The New Primitivism: Gender and Nation in McKay’s Internationalism

  • Leah Reade Rosenberg


The cultural nationalism of turn-of-the-century Jamaica not only served as the basis for Herbert de Lisser’s conservative monopoly on local literary production but also provided the foundation for Claude McKay to revolutionize black aesthetics and politics in Jamaica, and later in the United States and Europe. In 1913, when de Lisser imagined a sambo nation in Jane and Twentieth Century Jamaica, McKay wrote poetry in the voice of black peasants, calling for violent resistance against colonialism. As de Lisser was writing Revenge (1919) and Triumphant Squalitone (1916), novels that ridiculed the very idea that any Jamaicans might govern themselves, McKay became famous across the English-speaking world for his sonnet “If We Must Die,” which asserted black manhood and citizenship by protesting the mob violence against African American servicemen in the summer of the 1919.1 In the late 1920s, when de Lisser wrote the sensationalist and antiblack romance The White Witch of Rose Hall, McKay produced Home to Harlem (1928) and Banjo (1929). Home to Harlem was one of the first best-selling novels by a black author in the United States, while Banjo became a foundational text for the Negritude movement in the francophone Caribbean and West Africa. Together the novels embodied a modernist primitivism that critiqued the colonial foundation of European modernity and modernism.


Folk Religion Cultural Nationalism African Diaspora Male Protagonist African American Literature 
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© Leah Reade Rosenberg 2007

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  • Leah Reade Rosenberg

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