Prophet of Harlem: The Conversion of Claude McKay to Catholicism

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Our thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.

A report by Griffin Oleynick for the Comonweal Magazine.

Early on in J. F. Powers’s 1947 short story “The Trouble,” a distressed African-American intellectual recites a few lines of poetry in response to a horrific act of violence he has just witnessed: “‘If we must die,’ said the man with the glasses on, ‘let it not be like hogs hunted and penned in an inglorious spot…. We must meet the common foe; though far outnumbered, let us still be brave, and for their thousand blows deal one deathblow! What, though before us lies the open grave? Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack, pressed to the wall, dying—but fighting back!’”

The lines, as the precocious narrator—a small African-American boy whose mother has just been injured in a race riot—soon learns, belong not to the bespectacled speaker, but instead to a famous black “poetryman,” Claude McKay. Deeply moved by the defiant verses, the inquisitive child resolves to discover all he can about their author: “I decided I would go to the public library when the riot was over, and it was the first time in my life I ever thought of the public library the way I did then.”

The presence of Claude McKay, a leading African-American intellectual and poet most associated with the Harlem Renaissance, in a short story by J. F. Powers, a prominent twentieth-century Catholic author whose fiction typically depicts the workaday lives of white parish priests in rural Minnesota, might strike us as surprising. What, after all, does the Harlem Renaissance, with its investigations into modern black experience and its forceful calls for racial justice and social equality, have to do with the efforts of white Catholic writers to articulate the hidden presence of God in the turbulent world of postwar America?

Besides McKay’s status as one of the canonical poets of the Harlem Renaissance, there is another side of the writer that rarely comes into public view. In Spring 2017, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University hosted “Gather Out of Star-Dust,” a major exhibition on the Harlem Renaissance that featured a wide range of primary materials from black writers, artists, entertainers, and intellectuals associated with the movement, including Zora Neale Hurston, Aaron Douglas, Josephine Baker, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, and, of course, Claude McKay. The exhibition, which included first editions of McKay’s groundbreaking works as well as his correspondence with other well-known poets, presented him as a protégé of James Weldon Johnson (who called McKay “a true poet”) and a mentor to Langston Hughes (who called McKay’s novel Home to Harlem“the most exciting thing in years” and “the finest thing ‘we’ve’ done yet”). He and his work figure in the exhibition as a typical expression of the Harlem Renaissance. Yet beyond the display cases, stored off-site in the archival boxes of the Beinecke’s Claude McKay Papers, lie several other objects that tell a more complicated story. In Box 18 we find a black-and-white photograph of McKay posing with Ammon Hennacy, the famous Catholic Worker pacifist; in Box 14 we find a small collection of religious books, including McKay’s personal copy of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, an illustrated edition of My Sunday Missal in Latin, and a well-underlined, dog-eared Bible in English, replete with handwritten annotations. McKay’s appearance in the Powers story, and his links to the world of Catholic fiction, now become more clear.

In 1944, three years before the publication of Powers’s story and four years prior to his death, in a move that stunned both his friends and literary associates, McKay was baptized and received into the Catholic Church. His conversion has never received much critical attention. Indeed, when critics do acknowledge McKay’s Catholicism, they tend to dismiss it as an opportunistic attempt to secure a patron at a time of material destitution and declining health, as a rebellion against his stern Protestant father, or, at best, as a sincere if misguided attempt to align himself with a strong political ally in the fight against Communism (an ideology to which, like his longtime correspondent Dorothy Day, McKay had once fervently subscribed).

The timing of the novel’s composition suggests the relevance of McKay’s conversion to Catholicism

McKay himself was well aware of the potential strangeness of his choice, and offered a moving if somewhat meandering response to his critics in a still-unpublished essay titled “Right Turn to Catholicism,” also held at the Beinecke. Tracing his affinities for Catholicism by referencing his time in Catholic Spain, and insisting on the inadequacy of so many other “isms”—imperialism, fascism, communism, nationalism, socialism, etc.—to resolve the perennial problem of racial division, McKay declares that only the Catholic Church possesses the “secret” of the “positive way of life preached by Jesus Christ.” This way of life transcends all divisions of “race and nation” and enables McKay to withstand even the most blistering criticisms. “Some modernists may say that joining the Catholic Church is a backward step. But to me it is the progressive step, which should have been taken long ago…. I contemplate the Catholic Church as a vast world organization of human brotherhood, preaching the Word of the Lord Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, and endeavoring to keep mankind in the middle of the road.” McKay’s sense of the Catholic Church as an inclusive institution, uniquely capable of guiding humanity along the road of life, speaks both to his intellectual wariness of extremes—fatal “ditches” lying along either side of the road—and, more poignantly, to the suffering and dissatisfaction he experienced throughout his career as an embattled activist and polemical writer.

