Celebrating Black History Month: Spotlight on the Harlem Renaissance
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Claude McKay

Claude McKay, a major poet of the 1920s, had migrated to New York to make his name, but his native Jamaica shaped his values and attitudes. Older than many of the "New Negro" Movement poets and having published two books in Jamaica before arriving in New York, McKay nevertheless became a revered writer of that decade when work by African American writers reached unprecedented levels of artistry and received mainstream attention. Like many of his contemporaries, McKay was a poet as well as an essayist, journalist, autobiographer, short story writer, and novelist. His controversial Home to Harlem (1928) was the first best-selling novel written by a black.

Born Festus Claudius McKay in Jamaica,West Indies, on September 15, 1889, he was the youngest child of Thomas Francis and Ann Elisabeth McKay. His parents instilled racial pride in him primarily through Thomas Francis's storytelling about his African-born father, a member of the West African Ashanti nation. McKay's education was also enhanced when he was sent to live with his oldest brother Uriah Theodore, a schoolteacher, amateur journalist, and agnostic. Uriah shared his views with his younger brother and allowed him full perusal of his library, which included the classic British writers and histories. Instead of taking an examination to become a teacher, in 1906, McKay won a stipend to attend a trade school in Kingston, Jamaica.

Kingston with its mixed populations showed the impressionable boy a caste system where peasant blacks were subordinated to the lowest level, and as an adult McKay's allegiance remained with the working class. He left for the village of Browns Town to learn how to be a wheelwright but gave that up. Eventually, he returned to Kingston and became a constable. Initially, that experience was positive, although it also showed him an underside of the human experience, which left a lasting impression.

McKay began writing poetry during his early years. He wrote in the conventions of traditional British poetry, but during his stay in Browns Town, he had written a few pieces in the Jamaican vernacular. He received encouragement to continue writing in that vein from a British folk story collector living on the island, Walter Jekyll, who was an influence on McKay throughout his adulthood. Jekyll stimulated McKay's creativity and intellectualism and assisted him in getting published. Jekyll's influence was apparent in McKay's choice of friends in the United States, where McKay aligned himself with white, well-to-do, bohemian men.

The year 1912 proved pivotal for McKay. He published Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads, with poems in Jamaican vernacular. Constab Ballads offered poems set in the city that suggested McKay's increasing sensibility to social protest. The young poet also left for the United States. McKay spent only six months at Tuskegee Institute, the well-known vocational school founded by Booker T. Washington in Alabama, before his disenchantment motivated him to enroll at Kansas State College in Manhattan, Kansas. As a black West Indian, McKay was something of a cultural outsider among both southern blacks and Midwesterners.

In 1914, McKay moved to New York, the literary and cultural center of the United States, and to Harlem, the cultural mecca for African Americans. He also married Imelda Edwards, his childhood sweetheart. Theirs was a short-lived marriage because she did not like New York and returned to Jamaica. The couple had a daughter, Eulalie Ruth Hope, but McKay reportedly never had a relationship with her. McKay held various jobs that were available to black men, including porter, houseman, janitor, butler, and waiter. These jobs gave him an intimate view of the perils of the black working class in the United States.

McKay's opinions about economics and the black working class were fashioned by his cultural and political experiences as a West Indian. He believed capitalism and economics were the problems rather than racism. He was a British citizen who had been conditioned by a colonial system to think in terms of class. His ideas about solutions to the race problem differed from the major leaders in Harlem such as James Weldon Johnson and W. E. B. Du Bois. McKay was not allied with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) but with radical socialist organizations. He denied having joined the Communist Party, but he openly admired the Bolsheviks.

McKay began trying to publish his poems and to read the radical journals. He was dismayed to discover that editors of mainstream journals seemed to want poems with racial themes. Even the avante-garde publication The Liberator rejected most of his submissions. McKay preferred that his art be judged on its own merits, regardless of subject.

