This critical oversight, hardly intentional, is partly due to the book’s presentation. The editors’ focus on Amiable with Big Teeth as a record of the complex political fervor of Harlem’s so-called “Abyssinian Crisis”—the sudden outpouring of African-American support for Emperor Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia in response to the 1935 invasion by Mussolini’s Fascist Italy—has led most commentators to concentrate almost exclusively on McKay’s politics, reading the novel in light of his growing dissatisfaction with Communism and his search for another means of African-American political empowerment. This focus is understandable, but it misses much of what makes Amiable with Big Teeth such a compelling literary artifact. For the novel not only documents McKay’s political crisis, but also provides a window into his equally urgent spiritual crisis, which ultimately led to his conversion to Catholicism. Like Dante’s Inferno or Dostoevsky’s Demons, Amiable with Big Teeth penetrates beneath the shifting spectacles of politics in order to address the evil of political division at its root. McKay lays bare the hell of a diabolical political landscape in which all the interpersonal conflict, backroom scheming, and street-corner sloganeering drown out the voice of the Spirit and leave no room for God.
While the novel does not contain any explicit references to Catholicism, religion—and, in particular, Christianity—is one of its central concerns. Historical religious figures from Harlem, such as the Muslim convert and activist preacher Sufi Abdul Hamid, whom McKay had profiled in his nonfiction work Harlem: Negro Metropolis, make cameo appearances. More importantly, the Bible itself forms a kind of backdrop to the novel. McKay quotes from it repeatedly—for instance, in the title of the very first chapter: “Ethiopia Shall Soon Stretch Out Her Hands to God.” This verse, taken from Psalm 68, is later used to explain the religious longings of Harlem’s African-American community. As the schoolteacher-turned-activist Newton Castle, a convert to Communism, exclaims near the middle of the novel, “There is a Zionist streak in the hearts of the colored people…a spiritual hankering after a Land of Beulah. And that explains the amazing interest of the masses in Ethiopia. It’s the ancient Ethiopia-shall-stretch-forth-her-hand-to-God of the Bible that is stirring them up.”
The Bible also helps us understand the novel’s unusual title. Amiable with Big Teeth is in fact a creative reworking of a passage from Matthew 7, where Jesus warns his disciples to be wary of false prophets—those who appear “in sheep’s clothing” (amiable) but underneath their disguises are really “ravenous wolves” (with big teeth). The subtitle, A Novel of the Love Affair between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem, translates Christ’s metaphor into an explicit simile: the white Communists (and their black allies) are false prophets who prey like wolves on the economically destitute, politically leaderless, and morally vulnerable sheep of Harlem.
Part of what makes the novel so compelling is that McKay does not separate his characters into two rigid ideological camps. Rather, against a backdrop of changing allegiances, he explores the moral dilemmas faced by conflicted figures who stand at various points on the political spectrum. One of the most complex and richly described characters, Pablo Peixota, is a Harlem community organizer and landlord. Tainted by his past involvement in the “numbers game,” Peixota has nonetheless achieved legitimacy in Harlem and longs to help advance the political and economic fortunes of its residents. His story suggests that, despite our strong human urge for pure positions and clear agendas, politics is never a simple binary; there are always nuances, ironies, and variations. McKay’s poetic descriptions of each character’s unique skin tone remind us that the black-and-white dichotomies of race, as well as those of politics, do not adequately capture our experience. The color line, which McKay, following the ideas of W. E. B. DuBois, deemed the central problem of the twentieth century, thus becomes a mirror of our political divisions. Whiteness, associated with the Communist arch-meddler and villain Maxim Tasan, is not universally negative, just as blackness, epitomized by the eccentric, bombastic, self-taught “historian” Professor Koazhy, is not entirely or unambiguously good.
But the quandary that Amiable with Big Teeth returns to repeatedly is the plight of “God’s Black Sheep.” That phrase was the novel’s working title, and it recurs throughout the book—especially in Chapter 10, whose title also refers to Scripture (this time Isaiah): “All We Like Sheep Have Gone Astray.” This crucial formulation points toward McKay’s conviction that the effective organization of African-Americans, not just in Harlem but indeed throughout the world, requires a religious solution. McKay’s personal copy of the Bible, the one held by the Beinecke Library, provides material evidence of the importance of Isaiah’s prophetic vision for McKay’s thinking about the race problem in connection to the novel. Not only does the Book of Isaiah itself receive the most attention from McKay’s red-pencil markings, but the author copies by hand Isaiah 53:6—the verse used as the title for Chapter 10—in the endpaper of the back cover. Scribbled just below it, we again find the phrase “God’s Black Sheep.” These notes not only indicate that the Bible was one of the most important sources of inspiration for McKay’s novel; they also invite us to read Chapter 10 as the key to the whole story.
There we find the lengthy sermon of the Reverend Zebulon Trawl, who, in response to the Communist protests on the steps outside his church, prays “like a wailing saxophone.” The verbose preacher, a comic mask for McKay himself, bemoans his own inability to protect “God’s black sheep” from the “false prophets,” “the white ones who have swarmed up here like hornets and peckawoods,” fooling their victims “with the magic of their white fleece.” The scene ends farcically, as the Communist agitator Newton Castle is stripped to his underwear and tossed out on the street, leading Trawl to proclaim that God has heard his prayers. The farce of this scene and others, all the way up to the novel’s wryly comic conclusion, reflects McKay’s profound doubt about the ability of Harlem’s many home-grown religious movements to address the problems of black life effectively. A dark, sad mood permeates the novel’s second half. McKay’s merciless lampooning of the Communists expresses his own unsatisfied longing for salvation.
By his own account an “outcast child,” a black sheep without a true home, McKay looked to his Catholic faith as a means of transcending the shame of failure and the pain of rejection by the various literary and political communities to which he had belonged. His longing for home is a central theme in his last poems, which appeared in publications such as the Catholic Worker. Here McKay returns to the same formal strategies he had employed in his 1922 Harlem Shadows, the collection that includes the poem quoted in J. F. Powers’s short story.
Where Amiable with Big Teeth had expressed McKay’s anxiety and loneliness, his discomfort with religious and political sectarianism, his post-conversion poems, like “For Peace,” communicate a deep and abiding sense of calm. At home in himself and at peace with others, McKay now wrote poetry that engaged with some of the best-known voices of the Catholic tradition. “For Peace” builds on Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur,” a sonnet that describes the post-Edenic world as “seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil.” “For Peace” adds the scars of ideology to those of industrialization: “the precious earth is scorched and dreary, / The people stumble in the darkness, blind, / and theory-ridden men are weary, weary, / And in the night no ray of hope can find.” “For Peace” also revisits Amiable with Big Teeth, now positing the Catholic Church as the solution that he had been unable to identify in the novel: “Thy Church, Thine instrument, shall lead the way, / And bring Thy lost ones in like scattered sheep, / and fold them at the passing of the day, / And give them warmth and love and soothing sleep!” The church, understood not as just another cause or “ism” but as a concrete network of loving relationships, offers refuge and heals old divisions.
These moving lines invite us to reconsider a black Catholic writer who confronted in himself some of the same tensions and divisions that face us today: how, in a world still wounded by political polarization and racism, can we realize that peace and unity to which God is always calling us? McKay’s work, read in its entirety—what was written before his conversion together with what was written after it—offers no easy answers, but instead invites us to take up the challenge ourselves. It encourages us to find God even in our own contentious, fractured moment, even in extremis, when we feel “pressed to the wall, dying.” That, after all, is where McKay found him.