The adventures of a rowdy troupe of dockworkers, prostitutes, and political organizers–collectively straight and queer, disabled and able-bodied, African, European, Caribbean, and American–are chronicled in Claude McKay’s Romance in Marseille, which has been buried in the archives for nearly ninety years. The tale sets off with Lafala, a seriously crippled but suddenly wealthy West African sailor, in the culture-mixing Vieux Port of Marseille at the height of the Jazz Age. Lafala is apprehended and imprisoned in a freezing closet while stowing away on a transatlantic cargo.
The once-nimble dancer loses both of his lower legs to frostbite by the time the boat docks, emerging after life-saving surgery as “an amputated man.” However, Lafala scores big in the litigious United States thanks to an improbably successful lawsuit against the shipping company. Lafala returns to Marseille, flush from his legal settlement, and restarts his trans-African affair with Aslima, a Moroccan courtesan. McKay’s novel addresses the legacy of slavery in the face of an unforgiving modern economy, with scenes of black bodies striving for pleasure and liberation even when stolen, exported, and sold for parts.
This first-ever edition of Romance in Marseille includes an introduction by McKay scholars Gary Edward Holcomb and William J. Maxwell that places the novel within both the “stowaway era” of black cultural politics and McKay’s challenging career as a star and skeptic of the Harlem Renaissance.