The following guest post by Jacqueline Bishop on Claude McKay introduces many of us to an African American writer of the 20th century about whom too little is written in the literature on Americans in Morocco. Jacqueline Bishop is a writer and visual artist who teaches full time in the Liberal Studies Program at New York University. She collaborates with the photographer Lhouceine Aamar in documenting Claude McKay’s Morocco.
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When I came to Morocco on a Fulbright Fellowship in 2008 I was surprised to learn that almost no one knew that the celebrated African American writer Claude McKay had lived and worked in the country. Even more surprising were the people who knew of Claude McKay’s importance as a writer, without knowing that he had written most of his books in Morocco. Back in the United States, almost no one seemed to take seriously the author’s time in Morocco. To date there hasn’t been any examination of the influence living in Morocco had on the author’s work and the development and clarification of both his anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist ideas. This is a lacunae still waiting to be filled, as this is but a brief introduction to Claude McKay and some of the work that he did in Morocco.
When he first came to Morocco in 1928, Claude McKay was in an upbeat mood. His first novel, Home to Harlem, had just been published and was steadily climbing up the New York Times best-seller list, one of the earliest such feats for an African American writer. McKay had money in his pocket and was well on his way to writing his second and perhaps most celebrated novel, Banjo, which he would complete in Morocco.
In fact the time McKay would spend in Morocco, roughly from 1928-1934, would see the author producing an astonishing body of work in the country — not only did he complete Banjo on his first trip in 1928; but he would go on to complete the short story collection Gingertown and the novel Banana Bottom while living in Morocco. He would also revise the novel Savage Loving (which would later be re-titled Romance in Marseilles) while living in Tangier. Sometime in 1933, McKay thought of a new novel and began to write what would eventually become Harlem Glory. In addition, he wrote several poems and various sketches of Moroccan life while still living there. Later he dedicates a significant portion of his autobiography to his time in Morocco and the country would keep showing up in subsequent works as well. Though McKay would eventually leave Morocco to return to the United States, Morocco would not leave McKay and he would be preoccupied with the country, and all the relationships he forged there, until the end of his life in 1948.
What made Morocco, more than any of the other countries that McKay lived in, so conducive to his producing such a substantial body of creative work? I believe the answers can be found in his biography.
Born in 1889 on the island of Jamaica, McKay would come to the United States as a youthful twenty two year-old after having publishing two collections of dialect poems on the island. More publications would follow in the United States, but McKay was an ever restless and wandering person; after only a few years in the United States he set off for Europe, where he would end up living for a decade and a half, primarily in England and France. But always there was the pull to Africa. McKay writes in his autobiography that he was first invited to visit Morocco by a sailor from Martinique he met while working in France. In time McKay would take the sailor up on his offer to visit Morocco.
From the very start McKay fell in love with Morocco, and his published works – particularly his moving poems about Morocco – give us some sense of why the country became so meaningful to him. There was, of course, the colorful landscape, so reminiscent of his native Jamaica. His poem “Two Songs of Morocco” is a love song to the northern landscape of Morocco, where McKay lived for most of his time in the country. Here, in the breathtakingly beautiful cities of Tetouan, Chefchaouen and Tangier were the flaming “yellow daisies” that McKay remembered from his Caribbean childhood. Here too was a landscape of abundance, in which “fishes leap up like tumblers in the air.” In his lovely poem Xauen, McKay is particularly taken with the tiny all-blue mountain municipality, where the waters kept “… flowing like the dawn … [in] the gem the Moors call Xauen.”
Morocco emerges as a place of personal rejuvenation for a world-weary author who had encountered mind-numbing racism in Europe and America. In “Two Songs of Morocco” he references the theme directly when he writes of how attuned he was to “… the rejuvenated land.” Similarly, in the poem Xauen, the landscape emerges as a “ … lovely fountain bubbling up in my breast … cleansing all the bitter memories … of life … bathe me always your wandering guest.” In yet another poem he locates himself on the Moroccan landscape as that of “…wild honey come from wandering bees.”
The sense of Morocco being a welcoming place to a wanderer like McKay is particularly poignant, for by the time McKay came to the country he was looking for somewhere to settle permanently – and for a while he thought he had found that place in Morocco.
