Amiable with Big Teeth

Claude McKay

The back story of how this novel came to be published is fascinating: originally written and edited in 1941, it was never published and was essentially lost in the archives until a graduate student at Columbia University found a copy of an essentially finished manuscript among the papers of another writer in 2009. The New York Times reported on this discovery and the process to authenticate the manuscript in 2012. Now finally the book has made it into print.

Amiable with Big Teeth captures a later point in Harlem’s Renaissance, at the time when Ethiopia was invaded by Italian fascists. It’s a satirical look at the political maneuverings of activist groups and differing perspectives of race and class relations, as people in Harlem organize in support of what was at the time the last independent country in Africa. Political disagreements abound, including whether the Soviet Union is the only hope for safeguarding Ethiopia’s independence and whether communists groups are a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” infiltrating pro-Ethiopia groups for their own gains. Embedded in those conflicts is a dispute about whether an African-American led group has an obligation to integrate white members — or more accurately whether they should be assimilated into the white led groups. While the book is populated largely by caricatures of people (with a large enough roster of characters to necessitate a list for reference at the beginning of the book), their basis in reality feels clear; the descriptions of Harlem locales provides a slice-of-life backdrop to the satiric intrigues, and the writing struck me as surprisingly contemporary. Overall an unexpected pleasure.