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By Claude McKay


Saturday, January 2, 2010.


Excerpts from the chapters “Official Fists” and “Banjo’s Ace of Spades,” in McKay’s novel Banjo (1929). With thanks to Liberation Lit.


Crosby was younger than Ray. A young poet who had the fanatical faith of youth in the magic of poetry, he argued with Ray about his marked absorption in prose. Ray contended that it seemed a natural process to him that youth should pass from the colorful magic of poetry to the architectural rhythm of prose.

They parted after midnight. Crosby’s hotel lay west of the Canebiere and Ray’s to the east. The east was more respectable in Marseilles than the west. The mail had arrived in the late evening, bringing the Paris morning newspapers. Ray took his way to his respectable quarter in his most respectable rags, armed with respectability – in the form of the Paris editions of the New York Herald Tribune, the British Daily Mail and Le Journal.

He was thinking about Banjo and the boys and of their beating-up and philosophically wondering if the boys had not done something to deserve the beating – something that Banjo had not revealed in telling about it – when passing two policemen in the street leading to his hotel (one leaning against the door of a house and the other standing carelessly on the pavement), he was suddenly grabbed without warning. The policemen started to search him roughly and thoroughly.

Ray protested. What was it and what did they want of him? he demanded. He had his papers and would show them immediately. This he was proceeding to do when the bigger policeman stunned him with a blow of his fist on the back of the neck. He forthwith arrested Ray, handcuffed him, and took him to the police station in the bawdy quarter. The handcuff was a special chain kind that could be tightened and loosened at will and the policeman took great pleasure in torturing Ray on the way to the jail. There the two police wrote out and signed a charge against him. Ray also made a signed statement. The police quarters stank much more than the dirtiest den of the Ditch with that odor peculiar to jails. Ray was locked up all night and in the early morning was told to go.

As to the why of his arrest and brutal treatment Ray could obtain no answer. He went home and wrote a statement of his case to the prefect. A couple of days later he received a notice to call a police headquarters. Crosby, who was particularly worked up over the incident, accompanied him. He was a Western-state lad of radical persuasion. His great-grandfather had been a frontiersman, an Indian-fighter in the struggle to win the West for civilization. His mother, a Southern woman, came from one of the proudest of the slave states.

At police headquarters Ray repeated his statement to an investigating inspector, who confronted him with the two policemen. They contradicted his story, asserting that Ray had tried to obstruct them in doing their duty, but he maintained his statement and further accused them of lying.

The inspector was naturally partial to his men. He read the statements again and then asked Ray what he wanted. Ray hesitated, and Crosby said, “Justice.” The inspector turned and said savagely he was not talking to him. The word “justice” had been the first to suggest itself to ray, but as he did not believe in that prostitute lady who is courted and caressed by every civilized tout, he had not pronounced her name.

The inspector then admitted that if Ray prosecuted the case on the statement he had made, the policeman who had struck him would lose his job. Did he want to prosecute or not? Crosby was nudging him to prosecute, but Ray declared that what he really wanted was to know why he had been beaten and arrested. Was it because he was black? The inspector replied that the policemen had made a mistake, owing to the fact that all the Negroes in Marseilles were criminals.

“Oh!” Ray said, this was the first time he had heard that Doctor Bougrat was a Negro. The police clerk who had taken Ray’s statement hid a grin behind his palm.

(The Doctor Bougrat case had provided the excitable Provencal city with one of its most notorious crime sensations. The man had been a soldier during the war and was seriously wounded in the head. He was a drug addict and a hard drinker. One day the body of a cashier who had disappeared with an unimportant sum of money was found hidden in his office in a state of decomposition. Doctor Bougrat declared that the man had died accidentally after an injection. He was indicted for murder and sentenced to life imprisonment and banishment. The case had particularly impressed Ray from the way the public reacted to it. The newspapers tried the doctor and called him a murderer and a thief and charged him with every criminal activity before the case went to the courts. And on the day when the crime was reconstituted, according to French procedure, in the doctor’s office, an enormous crowd gathered in the street and along the Canebiere prolongee and the army of the touts and prostitutes who lived by the plunder of tourists and seamen joined their voices to that of the respectability of the city in calling for Bougrat’s blood: “Lynch him! Lynch him!”)

As he accepted his dismissal and started to go, Ray turned to the inspector and said that when he was a boy the French book that had moved him most was Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.  Javert, typifying the police, had been particularly fascinating to him, and judging from the inspector’s statement about the Negroes of Marseilles the French police had not changed since those days. But had grown a little worse.

Crosby’s sense of injustice was strong. He resented the inspector’s insulting manner toward him and he reproached Ray for not following up the case.

“But I didn’t want to,” protested Ray. “Do you think I want to mess my time up fooling with the stinking law, just for a policeman to lose his job? Twenty-five francs a day and a family! That most sacred of French things – a family on twenty-five francs a day. Can you wonder they are what they are? When I wrote to the prefect I didn’t write for revenge, but for knowledge.”

“But what good is that?” said Crosby. “You only wasted your time, since you had a chance to prosecute and didn’t. You haven’t gained anything.”

