McKay, Claude 1889–1948

views updated May 14 2018

Claude McKay 18891948

Poet, journalist, essayist, fiction writer

At a Glance

Became Key Figure in the Harlem Renaissance

Poetic Genius and Political Visionary

A Pilgrimage to the West

Home to Harlem

Selected writings


A major literary figure of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, Jamaican-born American poet Claude McKay dedicated his life to writing verse that promoted spiritual freedom and humanitarian social and political values. Tormented by the discriminatory barriers confronting African Americans in the twentieth century, McKay vented his feelings of frustration through poetry and served as a voice for awakening the masses to the devastating effects of racism in a white-dominated society. Although he is best known for his militantly angry poetic style, McKay also dealt with less inflammatory themes: his colorful pastoral scenes of the Jamaican countryside and lyrical ruminations on the beauty of Harlem dancers are especially memorable. A respected philosopher, a celebrant of primitivism, and the author of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction works, McKay produced a vast number of writings that helped lay the foundation for the emergence of modern African American literature.

Festus Claudius McKay was born in Sunny Ville, Jamaica, on September 15,1889, to Hannah Ann Elizabeth, a woman of warm humanitarian values, and Thomas McKay, a strictly pious Christian and successful landowner. McKay enjoyed a pleasant childhood playing within the mountain villages scattered throughout the Jamaican countryside. At age four, he attended school at Mt. Zion Church where he exhibited a strong interest in history and geography. Placed under the tutelage of his brother U Theo, a free-thinker and lay preacher, McKay was exposed to classical literature, socialist views, and the ideas of natural science and evolutionary naturalism. In his brothers library, McKay spent long hours reading William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and the biological and philosophical treatises of Thomas Huxley, Ernest Haekel, and Herbert Spencer. Through the guidance and encouragement of U Theo, McKay began to develop skills as a writer and poet.

In 1907, McKays literary talent attracted the notice of Walter Jekyll, an English gentleman and man of letters who urged McKay to write poetry in the native Jamaican dialect. Although most learned Jamaicans considered peasant dialect a vulgar tone, Jekyll awakened McKay to the natural beauty and rhythm of the language. At 23, McKay completed two volumes of dialect poetry: Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads. Awarded a gold medal by the Jamaican Institute of Arts and Sciences in Kingston, these two works contained a number of poems describing the hardships and racial injustices suffered by the Jamaican peasantry, as well as works celebrating the grandeur of Old England.

At a Glance

Born Festus Claudius McKay, September 15, 1889, in Sunny Ville, Jamaica; immigrated to U.S.; became naturalized U.S. citizen, 1940; died of heart disease, May 22, 1948, in Chicago, IL; buried in Calvary Cemetery, Woodside, NY; son of Thomas Francis (a farmer and landowner) and Hannah Ann Elizabeth (a farmer; maiden name, Edwards) McKay; married Imelda Edwards, July 30, 1914 (divorced); children: Ruth Hope. Education: Attended Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, 1912, and Kansas State College, 1912-14. Politics: Independent socialist. Religion: Converted to Catholicism, 1945.

Poet, journalist, essayist, fiction writer. Woodworkers apprentice, Browns Town, Jamaica, and constable, Kingston, both c. 1906; worked as a longshoreman, porter, bartender, and waiter, off and on beginning in 1910; first volumes of poetry, Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads, published in London, 1912; immigrated to United States, 1912; settled in New York City, 1914, and became a restaurateur; business failed; poems published in several journals, 1917-19; traveled to London and worked as a journalist, 1919-20; coeditor of the Liberator, New York City, 1921-22; attended Fourth Congress of the Third Communist International, Moscow, 1922; writer in Europe and North Africa, 1923-34; returned to the United States, February, 1934; took shelter in Catholic Friendship House, 1941; moved to Chicago, 1944.

Awards: Jamaican Institute of Arts and Sciences, gold medal, 1912, for two volumes of poetry, Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads; Harmon Foundation Award for distinguished literary achievement, NAACP, 1929, for Harlem Shadows and Home to Harlem; James Weldon Johnson Literary Guild Award, 1937.

