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.”