“Haven’t I? Don’t you think it was revenge enough for me that you, an American, half-Southerner, had to protest to the French official about French injustice to a Negro? The French are never tired of proclaiming themselves the most civilized of people in the world. They think they understand Negroes, because they don’t discriminate against us in their bordels. They imagine that Negroes like them. But Senghor, the Senegalese, told me that the French were the most calculatingly cruel of all the Europeans in Africa.

“You heard what the inspector said in explanation. To me the policeman’s fist was just the perfect expression of the official attitude toward Negroes. Why should I prosecute him?”

This was the way of civilization with the colored man, especially the black. The happenings of the past few weeks from the beating up of the beach boys by the police to the story of Taloufa’s experiences, were, to Ray, all of a piece. A clear and eloquent exhibition of the universal attitude, which, though the method varied, was little different anywhere.

When the police inspector said to Ray that the strong arm of the law was against Negroes because they were all criminals, he really did not mean just that. For he knew that the big and terror-striking criminals were not Negroes. What he unconsciously meant was that the police were strong-armed against the happy irresponsibility of the Negro in the face of civilization.

For civilization had gone out among these native, earthy people, had despoiled them of their primitive soil, had uprooted, enchained, transported, and transformed them to labor under its laws, and yet lacked the spirit to tolerate them within its walls.

That this primitive child, this kinky-headed, big-laughing black boy of the world, did not go down and disappear under the serried crush of trampling white feet; that he managed to remain on the scene, not worldly-wise, not “getting there,” yet not machine-made, nor poor-in-spirit like the regimented creatures of civilization, was baffling to civilized understanding. Before the grim, pale rider-down of souls he went his careless way with a primitive hoofing and a grin.

Thus he became a challenge to the clubbers of helpless vagabonds – to the despised, underpaid protectors of property and its high personages. He was a challenge of civilization itself. He was the red rag to the mighty-bellowing, all-trampling civilized bull.

Looking down in a bull ring, you are fascinated by the gay rag. You may even forget the man watching the bull go after the elusive color that makes him mad. The rag seems more than the man. If the bull win it, he horns it, tramples it, sniffs it, paws it – baffled.

As the rag is to the bull, so is the composite voice of the Negro – speech, song and laughter – to a bawdy world. More exasperating, indeed, than the Negro’s being himself is his primitive color in a world where everything is being reduced to a familiar formula, this remains strange and elusive.

Ray was not of the humble tribe of humanity. But he always felt humble when he heard the Senegalese and other West African tribes speaking their own languages with native warmth and feeling.

The Africans gave him a positive feeling of wholesome contact with racial roots. They made him feel that he was not merely an unfortunate accident of birth, but that he belonged definitely to a race weighed, tested, and poised in the universal scheme. They inspired him with confidence in them. Short of extermination by the Europeans, they were a safe people, protected by their own indigenous culture. Even though they stood bewildered before the imposing bigness of white things, apparently unaware of the invaluable worth of their own, they were naturally defended by the richness of their fundamental racial values.

He did not feel that confidence about Aframericans who, long-deracinated, were still rootless among the phantoms and pale shadows and enfeebled be self-effacement before condescending patronage, social negativism, and miscegenation. At college in America and among the Negro intelligentsia he had never experienced any of the simple, natural warmth of a people believing in themselves, such as he had felt among the rugged poor and socially backward blacks of his island home. The colored intelligentsia lived its life “to have the white neighbors think well of us,” so that it could move more peaceably into nice “white” streets.

Only when he got down among the black and brown working boys and girls of the country did he find something of that raw unconscious and the -devil-with-them pride in being Negro that was his own natural birthright. Down there the ideal skin was brown skin. Boys and girls were proud of their brown, sealskin brown, teasing brown, tantalizing brown, high-brown, low-brown, velvet brown, chocolate brown.

There was the amusing little song they all sang:

“Black may be evil,
But yellow is so low-down;
White is the devil,
So glad I’m teasing Brown.”

Among them was never any of the hopeless, enervating talk of the chances of “passing white” and the specter of the Future that were common topics of the colored intelligentsia. Close association with the Jakes and Banjoes had been like participating in a common primitive birthright.

Ray loved to be with them in constant physical contact, keeping warm within. He loved their tricks of language, loved to pick up and feel and taste new words from their rich reservoir of niggerisms. He did not like rotten-egg stock words among rough people any more than he liked colorless refined phrases among nice people. He did not even like to hear cultured people using the conventional stock words of the uncultured and thinking they were being free and modern. That sounded vulgar to him.

But he admired the black boys’ unconscious artistic capacity for eliminating the rotten-dead stock words of the proletariat and replacing them with startling new ones. There were no dots and dashes in their conversation – nothing that could no be frankly said and therefore decently – no act or fact of life for which they could not find a simple passable word. He gained from them finer nuances of the necromancy of language and the wisdom that any word may be right and magical in its proper setting.

