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Escaping the Tropics through New York: Eric Walrond and Claude McKay in the American Grain


In claiming the writers Claude McKay and Eric Walrond for the Harlem Renaissance, literary scholars have often elided these writers’ Caribbean origins, treating them as a seamless part of that move-ment’s nationally-oriented racial contestation. More recently, McKay and Walrond have been held up as exemplars of black transnationalism, in which their peripatetic careers illustrate the restless, expansive networks of diasporic connection forged in the early part of the twentieth century. This essay instead examines the two authors with an eye toward their status as displaced exiles from the Caribbean who consciously sought both personal and professional success in the United States. Focusing particularly on Walrond’s Tropic Death (1926) and McKay’s A Long Way from Home (1937) the essay explores the authors’ ambivalent (and differently classed) embrace of the United States as a crucial site of artistic and political possibility. In doing so, it demonstrates how, for Walrond and McKay, the United States represented a complicated horizon of aesthetic production, functioning simultaneously as a liberating, bohemian site for experimental literary practice and as a frightening locus of racializing imperial power. Against the reflexive dismissal of the United States as merely a reprehensible perpetrator of global imperialism, the essay employs these two authors’ experience to suggest that the affective, aspirational aspects of United States culture can also be seen, from particular vantages in the Global South, to offer (in both literal and figurative ways) an attractive, politically productive form of belonging in the world.

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