In February of this year, nearly seven decades after his death, Claude McKay returned to prominence on the heels of a “monumental literary event”—the discovery and ensuing publication of a previously unknown McKay novel, Amiable with Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem. This is, to be sure, a rare object in the contemporary literary world: a complete, corrected, unpublished novel by a canonical author. Released in a carefully edited edition by Penguin Classics, the book features highly informative notes and a critical introduction by Jean-Christophe Cloutier and Brent Hayes Edwards, who together discovered the novel in the archives of the Columbia University Library back in 2009. Amiable with Big Teeth has been hailed by scholars such as Henry Louis Gates Jr. as a “major discovery” and an important document of the Harlem Renaissance.

Written in a secluded Maine cabin in early 1941, the novel paints a vibrant picture of Depression-era Harlem, with all its glorious variety and searing contradictions. As the plot unfolds, McKay takes readers on a virtual tour of Harlem in the mid-1930s. We see open-air parades and mass political demonstrations on Seventh Avenue and 125th Street. We hear quiet conversations in the basements and drawing rooms of the stately brownstones on Striver’s Row. We step inside famous Harlem nightclubs such as The Merry-Go-Round, which McKay playfully terms the “largest and bawdiest bar in Lenox Avenue.”

Reviews of the novel have been universally positive, but none has made even a passing reference to McKay’s Catholicism. Still, the timing of the novel’s composition suggests the relevance of his conversion. McKay wrote Amiable with Big Teeth in 1941, the year just before a sudden, life-threatening health crisis and his recovery at Friendship House, the interracial Catholic charity center in Harlem founded by Catherine Doherty in 1938 and famously described in The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton, who had volunteered there in the fall of 1941, just months prior to McKay’s arrival. Amiable with Big Teeth was the last major work written by McKay before he became Catholic.

This critical oversight, hardly intentional, is partly due to the book’s presentation. The editors’ focus on Amiable with Big Teeth as a record of the complex political fervor of Harlem’s so-called “Abyssinian Crisis”—the sudden outpouring of African-American support for Emperor Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia in response to the 1935 invasion by Mussolini’s Fascist Italy—has led most commentators to concentrate almost exclusively on McKay’s politics, reading the novel in light of his growing dissatisfaction with Communism and his search for another means of African-American political empowerment. This focus is understandable, but it misses much of what makes Amiable with Big Teeth such a compelling literary artifact. For the novel not only documents McKay’s political crisis, but also provides a window into his equally urgent spiritual crisis, which ultimately led to his conversion to Catholicism. Like Dante’s Inferno or Dostoevsky’s Demons, Amiable with Big Teeth penetrates beneath the shifting spectacles of politics in order to address the evil of political division at its root. McKay lays bare the hell of a diabolical political landscape in which all the interpersonal conflict, backroom scheming, and street-corner sloganeering drown out the voice of the Spirit and leave no room for God.

While the novel does not contain any explicit references to Catholicism, religion—and, in particular, Christianity—is one of its central concerns. Historical religious figures from Harlem, such as the Muslim convert and activist preacher Sufi Abdul Hamid, whom McKay had profiled in his nonfiction work Harlem: Negro Metropolis, make cameo appearances. More importantly, the Bible itself forms a kind of backdrop to the novel. McKay quotes from it repeatedly—for instance, in the title of the very first chapter: “Ethiopia Shall Soon Stretch Out Her Hands to God.” This verse, taken from Psalm 68, is later used to explain the religious longings of Harlem’s African-American community. As the schoolteacher-turned-activist Newton Castle, a convert to Communism, exclaims near the middle of the novel, “There is a Zionist streak in the hearts of the colored people…a spiritual hankering after a Land of Beulah. And that explains the amazing interest of the masses in Ethiopia. It’s the ancient Ethiopia-shall-stretch-forth-her-hand-to-God of the Bible that is stirring them up.”

The Bible also helps us understand the novel’s unusual title. Amiable with Big Teeth is in fact a creative reworking of a passage from Matthew 7, where Jesus warns his disciples to be wary of false prophets—those who appear “in sheep’s clothing” (amiable) but underneath their disguises are really “ravenous wolves” (with big teeth). The subtitle, A Novel of the Love Affair between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem, translates Christ’s metaphor into an explicit simile: the white Communists (and their black allies) are false prophets who prey like wolves on the economically destitute, politically leaderless, and morally vulnerable sheep of Harlem.

