles and Henri Cartier-Bresson. As W. E. B. Du Bois put it, more than any other black intellectual of the era, McKay invented himself as an “international Negro.”

From today’s vantage point, McKay looks all the more like the harbinger of a global era. “Amiable With Big Teeth,” which is set in 1935-36 amid efforts by the Harlem intelligentsia to raise money in support of Ethiopia after it had been invaded by Mussolini’s Italy, is an unsparing satire of the shenanigans of self-appointed backdoor diplomats and manipulators of public opinion — a historical novel with newfound contemporary resonance. “Romance in Marseille,” like his sprawling 1929 classic “Banjo,” also set in the south of France, shows McKay presciently grappling with the destinies of those he calls the “outcasts and outlaws of civilizations” — migrants in thriving port cities central to the flow of global commerce — and with the violent upheavals and desperate striving that deposited them there.

If McKay’s two Marseille novels take place during the 1920s “era of the high seas black stowaway,” as Holcomb and Maxwell note in their introduction, the books’ more footloose stories of black vagabonds — McKay’s preferred term — from around the world washing up together on the shores of Europe forecast the confusion and anguish of what has, nearly a century later, erupted into a global migration crisis. McKay’s political critique remains biting: In their brutality, his Marseille books insist that, then as now, it is always “the poor, the vagabonds, the bums of life” who pay the heaviest price “for banditry in high places.”

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