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Petworth Reads

Amiable With Big Teeth

"But who wants to listen to the voice of a black man in America unless it is trained to sing spirituals or blues?"

-- Dorsey Flagg

After reading a New York Times piece about the discovery of a long lost Harlem Renaissance work by Claude McKay, I was eager to read the final product. As a person that prefers biographies, the depth of my familiarity with Mr. McKay was a couple of his poems. The fact that Amiable With Big Teeth is a work of historical fiction filled with characters based on real figures in addition to cameos from actual persons from the period, it did not feel like the fiction that I tended to avoid.

Amiable With Big Teeth is a story set in Harlem, U.S.A. during the Italo-Ethiopian conflict of the 1930s. The varied characters vie for the hearts and minds and money of the Harlem community as residents seek to lend support to Kingdom of Haile Selassie I as he struggles to maintain Independence during the height of Colonialism. In the story, Emperor Selassie sends an envoy named Lij Tekla Alamaya to the U.S. for fundraising purposes. One of the leading lights of Harlem, Pablo Peixota, finds himself in direct competition with Communist organizer, Maxim Tasan, for Alamaya's ear in local affairs.

Reading this book reminded me When Washington Was Vogue by Edward Christopher Williams. I find both books to be windows into bygone eras. Both works - having not been read in decades - evoked a feeling that I, along with other readers, were like townspeople peering into a recently opened time capsule. If any "townspeople" are asking, I would advise that you read the book first and save the introduction for last. The introduction could seem pretty long winded and it is definitely not devoid spoilers. All in all, I cannot wait to hear the reactions to this (re)discovery.

"Besides, despite his professions his real attitude towards Africans and Aframericans was still influenced by childish fairy-tale pictures of them as primitives."

-- Blake
    by Claude McKay