This debate about the value of communist internationalism over black nationalism is at the core of Amiable With Big Teeth. Written at a time when most scholars thought that black cultural production had come to a grinding halt as a result of the Great Depression (and the consequent dip in arts patronage), Amiable With Big Teeth provides unparalleled insight into this relatively understudied moment in black American history. But the novel, and the picture of Harlem political culture it offers, came dangerously close to being lost to history altogether. Written in 1941, it was only unearthed in 2009 when a graduate student named Jean-Christophe Cloutier came across the manuscript by accident while doing research at Columbia University. Now an assistant professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, Cloutier told me that he could assure readers “it was worth the wait.”
What excites Cloutier about Amiable With Big Teeth is that, despite its focus on global political intrigue, the story operates at a surprisingly compact and hyper-local scale. At its core, McKay’s text is essentially about fundraising: The novel revolves around a fictional black-led charity called Hands to Ethiopia that’s looking to raise money to supply Ethiopian soldiers with more weapons to defend themselves against Mussolini’s troops. Some of the familiar haunts of Harlem Renaissance literature are present—nightclubs, brownstones, and black society parties. But most of the drama of Amiable With Big Teeth unfolds in settings more evocative of community organizing than of the lives of uptown literati—in places like church basements, living rooms, and the cramped and chaotic offices of a non-profit.
The fundraising efforts of Hands to Ethiopia quickly become complicated when a mysterious Russian interlocutor named Maxim Tasan enters the picture. A black member of the charity essentially becomes Tasan’s mole and encourages the organization to open itself to white members and to expel Trotskyites. At the time, the Russian Communist Leon Trotsky was living in Mexico City to avoid political payback from Stalin; after challenging Stalin’s rise to head of the Bolshevik Party, Trotsky was perceived by many Communist stalwarts to be a traitor who had made the party vulnerable to fractious dissent. But to the humble leader of Hands to Ethiopia, a fascinating character by the name of Pablo Peixota (an Afro-Brazilian turned Harlem numbers-runner), this anti-Trotskyite campaign is an over-complication of what is essentially a matter of race. For Peixota, the so-called “Italo-Abyssinian crisis” is about “one little black nation, single-handed, almost unarmed, fighting against a mighty white nation.”
Brent Hayes Edwards, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, who co-edited the manuscript with Cloutier, told me the global dimensions of Amiable With Big Teeth are in many ways a response to how World War I shaped black American consciousness. African American servicemen returned from abroad with a newfound “international viewpoint,” Edwards said. That global outlook motivated black Americans to become increasingly involved in the issues facing people of African descent worldwide. Of particular focus for black Americans was defending independent black nation-states—countries like Haiti, Liberia, and Ethiopia—from white Euro-American occupation. As Edwards explained, black sovereignty, or “the idea of black people defining their own destinies,” was “a big deal” at the time McKay was writing Amiable With Big Teeth.