He loved their natural gusto for living down the past and lifting their kinky heads out of the hot, suffocating ashes, the shadow, the terror of real sorrow to go on gaily grinning in the present. Never had Ray guessed from Banjo’s general manner that he had known any deep sorrow. Yet when he heard him tell Goosey that he had seen his only brother lynched, he was not surprised, he understood, because right there he had revealed the depths of his soul and the soul of his race – the true tropical African Negro. No Victorian-long period of featured grief and sable mourning, no mechanical-pale graveside face, but a luxuriant living up from it, like the great jungles growing perennially beautiful and green in the yellow blaze of the sun over the long life-breaking tragedy of Africa.

Ray had felt buttressed by the boys with a rough strength and sureness that gave him spiritual passion and pride to be his human self in an inhumanly alien world. They lived healthily far beyond the influence of the colored press whose racial dope was characterized by pungent “bleach-out,” “kink-no-more,” skin-whitening, hair-straightening, and innumerable processes for Negro culture, most of them manufactured by white men’s firms in the cracker states. And thereby they possessed more potential power for racial salvation than the Negro litterati, whose poverty of mind and purpose showed never any signs of enrichment, even though inflated above the common level and given an appearance of superiority.

From these boys he could learn how to live – how to exist as a black boy in a white world and rid his conscience of the used-up hussy of white morality. He could not scrap his intellectual life and be entirely like them. He did not want or feel any urge to “go back” that way.

Tolstoy, his great master, had turned his back on the intellect as guide to find himself in Ivan Durak. Ray wanted to hold on to his intellectual acquirements without losing his instinctive gifts. The black gifts of laughter and melody and simple sensuous feelings and responses.

Once when a friend gave him a letter of introduction to a Nordic intellectual, he did not write: I think you will like to meet this young black intellectual; but rather, I think you might like to hear Ray laugh.

His gifts! He was of course aware that whether the educated man be white or brown or black, he cannot, if he has more than animal desires, be irresponsibly happy like the ignorant man who lives simply by his instincts and appetites. Any man with an observant and contemplative mind must be aware of that. But a black man, even though educated, was in closer biological kinship to the swell of primitive earth life. And maybe his apparent failing under the organization of the modern world was the real strength that preserved him from becoming the thing that was the common white creature of it.

Ray had found that to be educated, black and his instinctive self was something of a big job to put over. In the large cities of Europe he had often met with educated Negroes out for a good time with heavy literature under their arms. They toted these books to protect themselves from being hailed everywhere as minstrel niggers, coons, funny monkeys for the European audience – because the general European idea of the black man is that he is a public performer. Some of them wore hideous parliamentary clothes as close as ever to the pattern of the most correctly gray respectability. He had remarked wiry students and Negroes doing clerical work wearing glasses that made them sissy-eyed. He learned, on inquiry, that wearing glasses was a mark of scholarship and respectability differentiating them from the common types…. (Perhaps the police would respect the glasses.)

No getting away from the public value of clothes, even for you, my black friend. As it was, ages before Carlyle wrote Sartor Resartus, so it will be long ages after. And you have reason maybe to be more rigidly formal, as the world seems illogically critical of you since it forced you to discard so recently your convenient fig leaf for its breeches. This civilized society is classified and kept going by clothes and you are now brought by its power to labour and find a place in it.

The more Ray mixed in the rude anarchy of the live of the black boys – loafing, singing, bumming, playing, dancing, loving, working – and came to a realization of how close-linked he was to them in spirit, the more he felt that they represented more than he or the cultured minority the irrepressible exuberance and legendary vitality of the black race. And the thought kept him wondering how that race would fare under the ever tightening mechanical organization of modern life.

Being sensitively receptive, he had as a boy become interested in and followed with passionate sympathy all the great intellectual and social movements of his age. And with the growth of international feelings and ideas he had dreamed of the association of his race with the social movements of the masses of civilization milling through the civilized machine.

But traveling away from America and visiting many countries, observing and appreciating the differences of human groups, making contact with earthy blacks of tropical Africa, where the great body of his race existed, had stirred in him the fine intellectual prerogative of doubt.

The grand mechanical march of civilization had leveled the world down to the point where it seemed treasonable for an advanced thinker to doubt that what was good for one nation or people was also good for another. But as he was never afraid of testing ideas, so he was not afraid of doubting. All peoples must struggle to live, but just as what was helpful for one man might be injurious to another, so it might be with whole communities of peoples.

For Ray happiness was the highest good, and difference the greatest charm, of life. The hand of progress was robbing his people of many primitive and beautiful qualities. He could not see where they would find greater happiness under the weight of the machine even if progress be came left-handed.

Many apologists of a changed and magnified machine system doubted whether the Negro could find a decent place in it. Some did not express their doubts openly, for fear of “giving aid to the enemy.” Ray doubted, and openly.

Take, for example, certain Nordic philosophers, as the world was more or less Nordic business: He did not think the blacks would come very happily under the super-mechanical Anglo-Saxon-controlled world society of Mr. H. G. Wells. They might shuffle along, but without much happiness in the world of Bernard Shaw. Perhaps they would have their best chance in a world influenced by the thought of a Bertrand Russell, where brakes were clamped on the machine with a few screws loose and some nuts fallen off. But in this great age of science and super-invention was there any possibility of arresting the thing unless it stopped of its own exhaustion?

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