Upon the completion of his free-thinking education, McKay aspired to become a peasant poet, supporting himself by farming in the Jamaican countryside. In order to prepare himself for the task of advancing Jamaican agriculture, McKay left for the United States in 1912 to study agronomy (field-crop production) at Booker T. Washingtons Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama. But, disenchanted with Tuskegees machine-like existence and semi-military organization, McKay left after a few months to attend Kansas State College. He tired of his studies after two years, however, and cancelled his plans to become an agronomist. The demon of poets had got hold of me, recalled McKay in his autobiography A Long Way from Home. I became a vagabondbut a vagabond with a purpose. I was determined to find expression in writing.

Became Key Figure in the Harlem Renaissance

With funds acquired from an anonymous benefactor, McKay, like thousands of resourceful West Indians, traveled to Harlem in New York City in 1914. Once in Harlem, McKay joined the Negro Renaissance writers revolt against white cultural standards by seeking to write works reflecting the life of the black masses. Like the other young Renaissance writers, McKays primary aim was to exalt the cultural heritage of people of color and to legitimize the differences inherent in all cultures. McKay claimed in A Long Way from Home that by reading all the great poets he could feel their race, their class, their roots in the soil. Thus, he set out to write poetry that would express the uniqueness of the black experience.

Drawn to the capital of black culture, McKay became impassioned by the jazz music and stage shows featured on Harlems 135th Street. After establishing himself as the proprietor of a small restaurant in the black section of mid-Manhattan, McKay married his Jamaican childhood sweetheart, Imelda Edwards, on July 30, 1914. Within a few months, however, McKay faced failure in business and marriage. On her return to Jamaica shortly afterward, Imelda gave birth to McKays only child, Ruth Hope, a daughter he would never see. Disillusioned by middle class pursuits and without ambition to resume a formal education, McKays rebellious nature led him to return to the writing of poetry. While working as a stevedore, porter, and busboy, McKay divided his time between observing the condition of black workers and writing.

In search of an editor, McKay came into contact with Joel Spingarn, literary critic and early founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), who recommended McKay to James Oppenheim and Waldo Frank, editors of the avant garde publication Seven Arts. Despite their criticism of McKays formal sonnet style, Oppenheim and Frank published two of McKays poems, Harlem Dancer and Invocation, in the December 1917 issue of Seven Arts. That same year, McKay took a job as a dining car waiter on the Pennsylvania Railroad, a job that exposed him to the many African American communities located in the cities of the industrial Northeast. In 1918, McKay was introduced to Frank Harris, editor of Pearsons Magazine, who published five of his poems including The Lynching.

Following the end of the First World War in 1918, McKay, like a great number of black Americans, became disillusioned over the resurgence of racial violence and the indifferent treatment of black veterans in the United States. He had long been aware of racial injustice, but he was deeply disturbed by the bloody race riots of 1919 that swept through major American cities like Chicago. It was at this time that McKay met Max Eastman, a Communist sympathizer and chief editor of a radical publication called the Masses. In Eastman, McKay found a literary mentor and personal confidant who remained one of his closest lifelong friends. McKays association with Eastman helped strengthen his radical political views and establish him as a member of New Yorks postwar Greenwich Village literary scene.

Poetic Genius and Political Visionary

In reaction to the wave of racial violence and the U.S. governments suppressive actions against domestic radicalism during the Red Scare of 1919, McKay wrote the powerful poem If We Must Die. Published in the July edition of the Liberator, the successor of the Masses, If We Must Die is a bitter yet profound poem calling for a universal movement against oppressionone that embodied such a passionately human message that British statesman and author Winston Churchill quoted from it in a speech he gave during World War II.

Though it was criticized by conservative African Americans, If We Must Die appeared in black newspapers across the country, earning him national recognition as one of Americas most talented new black poetic voices. But the poem also attracted the attention of the U.S. State Departments committee investigating African American radicals. The State Departments attempt to label the poem as radical, antidemocratic propaganda put a great deal of pressure upon McKay who, since quitting the railroad job earlier that year, had joined the revolutionary organization known as the Industrial Workers of the World.

