- Claude McKay, Code Name Sasha: Queer Black Marxism and the Harlem Renaissance
I propose that we view the whole of American life as a drama acted upon the body of the Negro giant, who, lying trussed up like Gulliver, forms the stage and the scene upon which and within which the action unfolds.—Ralph Ellison (1946)
Iwouldn't exactly say that we have another trussed-up Guilliver in Gary Edward Holcomb's Claude McKay, Code Name Sasha: Queer Black Marxism and the Harlem Renaissance, but we do come perilously close to dicing that body beyond recognition in a bold bid at academic correctness. So I suggest we revisit the terrifying times of which Ellison wrote, and McKay lived through beyond our own post-historical gloss, to get a real sense of the power of words to segregate, stigmatize, devalue, and demean; where normative (white) ideologies prevailed and art seldom if ever jibed with black reality. It was a world, Ellison reminds us, calculatedly "drained of humanity" and significantly, for us today, black authorial presence. "For if the word has the potency to revive and make us free," Ellison cautioned, "it has the power to blind, imprison, and destroy." Particularly to the academic scholar who says this is my reality, my interpretation, my politics, whether right or left, Ellison counters, "Perhaps, but you've left out this, and this. And this. And most of all, what you'd have the world accept as me isn't even human." Despite the adventurous, provocative thesis at play in Code Name Sasha, one needs to ask, is it really the me of McKay?
The problem, of course, is who speaks for whom, who has that authorial privilege, and how should those assertions be interpreted, then re-interpreted, against changing tastes, attitudes, contexts. Much like race leaders William Brawley, W. E. B. Du Bois, and later scholars of the 1960s and 1970s such as Harold Cruse and Addison Gayle, Holcomb attempts to assert authorial limits and, in essence speak for and through a trussed-up racial giant. In the African American literary tradition, this is sometimes known as "imprimaturing." Scholars continually imprimatur texts that they deem worthy, as they reassess, reinterpret, and ultimately speak for an age or era as interlocutors. We do this to make sense of literary and arcane modes of expression for contemporary audiences—and it is done sincerely. Yet when we alter authorial intention in our interpretations, as scholars invariably do, we occasionally devalue and dehumanize when we mean to elevate and particularize. Such is the problem with Holcomb's recuperative queer black Marxist reading of McKay's three novels, Home to Harlem, Banjo, and Romance in Marseille. For Holcomb's thesis to unfold [End Page 762] correctly, a Marxist queer reading of McKay must reject—or justify—the McKay who continually resists the imprimaturing process.
To get at the queer McKay, Holcomb pinpoints a key text, the autobiography A Long Way from Home (1937), which expresses the author's views about politics, culture, race, and sexuality. He calls this an "autobiographical performance," and one of questionable merit since it reflects too much of McKay's later anti-Communism. As a supplement, Holcomb turns to the FBI dossier that was compiled from 1922-24 as "a more dependable portrayal" of the author's queer Marxist credentials (though I don't see the connection, since the file contains only one inference of McKay's homosexuality and that passage is deleted). "McKay's 1937 memoir is in fact a creative, playful—if fatally serious—invention," Holcomb then explains, a text that ultimately undercuts its own authenticity (32-33). A Long Way from Home can finally be viewed as a "queer black anarchist communiqué," one written "undercover" as a "counter-dossier" to the official but censored government record compiled meticulously by the FBI. This counterattacking McKay is for Holcomb, and for most of us whose work involves racial/political recuperation, the preferred, politically expedient McKay. Read as an inauthentic anti-Communist foil to the...