Morocco was also a sensual experience for McKay, one that he linked to the women of the country, whom he never quite gets to know, but whom he admires nonetheless. The women of the country engender “a ripened passion” in the poet. They also represent the “Womb of time”. So smitten was McKay with the women in the poem Fez that he conflates the city with the female body and the city becomes one of “labyrinthine lanes and crooked souks/ And costumes hooding beauty from men’s sight.” Marakkesh on the other hand is a “Salome-sensual dance” while Tetouan is a “… fountain bubbling up with new life ….” In other poems Morocco is a “beauty pregnant of life’s pristine womb … on your bosom, asleep … I have felt the breaking wave on wave … .” The poem Tetuan conceptualizes Morocco as a miraculous place since here is where “Africa’s fingers [are] tipped with miracles.” While in his long poem titled Morocco the country, “Touch[es] caressingly my inmost chords.” The women of Morocco, as larger representatives of McKay’s general feeling about the country, are sensual, intoxicating, and life-giving but at some level remains mysterious and unknowable.
As an African American, what attracted McKay most to the country was the author’s connection to the local people and in turn his connection to Morocco as an African country. Time and time again he would write about how free he felt in Morocco, how liberated, and how he could “…drink the eager wine/ fermented strongly in the native cup”. His time in Morocco was one of many “returns.” A “return” to the continent of Africa, a “return” to the Motherland, and indeed a “return” home. Peppered throughout his poems about Morocco is the sense that the blood of Morocco flows deeply and darkly through his own veins and over and over again he identifies himself as an offspring of the African continent.
As a both a Jamaican [at the time British] subject and an African American, McKay identified with the injustice perpetuated on the native population and empathized with the local people as they fought against the twin-headed monster of both colonialism and imperialism. Morocco – then governed by several European countries – a “… severed head, is Europe’s ball … kicked from goal to goal and all around… in the African game of the European….” But Morocco’s story is ultimately not only or even primarily a tragic one, because the city in which he lived the longest, Tangier, retained the “symbol of the Berber brave!”
Perhaps the most moving poem of the published poems McKay wrote about this country is the one that shows his dream of return. When he wrote the poem titled quite simply Morocco, McKay was again living in the United States. And yet there is a palpable longing for Morocco. The poem describes in quite moving terms that being outside of Morocco is for McKay a “stone upon [the author’s] spirit.“ He misses the country’s strong “native colors.” But it is so much more than just the vibrant colors of the country that McKay misses. Throughout this “wistful and heartrending” poem is the constant refrain of return:
Oh friends, my friends! When Ramadan returns
And daily fast and feasting through the night,
With chants and music honey-dripping sweets …
My thoughts will wing
On airy waves
With you to be.
More than anything else Claude McKay wanted to return to Morocco.
For some time now the Moroccan photographer Lhouceine Aamar and I have been documenting the places in Morocco that Claude McKay wrote about in an effort not only to develop a visual archive of Claude McKay’s Morocco, but also to in effect return Claude McKay yet again to Morocco. The photographs accompanying this essay were taken between December of 2013 and January of 2014 as Lhoueicene Aamar and I tracked Claude McKay all over Northern Morocco. In particular we wished to locate the small lovely house near a river leading out to the ocean, just outside Tangier where the author lived and worked and wrote many glowing letters about. With the help of Dr. James Miller at the Fulbright Foundation in Morocco we came to understand that McKay’s little house “outside of Tangier” where he kept a vegetable garden was now deeply folded within Tangier proper, the city having grown so much over the years.
With the further help of staff from TALIM, Mr. Aamar and I were able to pinpoint the place where Claude McKay’s house would have been. No small beautiful house still stands at the “place of peace for wandering bees” that Claude McKay made his own and his home in Tangier, but the water from the river that he so enjoyed swimming in still makes its way lazily out to ocean.
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The Claude McKay poems quoted in this article are — “Two Songs of Morocco”; “Tanger”; “Fez”; “Marrakesh”; “Tetuan”; “Xauen” and “Morocco.”
Text Jacqueline Bishop; photos Lhoueicene Aamar