But not long afterward, McKay received an opportunity to travel to Europe at the expense of two English admirers of his poetry. Bound for London in late 1919, McKay continued his involvement in radical politics. Upon joining the International Club, McKay became exposed to various European radical intellectuals and the serious study of Marxist ideology, which calls for the achievement of a classless society. For the year he remained in England, McKay worked as journalist for Workers Dreadnought, a Communist weekly publication edited by Sylvia Pankhurst. In a real sense McKay completed in London the political self-education he had begun in the United States, wrote historian Wayne F. Cooper in Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem RenaissanceA Biography. But once in England, as Cooper pointed out, all of McKays romantic thoughts of the grandeur of British culture quickly waned: he became a disillusioned witness to the racial inequities faced by foreign-born blacks and the left-wing apathy toward the plight of the nationalist movements in Ireland, India, and other countries under colonial rule.

After returning to New York in the winter of 1921, McKay was able to earn a steady income by taking a job as the assistant editor of the Liberator. In Harlem, McKay met with a circle of black socialists including Hubert Harrison and members of the African Blood Brotherhood led by Cyril Briggs and Richard B. Moore. At this time McKay also befriended intellectuals like writer James Weldon Johnsonthen executive secretary of the NAACPwho hailed his work as too powerful to be confined to the circle of race. In the spring of 1922, while McKay continued his editing job at the Liberator, a collection of poems titled Harlem Shadows was published as his first American book. A work containing seventy poems, all of which had been written since McKays arrival in the United States in 1912, Harlem Shadows emerged as a great critical success that marked a major turning point in his literary career.

A Pilgrimage to the West

Troubled by disputes over race and political ideology among the Liberators staff members, McKay left the magazine in June of 1922. The author had grown weary of the racist conditions in the United States and became committed to a global political and social outlook. Although not a member of the Communist party, McKay decided to travel to Soviet Russia to observe the grand experiment of communism. He joined the millions of workers, writers, and intellectuals who, as he wrote in A Long Way from Home, became fascinated by the Russian thunder rolling around the world. With funds raised by friends and colleagues, McKay traveled to Liverpool, England, and then Berlin, where he secured a visa to enter the Soviet Union. Arriving in Moscow early in November 1922, McKay was stirred by the semi-oriental splendor of Russian culture and the vibrant character of Moscow, which he described as a bright Byzantine fair.

In Moscow, McKay was allowed to attend the meeting of the Fourth Congress of the Third Communist International, or Comintern. One of the few blacks among the delegation, McKay spoke out against racial oppression and the American Communist partys stance on maintaining an underground organization in the United States. His presence influenced the Soviets to create a Negro Commission intended to address the black struggle against racism. During his six-month stay, McKay found that his color and physical features made him a celebrity among the Russian people. On one occasion, for example, a joyful crowd of Russian peasants and soldiers carried McKay through the streets of Moscow on their shoulders.

In May of 1923, McKay left Russia and set out on a new career as an expatriate novelist. After a brief stay in Germany, he traveled to Paris where he fell ill with influenza in December. Despite his colorful experience with the Russian people, McKays trip to the Soviet Union did little to arouse his earlier interest in communism. As a true artist, McKay found communism too disciplined and confining to his aesthetic outlook. Determined to become a novelist, McKay left Paris in January of 1924 for the French Mediterranean coastal seaport of Marseilles.

During time spent in nearby Toulon in 1925, McKay completed his first novel, titled Color Scheme, which was never published. Destitute and with no hope of publishing his novel, McKay wrote a series of short stories describing Negro life in Harlem. Eventually McKay expanded one of the stories into the novel Home to Harlem, a work dealing with a black soldiers return to New York following World War I. A landmark of black literature, Home to Harlem appeared in 1928 and emerged as one of the first bestsellers of African American literature. However, several leading black intellectuals, including W. E. B. Du Bois, admonished McKay for producing an exploitative work of fiction that depicted black characters as lowly, unrestrained, and primitively passionate. According to Du Bois, Home to Harlem plays upon deeply entrenched, ill-conceived, stereotypical images of people of colorthe very images that many black critics had worked so many years to eraseand therefore exacerbated the racist conditions plaguing African Americans in a white-dominated society.

