After 90 years, novel by radical Harlem Renaissance author finally published

Claude McKay's Romance in Marseille centres around a rowdy group of sailors, dock workers and prostitutes — straight and queer, disabled and able-bodied, African, European, Caribbean, and American

Claude McKay's Romance in Marseille centres around a queer black character with a severe disability

Romance in Marseille is a coming-of-age story that centres around a rowdy group of sailors, dockworkers, and prostitutes — straight and queer, disabled and able-bodied, African, European, Caribbean, and American. (Penguin Random House)

A book by one of the most radical figures in the Harlem Renaissance was nearly lost to time — but thanks to an author and African-American history professor, the groundbreaking novel is finally seeing the light of day.

Romance in Marseille is a queer coming-of-age story that centres around a rowdy group of sailors, dock workers and prostitutes — straight and queer, disabled and able-bodied, African, European, Caribbean, and American.

Cover of Romance in Marseille, recently published by Penguin Random House. (Penguin Random House)

At its centre is Lafala, a West African sailor who seeks to regain his self-respect after being betrayed by a Moroccan prostitute, Aslima, in France. So he stows away on a ship to New York, but he is discovered and jailed in a freezing toilet room, which leads to the amputation of both his legs.

After winning a lucrative lawsuit against the shipping line, the newly wealthy Lafala returns to Marseille and to Aslima, hoping to enjoy a leisurely life — but things don't go according to plan.

The book was written by Claude McKay, a bisexual poet, author and journalist from Jamaica who had published the Harlem Renaissance's first substantial book of poetry, Harlem Shadows, in 1922. Six years later, he released his first novel Home to Harlem, which was the movement's first certified American bestseller.

But for various reasons — primarily arguments with editors over the content of the book — Romance in Marseille was never published.

'It should be published'

Fast-forward nearly nine decades, when Gary Holcomb, an author and professor of African-American Literature at Ohio University, read a mention of the manuscript in a biography, and later discovered it was housed at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library in Harlem.

"I was astounded by the novel's contents and believed it should be published," says Holcomb in an interview on q with Tom Power. "So I asked about the disposition of the novel and I was told that it was unavailable due to a legal wrangle that showed no signs of being settled."

At the same time, Holcomb approached Washington University scholar William Maxwell, and asked if he would co-edit the novel, should it become available, which Holcomb said was "extremely unlikely."

But when a different McKay book was being published in 2017, Holcomb saw the chance to work out a contract with his estate's literary agent. Now the book has been released by Penguin Random House.

A radical twist

The queer aspects of the book were far outside the norm at the time, but even more radical was the fact that the protagonist was disabled, explains Holcomb.

"He's severely disabled. And I think that this severely disabled protagonist challenged early depression period conventions for fictional heroes," he says.

Author Claude McKay was a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance, even though he spent most of the era living in France and Morocco. (Carl Van Vechten/Beinecke Lib.)

"A novel's hero, a hero in a romance, must be physically whole and healthy. And I think disability studies theorists give us something to work with when we look at a text like this, because they say that absolute health is the anomaly while infirmity, or at least the potential for it, is in fact the rule," he says. "So readers now are, I think, better equipped to appreciate the novel."

Holcomb also points to the fact that Lafala became disabled when his legs were amputated, which provides a powerful metaphor for the treatment of African-Americans.

"The image of the healthy black body being cut down like this, the forced amputation, serves as a metaphor for the violent treatment of black people during slavery, the brutality of Jim Crow and into the present moment of penal authorities aggressively targeting African-American people," says Holcomb.

"So I think the novel's sudden presence in the world now kind of fills in the missing parts from the past, remains that resonate with today's society."

The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance is one of the most famous arts movements in American history, and included groundbreaking artists like Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, whose works live on today.

In the 1920s, Harlem was becoming the unofficial capital of black America, and writers, artists and musicians were experimenting with new forms and quashing stereotypes.

I think the novel's sudden presence in the world now kind of fills in the missing parts from the past, remains that resonate with today's society.- African-American literature and studies professor Gary Holcomb

"There was this sense that, two generations after slavery, it was time to announce a spiritual emancipation that went along with the political emancipation from slavery," said Cheryl Wall, a professor of English at Rutgers University, on CBC's The Sunday Edition.

"They wanted to create more honest expressions of the consciousness and creativity of 'the race,' as they would have said."

'Writing about the genuine experience of black people'

McKay was at odds with some of his Harlem Renaissance contemporaries, explains Holcomb, including sociologist and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, because there was a fundamental split over whether the era's literature should "uplift the race." McKay, however, rejected this idea.

"He insisted that the Renaissance should produce art that explored the genuine experience of black people, warts and all, not merely art that promoted social change," explains Holcomb.

Du Bois criticized Home to Harlem because he thought it appealed to white readers' voyeuristic interest in subcultural black life. "McKay's angry response was that he was writing about the genuine experience of black people — not producing propaganda for a social cause."

Author and African-American literature professor Gary Holcomb says Romance in Marseille, written by Claude McKay nearly a century ago, "helps us better understand who we are now.” (Gary Holcomb)

McKay also had fallouts with Alain Locke, who put together the anthology The New Negro and changed the title of one of McKay's poems from "The White House" to "White Houses" (he thought "The White House" might offend otherwise supportive whites).

He also clashed with poet and novelist Countee Cullen, who encouraged him to change the name of his book Savage Loving.

"He said publishers wouldn't take on the novel because of its title, Savage Loving, due to the anxieties about obscenity laws — and in correspondence McKay refers to Cullen as 'that little prig,'" says Holcomb with a laugh.

"Yet even though he was infuriated, McKay evidently agreed with Cullen, because he changed the title to Romance in Marseille."

Repressed texts tell us about our past

Now readers are beginning to see McKay's writing as "the forerunner of a black sexual insurgency, especially a commitment to revolutionary black queer activism," says Holcomb.

The literary historian hesitates to say that someone is "ahead of their time," but in this instance, the phrase fits.

"I think it shows levels of cultural complexity during the late '20s and early '30s that make it possible for us to see that many of the issues we're working through now existed nearly a hundred years ago," says Holcomb.

We are all products of the past, he adds, and repressed texts may tell us more about that past — and the present — than ones that were embraced by mainstream readers.

"The past is written in our laws, our arts, our language," he says. "So reading texts that were lost in the shuffle, and some like Romance in Marseille that were effectively repressed, helps us better understand who we are now."

Download our podcast or click the 'Listen' link near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.

Written by Jennifer Van Evra. Interview produced by ​Matt Amha.

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