On the superficial level ‘Banjo’ is a picaresque story of a group of vagabonds – beach boys who spend their days wandering about the dodgy districts of Marseilles from one bistro to another singing, dancing and drinking. McKay's descriptions of the port life in 1920’s are lyrical and enticing but the novel is far more than a romantic account of times long gone. The cosmopolitan port where the whole world meets and no one is really at home is the ideal settingfor McKay to bring up the question of race. All the characters discuss every viewpoint and attitude possible while getting drunk on yet another bottle of red wine. Such scenery and representations of blacks did not earn McKay many friends among fellow Harlem Renaissance authors who believed McKay was slashing his own race. He defends himself through the words of Ray, one of the characters:
“I think about my race as much as you. I hate to see it kicked around and spat on by the whites, because it is a good earth-loving race. I’ll fight with it if there’s a fight on, but if I am writing a story – well, it’s like all of us in this place here, black and brown and white, and I telling a story for the love of it.”
“Banjo” is essentially a transnational novel, a good example of the “race-nationhood” concept. It seems as if McKay wanted to shout "Black people of all countries, unite!” and made sure each region - Africa, West Indies and the US - was equally represented. I only wish he had given more voice to his female characters, who don’t serve for much in this book. Nonetheless, it is a good novel (however without a plot as the subtitle states) and I would give it 3.5 stars.
It is hard to say which viewpoint McKay shares with his characters, but the general conclusion seems to be expressed by this quote:
“I don’t think I loathe anything more than the morality of the Christians. It is false, treacherous, hypocritical. I know that, for I myself have been a victim of it in your white world, and the conclusion I draw from it is that the world needs to get rid of false moralities and cultivate decent manners – not society manners, but man-to-man decency and tolerance.”