By late 1928, McKay had journeyed to Morocco, where be became acquainted with the Moorish culture of cities like Casablanca, Fez, and Marakesh. While in North Africa, McKay worked on his second novel, Banjo, which was published in 1929. The story of Negro vagabond sailor/musician Banjo, also known as Lincoln Agrippa Daily, Banjo, like its predecessor, describes a black mans struggle within white society and his search for the true meaning of human existence.

Over the next four years, McKay resided for brief periods in Germany, Spain, and North Africa. In 1932 he published a book of twelve poems under the title Gingertown. The next year, the novel Banana Bottom about an educated black Jamaican womens attempt to return to the peasant culture of her youthemerged as McKays last and most critically acclaimed work of long fiction. Banana Bottom is said to exemplify the maturity and refinement of McKays use of theme and form, but like Gingertown, the book failed to sell and left McKay further in debt to his publisher. After living as a peasant poet in a small rented cottage in Tangiers, McKay decided to return to the United States. Without assurance of employment, McKay sailed for New York on February 1, 1934.

Home to Harlem

Arriving in New York after a twelve-year hiatus, McKay faced many obstacles amid the economic crisis of the Great Depression. As the Harlem Renaissance literary scene fell into decline during the early 1930s, African American writers found they no longer were given the attention and prestige they once received in the white market place. Plagued by health problems and the effects of poverty, McKay also experienced the pain of loneliness and isolation. In 1936 he published his autobiography A Long Way from Home, in which he stresses the need for blacks to develop cultural and economic solidarity in order to take their place in a new socialist universal order. McKays last book, Harlem: Negro Metropolis, published in 1940, was written from the research gathered during his employment at the Federal Writers Project, a government relief program designed to offer jobs to unemployed writers.

As the next decade progressed, McKays health steadily worsened. Stricken with dropsy and utterly destitute, he sought refuge in the Catholic Friendship House. Upon the invitation of Bishop Bernard Sheil, McKay moved to Chicago in 1944, where he joined the Catholic Church a year later. In Catholicism, McKay found physical and spiritual shelter and a universal theology that he believed could counter the forces of communism and fascism. Near the end of his life, McKay completed a memoir of his childhood, My Green Hills of Jamaica, which remained unpublished until 1981. In reference to the book, McKay related in a letter to Max Eastman, I do not want to go sour on humanity, even after living in this awful land of the U.S.A. I still like to think of people as I did as a boy in Jamaica.

Despite his disillusionment and years of alienation, McKay never lost the faith that somewhere in human beings there exists a hidden spiritual force, one that had been left in the shadows of totalitarian regimes, capitalist exploitation, and colonial domination. For McKay, art was never a means of escape, but a way to confront the world and to expose the true nature of the human spirit. His poetry connects the black artists struggle with the struggles of all humanity. An elder member of the Harlem Renaissance, McKay led the way for the emergence of a modern African American literary tradition that includes such writers as Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin. McKays work is representative of the black artists struggle to gain recognition in the Western world. Like so many other artistic geniuses who lived their lives as outsiders, McKay remained the peasant poet in the modern age, a poetic visionary devoted to awakening the minds and spirits of all humanity.

Selected writings

Poetry volumes

Songs of Jamaica, Aston W. Gardner, 1912.

Constab Ballads, Watts, 1912.

Spring in New Hampshire, Grant Richards, 1920.

Harlem Shadows, introduction by Max Eastman, Harcourt, 1922.


Home to Harlem, Harper, 1928.

Banjo: A Story without a Plot, Harper, 1929.

Banana Bottom, Harper, 1933.


