Review: Winston James.  Claude McKay: The Making of a Black Bolshevik

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Subject: H-Net Review [H-Socialisms]:  Calver on James, 'Claude McKay: The Making of a Black Bolshevik'
Winston James.  Claude McKay: The Making of a Black Bolshevik.  New
York  Columbia University Press, 2022.  464 pp.  $32.00 (paper), ISBN

Reviewed by Jasmine Calver (Independent Scholar)
Published on H-Socialisms (March, 2023)
Commissioned by Gary Roth

Black and Bolshevik: A Biography of Claude McKay

Claude McKay was a cornerstone of the Harlem Renaissance, the African
American intellectual and cultural movement originating in New York
City after World War I. His literary output, specifically his "songs
of struggle," contributed to the formulation of black nationalist
ideology in the United States. But how did McKay's political
consciousness develop? What were the driving factors behind his
radicalization? How did his experiences during his youth in Jamaica,
his initial influential years in the United States, and his brief
sojourn in Britain guide his political evolution? With the
publication of two previously unreleased manuscripts by McKay
(Romance in Marseille [2020] and Amiable with Big Teeth [2017]),
there has been a marked increase in academic interest in McKay's
literature. Since 2017 alone, academics have examined the depiction
of diaspora, surveillance, urban landscapes, and labor struggles in
McKay's poetry and novels, reinforcing his key role in the Harlem
intelligentsia of the interwar period and his literary influence on
both global decolonization movements and the US civil rights
movement.[1] Detailed examinations of McKay's origins and the
personal motivations driving his activism, however, are mostly
lacking in these primarily literary analyses.

In _Claude McKay: The Making of a Black Bolshevik_, Winston James
tackles these questions by tracing McKay's political evolution and
its reflection in his poems. Literary analysis is not the focus of
this work, however. James's book is an exhaustive historical inquiry
of McKay's life that provides readers with clear historical context
for his political chrysalis and paints vivid images of the
geographical, conceptual, and ideological landscapes in which he
spent his formative years as a poet, from his birth in Jamaica in
1889 to his departure from London in 1921. What results is a detailed
piece of scholarship that illuminates a deeply determinative yet
comparatively understudied period in McKay's life.

James's aims are ambitious and clearly articulated from the outset.
In broad terms, James attempts "a radical reevaluation" of the man
and his work, a goal he seeks to achieve by drawing "a detailed,
comprehensive, and more accurate political portrait" of McKay as a
"remarkable thinker, political activist, and courageous child of the
African diaspora who endured and articulated ... Black despair and
struggle punctuated by days of sunshine and hope" (p. 10). James
focuses on McKay's experiences while living in three countries with
distinct social, political, economic, and cultural ethnographies:
Jamaica, the US, and Britain. His time in each of these places
introduced McKay to different race and class issues, stimulating new
dimensions to his poetry. James, therefore, uses McKay's departure
from one country and arrival in another as effective section markers
in the text.

First, in part 1, James introduces readers to the Jamaica of the late
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries--the Jamaica of McKay's
youth--in stunning detail. In chapter 1, James traces McKay's African
roots and highlights his family's relatively recent history of
slavery (his paternal grandparents were sold as slaves) as well as
his relationship with his parents, with particular emphasis on his
close connection with his mother. This chapter challenges the
traditional academic focus on the white influences on McKay's life;
James makes a particularly compelling case that U. Theo McKay,
McKay's older brother, shaped his political development in a more
meaningful way than Walter Jekyll, the English aristocrat and "man of
letters" who has broadly been considered the most important figure
during McKay's time in Jamaica (p. 9). The author points to U. Theo's
nationalism and rationalism as particular traits that he nurtured in
McKay. Extensive scrutiny of contemporary Jamaican voting rights
based on class hierarchies (and consequently race) precedes a
thorough consideration of the disenfranchisement of Jamaican women,
which, although not central to McKay's political thought, was
sometimes reflected in his poetry. This is a welcome undertaking, as
black women are still vastly underrepresented in histories of the
Caribbean colonies.

Chapter 2 is one of the most impressive. James provides a deep
examination of Jamaican history and articulates the prevailing
economic, political, and social conditions that permeated McKay's
youth, aspects that have not been explored in such detail by other
biographers. James discusses a plethora of topics, including
Jamaica's existing political economy, the formation of the Jamaican
peasantry, the impact of urbanization, the decline of the sugar trade
and the rise of the banana trade, population increases, taxation,
land famine, and mass immigration to Panama and Cuba. Perhaps the
most enlightening part of this chapter is the articulation of race
and color in Jamaica and their subsequent translation into prejudices
and discrimination in "multilayered pigmentocracies," a term that
James borrows from Gordon Lewis (p. 97). Chapter 3 considers how
these issues were reflected in McKay's Jamaican poetry, specifically
_Songs of Jamaica _(1912) and _Constab Ballads _(1912). James
identifies consistent themes of race, color, class, oppression,
revolt, and some feminist sympathies throughout both books of
Jamaican patois "dialect poetry," in addition to the intrapersonal
conflict that dominated McKay's short time as an officer in the
Jamaica Constabulary (p. 221). James identifies McKay as
ideologically Fabian at this juncture of his life: politically left
but with space to move further toward revolutionary socialism.
Chapter 4 questions why McKay chose to leave Jamaica in 1912 to study
at Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and
enumerates the impact of his experiences in Jamaica by the time of
his departure, once again highlighting the exemplary black role
models shaping his development.

