Trial by Lynching

Claude MCKAY

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Item#: 123364 price:$2,200.00

Trial by Lynching


MCKAY, Claude. Trial by Lynching. Stories About Negro Life in North America. Mysore, (India): CCLR, 1977. Slim octavo, original red and white printed wrappers; pp. 41. $2200.

First edition in English of McKay's virtually unknown collection of three early prose works, originally issued in Russian in 1925 and unpublished in English until 1977, increasingly heralded as his "first experiment in prose fiction" and "key to understanding McKay's literary and political development."

"A pioneer in the development of the 20th-century African American literature," McKay was born and grew up in Jamaica before leaving for the U.S. in 1912 and arriving in New York in 1914 (Smith et al, African American Writers, 241).Soon, taking up the offer of free travel and promised work in England, he left the U.S. in 1919, returning briefly to New York where his volume of poetry, Harlem Shadows (1922), with its complex protest sonnets, won high praise. Later the same year McKay, denied travel and support as an official delegate to the Moscow Fourth Congress, sailed instead "as a stoker on a merchant ship" to England before heading to Russia, where he arrived in time to participate as a "special delegate-observer." Against objections of official party delegates, he "won over the Moscow crowds" and was chosen to join a six-month tour with Langston Hughes and others. During that time McKay wrote a "series of articles and short stories… which were collected" into two books, Negroes in America (1923) and Trial by Lynching (1925). In 1934 he "returned to New York nearly penniless after almost 12 years living as an expatriate in France, Spain and Morocco" (Cloutier & Edward, Introduction, Amiable Teeth, xi). The "most controversial" of the Harlem Renaissance writers, he opposed Stalinist communism in the interwar years and was "a committed but critical international socialist and opponent of Western imperialism" (Smith, 241-43).

This virtually unknown work first appeared in Russian as Sudom Lyncha (Trial by Lynching) in Moscow in 1925, and was left unpublished in English until 1977, only to remain largely ignored. When the Russian edition was discovered by McKay's biographer Cooper in the 1970s, he briefly described its three stories "in one sentence, calling them 'slightly and overtly propagandistic, concentrating directly on the very real problems of lynchings and racial discrimination.'" Yet to critic Marian McLeod this notably stands as McKay's "first experiment in prose fiction." Scholar J.A. Zumoff furthers that, saying it is "key to understanding McKay's literary and political development" (Zumoff, Mulattos, 22-3). The title work, "Trial by Lynching," focuses on the often joking assessments by whites on their lynching of a Black man who is tortured, shot and burned alive. "Mulatto Girl," the only one of the three set in Harlem, is told from the perspective of a white man visiting his Black "comrade." The white narrator speaks of a time in his Texas town when there were rumors of a relationship between Coleman, a college friend who is also white, and Mathilda,a mixed-race young woman. After she is ordered to leave town, they see Mathilda on the street, where she begs for help from Coleman but is viciously struck by him instead. The narrator recalls that it "had a greater effect on me than a lynching." The third work, "Soldier's Return," is a partly fictionalized comment on T.S. Stribling's novel Birthright (1922), and speaks to the radically different experiences of returning WWI Black and white soldiers. To Langston Hughes, Countée Cullen and other Harlem Renaissance voices, McKay, who died in 1948, was "a leading inspirational force" (ANB). Not in Blockson.

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