Negry v Amerike (nonfiction), Russian-language version published in Moscow, 1923, re-translated into English and published as The Negroes in America, Kennikat, 1977.

Gingertown (short stories), Harper, 1932.

A Long Way from Home (autobiography), Lee Furman, 1937.

Harlem: Negro Metropolis (nonfiction), E. P. Dutton, 1940.

My Green Hills of Jamaica (memoir), 1981.


Selected Poems of Claude McKay, introduction by John Dewey, biographical note by Max Eastman, Bookman, 1953.

The Dialectic Poetry of Claude McKay, edited by Wayne F. Cooper, Books for Libraries Press, 1972.

The Passion of Claude McKay: Selected Poetry and Prose, 1912-1948, edited by Wayne F. Cooper, Schocken, 1973.

Contributor to periodicals, including Workers Dreadnought, Negro World, Catholic Worker, Seven Arts (under pseudonym Eli Edwards), New York Herald Tribune Books, Phylon, Pearsons Magazine, Liberator, and others.



Black Literature Criticism, Gale, 1992, pp. 1375-1401.

Bone, Robert A., The Negro Novel in America, Yale University Press, 1954.

Cooper, Wayne F., Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem RenaissanceA Biography, Louisiana State University Press, 1987.

Cruse, Harold, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: From Its Origin to the Present, Morrow, 1967.

Du Bois, W. E. B., The Souls of Black Folk, 1903, reprinted, Penguin, 1982.

Fullwinder, S. P., The Mood and Mind of Black America: 20th Century Thought, Dorsey Press, 1969.

Gayle, Addison, Jr., Claude McKay: The Black Poet at War, Broadside Press, 1972.

Giles, James R., Claude McKay, Twayne, 1976.

McKay, Claude, A Long Way from Home, Arno Press and the New York Times, 1969.

McKay, Claude, The Passion of Claude McKay: Selected Poetry and Prose, 1912-1948, edited by Wayne F. Cooper, Schocken, 1973.

McKay, Claude, Selected Poems of Claude McKay, introduction by John Dewey, biographical note by Max Eastman, Bookman, 1953.

Tillery, Tyrone, Claude McKay: A Black Poets Struggle for Identity, University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.

Wagner, Jean, Black Poets of the United States: From Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes, translated from original French by Kenneth Douglas, University of Illinois Press, 1973.


CLA Journal, March 1972; June 1973; December 1975; March 1980.

Crisis, June 1928, p. 202.

Nation, June 7, 1922, pp. 694-95.

Phylon, Fall 1948; Fall 1964.

John Cohassey

McKay, Claude

views updated May 21 2018

Claude McKay

Born September 15, 1890

Sunny Ville, Jamaica

Died May 22, 1948

Chicago, Illinois

Jamaican-born American poet, journalist, essayist, and novelist

"All my life I have been a troubadour wanderer, nourishing myself mainly on the poetry of existence."

One of the most talented and respected younger writers of the Harlem Renaissance, Festus Claudius McKay, better known as Claude McKay, set himself apart from his colleagues by spending most of the 1920s living outside the United States. His radical political views and scorn for those he saw as compromising their own ideals meant that he was only a reluctant member of the New Negro movement, as Harlem's era of artistic and cultural growth was then called. Nevertheless, McKay wrote some of the period's best poetry and one of its most revealing novels, and he was much admired not only by his contemporaries but by later generations of writers and thinkers. Although McKay's poetry features traditional rhyme schemes and forms, especially the fourteen-line sonnet, it is filled with revolutionary ideas and a strong sense of the injustice that African Americans had endured for centuries. In fact, McKay's poem "If We Must Die" was probably the strongest statement against racism that had appeared up to that time, and many consider its publication the event that marked the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance.