The second section tracks McKay's radical growth through his
experiences in the United States and the impact of "bitter" American
racism on his political thought (p. 21). Chapter 5 investigates why
McKay's radicalization progressed so rapidly in comparison with other
Caribbean activists who immigrated to the US at the same time. James
ascribes this to two key events: the outbreak of war in Europe, which
destroyed McKay's belief in European civilization, and the Russian
Revolution, which gave him hope for the future. Again, James
challenges the narrative that McKay was primarily influenced by his
white mentors by asserting the role of Black Harlem, and specifically
Hubert Harrison, in stimulating his racial and social consciousness.
Chapter 6 is another exceptional contextual chapter that focuses on
the Red Summer of 1919 when racist mob attacks and lynching swept the
United States. The events that James mentions are meticulously chosen
and presented to encourage readers to consider how McKay, as a black
worker on the US railroad, must have felt when writing his seminal
poem "If We Must Die" (1919) and the lesser-known "A Roman Holiday"
(1919), both of which are expressions of black struggle and
advocations of "revolutionary suicide" (p. 251). This chapter ends by
assessing McKay's political status: by the time he left the United
States, McKay was a determined black radical with revolutionary
socialist sympathies.

McKay's brief sojourn in Britain is the site of the book's third
section. Chapter 7 expounds on his personal experiences with
pervasive, ignorant, English racism including, but not limited to,
housing discrimination, refusal of service, and regular harassment by
white youths. There is also a fascinating section recounting McKay's
response to the inflammatory and incorrect statements published by E.
D. Morel in the _Daily Herald _about the supposed "Black Horror on
the Rhine" (p. 298). These events provide background for McKay's
decision to operate within a primarily foreign radical milieu; while
working with Sylvia Pankhurst on the socialist newspaper _Worker's
Dreadnought_, he attended the European-dominated International
Socialist Club and often felt great dismay about the extent to which
the British workers' movement was permeated by racism. Chapter 8
discusses the publication of _Spring in New Hampshire _(1920) and
McKay's often fraught relationship with his editor, C. K. Ogden,
which resulted in the exclusion of McKay's more "propagandistic"
poems, including "If We Must Die." The author argues that McKay wrote
his most powerful nostalgia poetry about Jamaica because of his
experiences in London. However, he queries whether McKay had truly
"looked upon the face of the British nation" as he professed,
considering he did not experience Britain beyond London and
surrounded himself with foreign intellectuals in his socialist work
(p. 340). To conclude his biography of McKay's first thirty-one
years, James offers a coda that charts, in brief, the trajectory of
McKay's Bolshevism beyond his departure from London in 1921. In
particular, James highlights McKay's eight-month visit to Moscow in
Autumn 1922, during which he spoke at the Fourth Congress of the
Communist International, and his visit to Berlin in the summer of
1923 as the height of his Bolshevik commitment.

_Claude McKay_ goes beyond biography. Although an excellent biography
of a pivotal period in McKay's early political education, the book is
also an important contribution to scholarship in several other
fields, chiefly Jamaican history in the fin de siècle. Few scholars
have been so detailed and sympathetic in their treatment of McKay's
early experiences. James has succeeded in effectively demonstrating
how McKay's ideology was marked by both continuity and change and has
given serious weight to the idea that McKay and his black
contemporaries were ahead of their time ideologically. It should be
noted that McKay's known bisexuality is not a central feature of this
treatment of his early life. James does mention his sexuality on two
occasions: first, he highlights the closing words of the poem "My
Ethiopian Maid" as a possible reference to bisexual desire, and,
second, he cites French governmental reports of McKay as a "sodomite"
during his stay in Morocco (p. 341). A. B. Christa Schwarz identifies
several poems from _Harlem Shadows_ (1922) that can be interpreted as
containing themes of same-sex love.[2] Although this book of poetry
was published in 1922, just beyond the chronology that _Claude McKay_
considers, many were written during the period under scrutiny but not
chosen to be included in _Spring in New Hampshire_. An expanded
debate about the influence (or lack thereof, if that is the case) of
McKay's bisexual identity on his development both poetically and
politically would enhance our understanding of this fascinating
figure in black Caribbean, black American, socialist, and literary
history. Nevertheless, James's biography of McKay goes an impressive
distance to demonstrate the intricacies of McKay's transition from
Jamaican Fabian to revolutionary socialist in the United States and
cosmopolitan Marxist in London with a deep dislike of Britain and a
determination to embrace his African heritage.


[1]. Marina Bilbija, "Diaspora Doubtful: Illegible Diasporic Subjects
in Claude McKay's _Banjo_ and Nadifa Mohammed's _Black Mamba Boy_,"
_South Atlantic Review_ 84, no. 4 (2017): 98-120; Kelsey Kiser, "'How
Come You Just Vanished Thataway like a Spook?': Global Surveillance
in the Transatlantic Novels of Claude McKay," _CLA Journal_ 61, no. 3
(2018): 171-87; Anne Collett, "Claude McKay and the Pestilential
City: The Metropolis, the Clinic, the Crisis," in _Postcolonial Past
& Present: Negotiating Literary and Cultural Geographies_
(Leiden: Brill, 2018), 121-33; and Stephanie J. Brown, "Claude McKay,
the Workers' Dreadnought, and Collaborative Poetics," _Literature
& History_ 28, no. 1 (2019): 27-48.

[2]. A. B. Christa Schwarz, _Gay Voices of the Harlem Renaissance_
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003), 93.

Citation: Jasmine Calver. Review of James, Winston, _Claude McKay:
The Making of a Black Bolshevik_. H-Socialisms, H-Net Reviews. March,

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
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Categories: H-Net Reviews
Keywords: Claude McKay