Whiteness in Claude McKay’s Banjo

The project of defining whiteness has proved difficult over the course of our class. Similarly, defining what it means to be black is elusive—mostly because race is a fiction. Zora Neale Hurston and Claude McKay poke fun at the idea of essentializing a group of people based on their race. In Banjo, McKay highlights the diversity of the Black population of Marseilles. In a room full of dancers, he identifies the Senegalese in blue overalls, the Madagascan soldiers, a Congo boxer, a Martiniquan, and Banjo, our protagonist (49). The inhabitants of Marseilles come from all over the globe—their common race does not diminish that fact.

However, while the diversity of blackness is foregrounded, McKay’s characters offer different opinions on white people. One barkeeper, who is described as a “fervid apostle of Americanism” defines whiteness for his audience: “They are all the same white and prejudiced against black skin” (73). The Senegalese at the bar disagree with him, but the barkeeper insists that “white people, no matter of what nation, did not want to see colored people prosper” (74). This barkeeper defines whiteness, essentially, as being prejudiced.

Despite this clear definition, McKay provides several competing perceptions of whiteness. Banjo, for one, seems to disagree with this barkeep on all fronts—his ideal life is one of music and pleasure, rather than one that seeks to “lift the race higher” (77). It follows that his definition of whiteness is not so essentializing, though McKay doesn’t offer Banjo’s direct perspective. Ray, on the other hand, “always prefer[s] to listen” (77). He chastises Banjo for his rudeness toward the barkeeper, but insists that “there’s nothing in the world so interesting to me as Banjo and his orchestra” (92). Ray, for all his tranquility, seems to align himself with Banjo and Banjo’s worldview. This begs the question if McKay also aligns himself with Banjo’s worldview and Banjo’s repudiation of the barkeeper’s narrow definition of whiteness. Race is not easily definable in Marseilles, and through Banjo’s interactions with the barkeeper and his descriptions of the diversity of blackness, McKay makes that clear.

One Reply to “Whiteness in Claude McKay’s Banjo”

  1. I really like your comment, and I think it touches on some key elements of the story, Banjo. It has been very interesting to read all of the descriptions that Banjo includes of all different races and nationalities in the story, while Banjo’s main focus is not necessarily on the groups themselves, but on starting his orchestra. I also think that McKay emphasizing Banjo’s lack of focus on “lift[ing] the race higher” (77) is important, because it is no person’s responsibility to live in a way that represents a group with which they identify, because that is exactly what leads to stereotyping, and McKay plays with this concept. At the time that Banjo was written, this was a particularly important message.

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