A Jamaican mountain childhood

Although he later came to be known as an African American literary figure, Claude McKay was originally from Jamaica. His birthplace was a little town called Sunny Ville, located in the hilly country of Jamaica's Clarendon Parish. McKay was the youngest of eleven children born to Ann Elizabeth Edwards McKay and Thomas Francis McKay. Theirs was a stable, land-owning, literate family in which education was highly valued. Thomas McKay was a descendent of West Africa's Ashanti ethnic group, and he taught his children to take pride in their heritage. He told them African folktales as well as stories about slavery and the ways whites had mis-treated blacks.

Nevertheless, Jamaica was still a British colony in the late 1800s, and the youngest McKay grew up with a deep love for British culture and especially for the English literary tradition. He began writing poems even before he became a teenager, casting them in the same forms as the famous nineteenth-century British poets John Keats (1795–1821) and Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822). At this early stage in his development, McKay was lucky to have access to the minds and libraries of two influential people: his older brother Uriah, a schoolteacher, and a white Englishman named Walter Jekyll, who had traveled to Jamaica to study the local folklore, especially the songs and tales of the area. Jekyll encouraged McKay to read the works of many British authors, but he also urged him to use the rich Jamaican speech patterns in his own writing. So McKay's earliest poems took the shape of formal verse laced with island dialect.

A new awareness of racism

When he was seventeen McKay received a government scholarship to become a cabinetmaker's apprentice in another small town, but two years later he left this position and moved to Jamaica's capital, Kingston. There, he became a police officer and spent an unhappy ten months experiencing racial prejudice for the first time in his life. He saw that black prisoners were treated much more harshly than others and that blacks were confined to the most low-paying jobs while whites and those of mixed racial heritage were given definite advantages.

Having felt, as he later wrote in his autobiography, "a most improper sympathy for wrongdoers," McKay returned to his country home and to writing poetry. With the help of Jekyll, who found a London publisher, McKay's poems were published in Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads in 1912. The first volume, a book of verse describing life in rural Jamaica, reflects McKay's appreciation for the landscapes and proud, self-confident people of his childhood. Constab Ballads chronicles McKay's disillusioning experiences in Kingston; these poems express the hatred that racism stirred in him and his longing for the mountains of home.

Arriving in America

Soon after these books were published, McKay became the first black Jamaican to receive a medal from his native country's Institute of Arts and Sciences. Later in 1912, he moved to the United States to attend Alabama's Tuskegee Institute, the famous school for African Americans founded by the great black leader Booker T. Washington. McKay stayed for only two months; a transfer to Kansas State College, where he intended to study agriculture, was no more successful in holding his interest.

In 1914 McKay moved to New York City. (He did not become a naturalized U.S. citizen until 1940.) He worked at a number of jobs, in kitchens and bars, as a porter, a fireman, and as a waiter on a Pullman (passenger train) car. McKay also tried his hand, though unsuccessfully, at running a restaurant and was even married for six months; his wife returned to Jamaica, and he never saw the daughter he had fathered. All this time, as he noted in his autobiography, A Long Way from Home, "I waded through the muck and scum with one objective dominating my mind." He wanted to be a poet.

A historic publication

McKay's literary efforts were finally rewarded when, in 1917, Seven Arts, a leading avant-garde magazine of literature and politics, published two of his poems—"The Harlem Dancer" and "Invocation"—under the pen name Eli Edwards. This was the first time since the days of the celebrated black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906; see Chapter 3) that the work of an African American had appeared in a journal produced by whites. Written by a black author with a definite racial consciousness and expressing a feeling of alienation from mainstream American culture, these poems seemed to signal that a change was coming. Only a few years after their publication, the Harlem Renaissance began.

Meanwhile, McKay's strong sense of equality and justice had led him to seek out like-minded individuals who were interested in the concept of socialism (the belief that the best political system is one in which the means of producing and distributing goods are shared by all citizens or controlled by the government). Prominent among these new friends was Max Eastman, an attractive, soft-spoken white man with an aristocratic air and a sympathetic attitude toward the plight of blacks in America. Eastman was the editor of the radical magazine, the Liberator, and in 1919 McKay's poems started appearing there. The most famous of these was undoubtedly "If We Must Die," a statement of resistance to hatred and violence that would become a symbol of the new spirit embodied in the Harlem Renaissance.

