“Bannabees,” Bananas, and Sweet Potatoes: Claude McKay’s Songs of Jamaica and Traditional Jamaican Foodways as a Nationalist Expression
Jamaican poet Claude McKay is largely anthologized for a handful of poems he contributed to the Harlem Renaissance, but his early work authored in Jamaica has long been dismissed for a variety of racist and xenophobic reasons. This overlooked material includes his first two poetry collections, Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads, both authored in Jamaica before he moved to New York. His friend, benefactor, and mentor Walter Jekyll even characterized these early collections as “naive.” However, these two collections, which mix traditional English forms with Jamaican peasant dialect, constitute vital parts of McKay’s oeuvre. Songs of Jamaica in particular exhibits a mastery of Jamaican peasant dialect in combination with extensive allusions to traditional folkways in order to make an anti-colonialist, nationalist assertion about Jamaica, the country McKay so loved. I will analyze the role of Jamaican peasant dialect and foodways in making this nationalist assertion in order to advance my claim that McKay’s early poetry is at least as sophisticated and versatile as his subsequent collections authored in the States. By turns, McKay praises native Jamaican crops such as the banana, sweet potato, and Bonavist bean for their gustatory, nutritional, and economic superiority to crops imported by colonialism.