It's 1936, and Mussolini's forces have invaded Ethiopia, and though the League of Nations has pledged support to the north African nation, the member countries do little more than emit sympathetic murmurs. The residents of Harlem - the symbolic capital of black America - are suffering through the Great Depression, but they are determined to do what they can to financially support the Ethiopian cause.
An envoy from Ethiopia arrives in Harlem to start a fund-raising tour of the United States, and he is embraced by the African American-led organization Hands to Ethiopia. A mysterious white man tries to infiltrate Hands to Ethiopia and bring it under the umbrella of a Communist-led aid organization. When he fails, he's prepared to use sleazy and underhanded tactics.
Add a silly romance angle, underdeveloped characters, and subplots that go nowhere, and what do you have?
You have Amiable with Big Teeth, a recently discovered novel by the Harlem Renaissance standout Claude McKay. It's a complex book that should have been published in 1941, when it was written.
In 1941, the United States was just entering World War II, so many people were aware that Italy had invaded Ethiopia a few years before, though likely most didn't know how Harlem felt about it.
Already familiar with some of the tactics of the Soviet Union and the American Communist Party - always in the newspapers in the 1930s and '40s - readers would learn some of the strategies the ACP employed to recruit black people.
Folks might also have gotten a kick out of trying to guess the real identity of some of the very colorful but thinly disguised characters. Who doesn't love a roman à clef? And they might even forgive McKay for writing a book not quite at the level of his other works.
Yes, in 1941, Amiable with Big Teeth would have been timely and entertaining.
In 2017, well, perhaps not so much.
Lij Tekla Alamaya, the Ethiopian emissary, also happens to be a prince. Pablo Peixota is a wealthy "Aframerican" (McKay's coinage) who heads Hands to Ethiopia. It's Alamaya's first trip to the United States, and he's a little taken aback by some of the customs, especially the forwardness of Peixota's silly 17-year-old daughter, Seraphine, who decides that marrying a prince - even if he is African rather than European - would be a feather in her cap.
While at a party with Seraphine, Alamaya meets Max Tasan, who tries to persuade him to leave Peixota's group and instead work with the White Friends of Ethiopia, promising that the white organization can open more doors and raise more money. Tasan delivers a veiled threat that bad things might happen if Alamaya doesn't consent.
Although not the best-known of the Harlem Renaissance luminaries, McKay was considered among the most talented. He was most recognized as a poet, and secondarily as a novelist. His novel Home to Harlem was the first best-selling book in the United States written by a black man. He also wrote Banjo and Banana Bottom, and in 1940, he wrote Harlem: Negro Metropolis, an incredibly informative sociopolitical study of 1920s and '30s Harlem. He wrote Amiable with Big Teeth the following year.
Filled with information about the Ethiopia-Harlem movement, it likely would have been well-received by readers familiar with the topic and the author. But for some reason the publisher rejected it. Stowed away in the Columbia University archives, the manuscript wasn't discovered until 2009, leading to its publication this year.
McKay evidently fell ill while writing it. Had he not, perhaps the writing would have been solid enough for present-day readers to read it for enjoyment and learn about the Ethiopia-Harlem movement in the process. But it's not. And unless you're a big Claude McKay fan, or specifically want to learn about Harlem's Ethiopia movement, this is a novel you might want to give a pass.