In ‘Banana Bottom’, Claude McKay explores his own version of Pygmalion in the Caribbean island of Jamaica.
After enjoying a European education via white missionary benefactors, Bita Plant is returning home. The missionaries, Malcolm and Priscilla Craig, have mapped out Bita’s life completely. She will receive training at the mission in Jubilee; she will serve the church; she will marry a man of certain standing; she will be a dutiful wife and assist that husband in the continuation of the work at Jubilee.
However the Craigs are unprepared when their social engineering unravels, but then, so is Bita. As she settles, Bita finds that she gravitates towards the customs of the local people. Whilst she is appreciative of her education she intelligently places it in a certain order in her life and does not value it above tradition. Thus she is ‘re-drawn’ to Jamaican culture as though no amount of European education could eradicate her heritage.
Set in the early 1900s McKay guides us through a social structuring not so much defined by education and wealth, but by skin colour, much of which some would argue still exists in Jamaica today.
The protagonists could be educated to the hilt (if they could summon the money), however if one’s skin colour was too brown or ‘black’, it could only allow a certain piercing into the echelons of light-skinned Jamaican society. It takes some time for dark-brown Bita to experience some of this prejudice
(because of her benefactors and education she is something a celebrity), which she does through an over amorous encounter.
‘Banana Bottom’ has powerful melodrama and in some parts so comically raucous, one could almost visualise a play from Blue Mountain Theatre. Splicing between the clipped tones of the white characters (and Bita’s for that matter), the Jamaican patois of some of the black, Bita’s life in Jubilee and the machinations of the villagers, the author adds a certain rhythm to the pages. Contemporary readers may find it jarring to see characters so overtly introduced initially by their skin colour, however one has to remember that the novel was written in 1933 set in a Jamaica a couple of decades prior and is the author’s observation and probable experience of society at the time.
A poet, novelist and journalist, Claude McKay was born in Jamaica in 1889. He then lived in New York in 1912 and subsequently became a driving force of the Harlem Renaissance. Trailblazing through Europe, McKay – ahead of his time, spoke out against racism in world governments. Ironically it was Britain’s Winston Churchill who appropriated McKay’s poem ‘If We Must Die’ to rouse the country to war against Germany. McKay’s poem was written to articulate the torment of the Harlem ‘race riot’.
Claude McKay is a classic author and his writing richly deserves exposure. Publishers Serpent’s Tail, have republished ‘Banana Bottom’ and in a continued promotion to introduce contem