Claude McKay, Code Name Sasha
Queer Black Marxism and the Harlem Renaissance
Gary Edward Holcomb
"This project of intellectual, cultural, aesthetic history is a major undertaking . . . sure to become an indispensable point of reference for students and scholars in American, African American, Caribbean, diaspora, colonial and postcolonial studies, race, and gender studies."--Sandra Pouchet Paquet, University of Miami
"Sasha" was the code name adopted by Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay (1889-1948) to foil investigations of his life and work. Over a period of two decades, the FBI, U.S. State Department, British police and intelligence, and French law enforcement and colonial authorities took turns harassing McKay, an openly gay, Marxist, Jamaican expatriate who had left the United States and was living in Europe. In this study of four of McKay's texts--the first literary, cultural, and historical analysis to address the multilayered "queer black anarchism" in McKay's writings--Holcomb argues that McKay's "fringe" perspective not only targeted him for investigation but also contributed to a declining literary reputation. Perceived as mystifying and unacceptable because of his dedication to communism, McKay is perplexing and difficult to classify within the traditional constructs of the Harlem Renaissance. The problem that McKay's transnational, aesthetically itinerant writing inevitably has posed is where to locate him.
In recent years, access into McKay's work has been transformed by new methods of interpreting the politics of literary texts, the growing significance of transnationality in literary and cultural analysis, and the impact of queer theory. Holcomb analyzes three of the most important works in McKay's career--the Jazz Age bestseller Home to Harlem, the négritude manifesto Banjo, and the unpublished Romance in Marseille. Holcomb uncovers ways in which Home to Harlem assembles a homefront queer black anarchism, and treats Banjo as a novel that portrays Marxist internationalist sexual dissidence. Among the most notable contributions to black modernist study, Holcomb's scholarship is the first to assess the consequence of McKay's landmark Romance in Marseille, a text that is, despite its absence from broad public access for nearly 80 years, conceivably the most significant early black diaspora text. Finally, he examines McKay's extensive FBI file and his late-1930s autobiography, A Long Way from Home, in which McKay disguises his past as a means of eluding his harassers. The memoir is essential to understanding McKay's first three novels. Relying on queer theory and related language-oriented approaches, moreover, this study emphasizes that the key to McKay's queer black Marxism lies as much in confronting his textual absence as it does in rereading the author historically.
Gary Edward Holcomb is associate professor of African American literature in the Americas at Ohio University.
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Gustavus Myers Book Award - 2007
Holcomb makes an effort to solve many of the puzzles surrounding this "queer, black, Marxist" writer, and those who share his interests will find this book well worth their time; recommended.
" Not only well researched and full of wonderful insights, but it is also marvelously provocative."
"Greatly advances our sense of McKay's radical vision and its contribution to the black radical tradition".
--American Literature History
"As book-length critical works on Claude McKay are uncommon, Holcomb's proves invaluable, not simply for its rarity, but also for its combination of theoretical rigor, meticulous close readings, and archival sluething."--John Claborn
"Not only well researched and full of wonderful insights, but it is also marvelously provocative."--Charles Scruggs
"Greatly advances our sense of McKay's radical vision and its contribution to the black radical tradition, anticipating the 1960s notion of "Bandung World," as exhibited straightforwardly in his fiction and in a more occluded manner in his autobiography."
--American Literary History
"Holcomb's characterization of McKay's 'queer black Marxism' is salutary, first and foremost as an interpretive provocation rather than a stable or consistent political stance discernable in McKay's work. Above all, it is necessary to confront the contention of Claude McKay, Code Name Sasha that literature can serve as a vehicle of political action -- or as Holcomb puts it, as 'manifesto' or as 'primer for insurrection.'"
--New West Indian Guide