Banjo, by Claude McKay, book review

This is a video of the poem about racist violence in the USA, If We Must Die, by Claude McKay.

From British daily The Morning Star:

Writer ahead of his time

(Sunday 07 December 2008)

Banjo, by Claude McKay
(Serpents Tail, £7.99)

WHEN Banjo was first published in 1929, many critics judged it to be a fairly second-rate novel, but it’s still an enjoyable read.

It has also had an important influence on writers of the Negritude school.

Fittingly subtitled A Story Without A Plot, it follows the exploits of African-American musician Banjo and his group of vagabonds as they drink, womanise, fight and dance their way around the back streets of the bustling and intensely cosmopolitan Marseilles.

Worldwise Banjo dreams of forming an orchestra, but he never gets very far and, indeed, why should he bother when life appears to be so idyllic? It’s easy to see a lot of McKay in the characters that he describes.

A drifter for much of his life, McKay died in poverty at the early age of 59, but not before he had spent the previous decades doing a variety of jobs and wandering the world in search of people, places and ideas.

Very often politically to the left Banjois packed with discussions about race, identity, nation and class.

McKay’s concern to place working-class black people at the centre of his narrative is obvious from the start and, although you might question his depiction of black culture as innately playful and sensuous, it’s an interesting and a vibrant piece of writing which has withstood the test of time.


African American novelist Chester Himes: here.

6 thoughts on “Banjo, by Claude McKay, book review

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  5. 100 years ago: Journal publishes Claude McKay poem in defense of blacks
    Claude McKay

    On July 1, 1919, The Liberator, the left-wing journal edited by Max Eastman, published the iconic poem of the resistance of the oppressed, “If We Must Die,” by Claude McKay. It was written in response not only to the Jim Crow lynching of blacks in the South, but to the outbreak of racist violence across the United States in the spring and summer of 1919, known as the Red Summer, which included pogroms of entire black communities, notably in Jenkins County, Georgia, Charleston, South Carolina, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Illinois, Longview, Texas, Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Knoxville, Tennessee.

    The violence had been whipped up by the authorities preying on the social tensions caused by the Great Migration of blacks to northern cities to work in wartime industries and escape the brutal racial oppression in the South.

    The Red Summer was characterized by the determination of blacks, many of whom had served as American soldiers in Europe, to defend themselves. The sonnet, which does not name a specific race or people, but speaks in the name of all the oppressed, characterized the fighting mood of the working class in the United States and around world in 1919 in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, including the Great Steel Strike in the US, and general strikes in Seattle, Winnipeg and Glasgow, and the anti-colonial struggles in India and the Middle East.

    McKay wrote the poem while he was working as railroad waiter. He was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance and author of many poems as well as novels such as Home to Harlem (1928), Banjo (1929), and the memoir, A Long Way from Home (1937). McKay attended the Fourth Congress of the Communist International in Moscow in 1922.

    If We Must Die

    If we must die, let it not be like hogs
    Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
    While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
    Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
    If we must die, O let us nobly die,
    So that our precious blood may not be shed
    In vain; then even the monsters we defy
    Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
    O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
    Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
    And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
    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!


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