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  • “A Woman Is a Conjunction” The Ends of Improvisation in Claude McKay’s Banjo: A Story without a Plot
  • Anthony Reed (bio)

Claude McKay’s 1929 Banjo: A Story without a Plot, concerned with spontaneous forms of black internationalist cultural politics in interwar Marseilles, is a novel of conjunction. From its setting in a port city to its thematization of novel forms of association, it attempts to imagine new ways of being together and forms of politics beyond the limits suggested by the “Negro intelligentsia” its characters criticize or those available under liberal capitalist modernity. Ending with a character declaring that “A woman is a conjunction” as a term of exclusion, it turns on the vernacular coincidence of “improvisation” as musical practice and spontaneous adaptation to one’s surroundings. Together, improvisation as performance and a spontaneous mode of survival articulate a form of political agency and praxis in interwar France where bourgeois forms of life, the norms of national and racial belonging, have proven inadequate to the historical situation. Its politics of improvisation, the primary object of this essay, is thus also a temporal politics to which the figure of woman—as a figure of reproduction, repetition, and attachment to the existing aesthetic, sexual, and power regimes—serves as a limit to the regulatory fictions governing race and music, which I will discuss below.

Famously loose in its structure, Banjo’s characters intermittently try to link those two senses of improvisation to spontaneous musical production, “spreading joy,” which is the only modality through which an African diaspora community comes into being and self-knowledge, both hearing and understanding itself through a strange temporality that is at once “again” and “for the first time.” The town, and its relatively relaxed legal norms, is an important medium for this exchange: “What a town this heah is to spread joy in!” Banjo exclaims, repeating the words of a former lover who promises, “Daddy, we two will go home and spread joy and not wake up till next week sometime and want nothing but loving” (24, 15). Implicitly, through the notion of embodied joy, the novel makes broader claims for the transformative power of aesthetics broadly conceived. Further, by conjoining these different domains of action, I want to stress that though music is a primary means of expression, the novel’s concerns and repeated scenes of drinking, dancing, arguing, and having sex are primarily oriented around forms of aesthetic experience that have no alienable value. To the extent that this novel can function as what Gary E. Holcomb calls a “primer of transnational black queer permanent revolution,”1 it is only insofar as it is also an attempt to imagine non-alienated forms of existence and sharing an aesthetic horizons (140). [End Page 758]

Subtitled “A Story without a Plot,” Banjo is structured around a series of faits divers that shape the lives of people, mostly of African descent, in Marseilles. The primary action of the book is their conversation and varied means of survival in the international space of the port: they work odd jobs, beg money from the sailors and dock workers, and make music. This activity is parasitic on the mainstream economy; for the most part, the men avoid permanent forms of labor, which, as I will show, ultimately excludes women. Through their various improvisational activities, the men seek, on one level, to “institutionalize the black boys’ easy good-time interaction” into what Brent Hayes Edwards terms a “vagabond international” (24).2 As improvisatory, I would argue, it faces the paradox of attempting to be an anti-institutional institution that in this novel remains largely at the level of its rejection of bourgeois forms of value and governance. The men in this international are linked primarily through their musical practice, and belong to this community through their modes of survival and pleasure, and their non-belonging to any other place; as Edwards argues, “there is no other ‘plot,’ no other ground or foundation, whether nation or narrative, engine or economy” that contains or unifies the “black boys” in Banjo (240). That international participates at once in an imagined form of racial belonging (figured through the novel’s recourse to modernist tropes...