It is ironic, therefore, that McKay's most famous and militant poem, "If We Must Die," which immediately targeted him as a radical new spokesperson for African Americans, contains no specific words of racial identification. Its universal themes of oppression, violence, and self-respect led British prime minister Winston Churchill to read it to the House of Commons during World War II in response to Nazi Germany's aggression. However, the poem was written in response to racial situations in post–World War I America, specifically the race riots in Chicago.

During this period, McKay also experienced the threat of bodily violence. While a train waiter for the Pennsylvania Railroad between New York and Washington, he and other service workers went about in groups and carried revolvers for protection. The speaker in "If We Must Die" counsels his listeners, besieged like himself by a "murderous, cowardly pack," to fight back, regardless of the odds. If death results, it will be a noble death. As in several poems, the Italian sonnet is the model for "If We Must Die." The restricted fourteen lines of the sonnet and its prescribed rhyme and metric qualities create remarkable tension with the freewheeling rage expressed. The poem appeared in The Liberator, a major coup. "If We Must Die" also attracted attention from the committee in the U.S. Justice Department investigating African American radicalism and sedition; they thought McKay was spreading communist ideology to black people.

In 1919, McKay visited Great Britain, which he considered his spiritual homeland. However, race tensions speedily dispelled his illusions about the British. He worked briefly in England for a radical journal, the Workers Dreadnought.

Although McKay is regarded as a trendsetting poet of the Harlem Renaissance, he was not in Harlem during most of the 1920s. In 1919, he returned to New York from England and worked for The Liberator until late in 1922, when he resigned as co-editor. He left for Moscow to attend a conference and eventually stayed on there. During this time, the FBI maintained a file on his activities. After contracting syphilis, McKay left Russia and stayed three months in Germany, where he thought he could receive better medical treatment. He went briefly to Paris, then to Toulon, France, in 1924, returning to Paris where he lived mostly hand-to-mouth until 1930. Between 1930 and 1933, when he began negotiating to reenter the United States, he lived in Tangiers, Morocco.

McKay was thus self-exiled from the United States when most of his poetry and fiction were published. Spring in New Hampshire (1920) was published in England. Harlem Shadows (1922), published on the cusp of the Harlem Renaissance and in the midst of American modernist poetry as practiced by the mainstream writers T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, merely expanded the first volume and included his best work since 1912. The publication greatly enhanced McKay's reputation. Yet McKay was neither a modernist in embracing radical new poetic structures nor adventuresome in constructing his own. Many of McKay's poems convey disenchantment with the economic plight and politics of black lives. "Tiger," for example, is critical of the status quo that President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal would perpetuate in spite of promises to the contrary. The white man, representative of capitalism in the poem, is visualized as a tiger ripping at the throat of blacks even as they die. In contrast, McKay's also wrote lyrical pieces of great beauty and sensitivity, such as "The Tropics in New York," "Spring in New Hampshire," and "Harlem Shadows."

When McKay finally returned to the United States in February 1934, through the assistance of writers James Weldon Johnson and Max Eastman, acclaim for his most recent work  had been overshadowed by the Great Depression. He could not find suitable work and was reduced to working in a camp for a dollar a day. Again, Johnson and Eastman came to his aid, and McKay received a grant to write his autobiography, A Long Way from Home (1937). He also worked for the Federal Writers Project, as did many black writers during the Depression. Except for his autobiography and a few articles, McKay was unable to interest publishers in new work for the remainder of the 1930s. His health declined in the early 1940s, and he died of heart failure in a Chicago hospital on May 22, 1948.

Joyce Pettis


Further Reading
Cooper, Wayne F. Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987; Giles, James R. Claude McKay. Boston: Twayne, 1976; Lee, Robert A. “On Claude McKay’s ‘If We Must Die.’” CLA Journal 28.2 (1974): 216–21; Redding, J. Saunders. “Emergence of the New Negro.” In To Make a Poet Black. College Park, MD: McGrath, 1939. 93–125; Tillery, Tyrone. Claude McKay: A Black Poet’s Struggle for Identity. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.
 

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