chapter  5
16 Pages


Another foreign writer living in Marseilles, also struggling to articulate the relationship between politics and culture, capitalism and civilization, humanized and celebrated the world of the African, West Indian, and North African seamen and labourers. The Jamaican poet and author Claude McKay lived in Marseilles intermittently from 1924 to 1927 after his departure from Harlem in 1922. The experiences of the dark-skinned McKay among the colour-conscious Jamaican middle class and in Jim Crow America informed his early advocacy of a cultural pan-Africanism in tandem with a revolutionary class politics. In his innovative and influential semi-autobiographical picaresque novel, Banjo: A Story without a Plot (1929), McKay rejected European norms of literature and behaviour in favour of

dialect and a ‘natural’ African culture.5 The possibility of this culture flourishing, even in the reduced form of a banjo-player and his companions, on Marseilles’s streets testified to the port’s hybrid character. In one passage, McKay suggested the city’s distinctive modernity:

There was a barbarous international romance in the ways of Marseilles that was vividly significant of the great modern movement of life. Small, with a population apparently too great for it, Europe’s best back door, discharging and receiving its traffic to the Orient and Africa, favourite port of seamen on French leave, infested with the ratty beings of the Mediterranean countries, overrun with guides, cocottes, procurers, repelling and attracting in its white-fanged vileness under its picturesqueness, the town seemed to proclaim to the world that the grandest thing about modern life was that it was bawdy.6