Part of what makes the novel so compelling is that McKay does not separate his characters into two rigid ideological camps. Rather, against a backdrop of changing allegiances, he explores the moral dilemmas faced by conflicted figures who stand at various points on the political spectrum. One of the most complex and richly described characters, Pablo Peixota, is a Harlem community organizer and landlord. Tainted by his past involvement in the “numbers game,” Peixota has nonetheless achieved legitimacy in Harlem and longs to help advance the political and economic fortunes of its residents. His story suggests that, despite our strong human urge for pure positions and clear agendas, politics is never a simple binary; there are always nuances, ironies, and variations. McKay’s poetic descriptions of each character’s unique skin tone remind us that the black-and-white dichotomies of race, as well as those of politics, do not adequately capture our experience. The color line, which McKay, following the ideas of W. E. B. DuBois, deemed the central problem of the twentieth century, thus becomes a mirror of our political divisions. Whiteness, associated with the Communist arch-meddler and villain Maxim Tasan, is not universally negative, just as blackness, epitomized by the eccentric, bombastic, self-taught “historian” Professor Koazhy, is not entirely or unambiguously good.

But the quandary that Amiable with Big Teeth returns to repeatedly is the plight of “God’s Black Sheep.” That phrase was the novel’s working title, and it recurs throughout the book—especially in Chapter 10, whose title also refers to Scripture (this time Isaiah): “All We Like Sheep Have Gone Astray.” This crucial formulation points toward McKay’s conviction that the effective organization of African-Americans, not just in Harlem but indeed throughout the world, requires a religious solution. McKay’s personal copy of the Bible, the one held by the Beinecke Library, provides material evidence of the importance of Isaiah’s prophetic vision for McKay’s thinking about the race problem in connection to the novel. Not only does the Book of Isaiah itself receive the most attention from McKay’s red-pencil markings, but the author copies by hand Isaiah 53:6—the verse used as the title for Chapter 10—in the endpaper of the back cover. Scribbled just below it, we again find the phrase “God’s Black Sheep.” These notes not only indicate that the Bible was one of the most important sources of inspiration for McKay’s novel; they also invite us to read Chapter 10 as the key to the whole story.

There we find the lengthy sermon of the Reverend Zebulon Trawl, who, in response to the Communist protests on the steps outside his church, prays “like a wailing saxophone.” The verbose preacher, a comic mask for McKay himself, bemoans his own inability to protect “God’s black sheep” from the “false prophets,” “the white ones who have swarmed up here like hornets and peckawoods,” fooling their victims “with the magic of their white fleece.” The scene ends farcically, as the Communist agitator Newton Castle is stripped to his underwear and tossed out on the street, leading Trawl to proclaim that God has heard his prayers. The farce of this scene and others, all the way up to the novel’s wryly comic conclusion, reflects McKay’s profound doubt about the ability of Harlem’s many home-grown religious movements to address the problems of black life effectively. A dark, sad mood permeates the novel’s second half. McKay’s merciless lampooning of the Communists expresses his own unsatisfied longing for salvation.

By his own account an “outcast child,” a black sheep without a true home, McKay looked to his Catholic faith as a means of transcending the shame of failure and the pain of rejection by the various literary and political communities to which he had belonged. His longing for home is a central theme in his last poems, which appeared in publications such as the Catholic Worker. Here McKay returns to the same formal strategies he had employed in his 1922 Harlem Shadows, the collection that includes the poem quoted in J. F. Powers’s short story.

Where Amiable with Big Teeth had expressed McKay’s anxiety and loneliness, his discomfort with religious and political sectarianism, his post-conversion poems, like “For Peace,” communicate a deep and abiding sense of calm. At home in himself and at peace with others, McKay now wrote poetry that engaged with some of the best-known voices of the Catholic tradition. “For Peace” builds on Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur,” a sonnet that describes the post-Edenic world as “seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil.” “For Peace” adds the scars of ideology to those of industrialization: “the precious earth is scorched and dreary, / The people stumble in the darkness, blind, / and theory-ridden men are weary, weary, / And in the night no ray of hope can find.” “For Peace” also revisits Amiable with Big Teeth, now positing the Catholic Church as the solution that he had been unable to identify in the novel: “Thy Church, Thine instrument, shall lead the way, / And bring Thy lost ones in like scattered sheep, / and fold them at the passing of the day, / And give them warmth and love and soothing sleep!” The church, understood not as just another cause or “ism” but as a concrete network of loving relationships, offers refuge and heals old divisions.

These moving lines invite us to reconsider a black Catholic writer who confronted in himself some of the same tensions and divisions that face us today: how, in a world still wounded by political polarization and racism, can we realize that peace and unity to which God is always calling us? McKay’s work, read in its entirety—what was written before his conversion together with what was written after it—offers no easy answers, but instead invites us to take up the challenge ourselves. It encourages us to find God even in our own contentious, fractured moment, even in extremis, when we feel “pressed to the wall, dying.” That, after all, is where McKay found him.

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