"If We Must Die": A new spirit of outrage

The summer of 1919 had been a terrifying time for African Americans, as hatred and rage erupted in brutal clashes between blacks and whites in several American cities; this "Red Summer of Hate" (see Chapter 1) followed several decades when lynchings (hangings without a legitimate charge or trial) of blacks had become frighteningly commonplace in both the northern and southern United States. McKay had been traveling around the country while working his railroad job, and he later recalled that he and his fellow workers were scared by all they had heard and read about the violence; newspapers "were morbid, full of details of clashes between colored and white, murderous shootings and hangings." Despite his fear, the poem McKay wrote in response to it all was full of courage and defiance: "If we must die, let it not be like hogs," pleads the speaker; instead, let us behave "like men ... / Pressed to the wall, dying but fighting back!" (See p. 10.) Once again, McKay had achieved something that seemed to stand for the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance (even though Alain Locke thought the poem too radical to include in his New Negro anthology, which showcased the work of the movement's leading writers and artists) as well as for resistance to oppression of any kind. A copy of "If We Must Die" was found in the pocket of a white American soldier killed during World War II; McKay found this particularly gratifying because it meant that the poem was "just what I intended it to be ... universal."

A talented but restless poet

McKay was not satisfied with his success on the American literary scene and longed to leave the United States, so in 1919 he traveled to Europe. He spent a year in London, working on a socialist publication called the Worker's Dreadnought and publishing nearly two dozen poems in the Cambridge Magazine. McKay's infatuation with British culture was tarnished during this period by his discovery that racism also thrived in the British Isles. He did, however, find a London publisher for his poetry, and Spring in New Hampshire appeared in 1920. It was the first volume of McKay's poems written in standard English rather than Jamaican dialect, and it includes many of the poems that would also later appear in his acclaimed Harlem Shadows (1922).

Returning to the United States in 1921, McKay accepted Eastman's offer of a job as assistant editor of the Liberator. His colleagues admired his work (the magazine's circulation increased by sixty thousand readers during his tenure there), but he was deeply disappointed when Eastman turned down his suggestion to devote ten percent of the periodical's space to African American issues, since blacks made up ten percent of the U.S. population at the time. Eastman claimed that such a practice would cause too many of the magazine's white supporters to stop reading it.

McKay's continuing frustration with the slow rate of progress for African Americans led him to form a short-lived alliance with Jamaican-born black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey (1887–1940; see Chapter 1). Inspired by Garvey's advocacy of black unity, McKay published a few hard-hitting articles in Negro World, the publication of Garvey's United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), but later broke with the organization.

Harlem Shadows establishes McKay

In 1922 Harcourt published Harlem Shadows, the volume that firmly established McKay as one of the strongest voices of the Harlem Renaissance. It includes many of his most famous poems, among them the title poem, "The Harlem Dancer," "If We Must Die," "The Lynching," and "The Tropics in New York." In "The Tropics in New York," the speaker longs for the lushness and warmth of his island home. "The Lynching" ends with a dramatic image of young white witnesses to the senseless hanging of a black American: "And little lads, lynchers that were to be, / Dance round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee." The volume's title poem centers on a fragile young black woman forced into prostitution by poverty. Harlem Shadows is infused with the anger and rebelliousness that blacks were beginning to express in the 1920s, and it also reflects the sense of alienation that had always made McKay feel like a restless "guest" rather than a full-fledged member of society. Several critics have noted that it wasn't just white society that shut out McKay; he also felt uncomfortable in the African American community.

"Harlem Shadows" by Claude McKay

I hear the halting footsteps of a lass
In Negro Harlem when the night lets fall
Its veil. I see the shapes of girls who pass
To bend and barter at desire's call.
Ah, little dark girls who in slippered feet
Go prowling through the night from street to street!
Through the long night until the silver break
Of day the little gray feet know no rest;
Through the lone night until the last snow-flake
Has dropped from heaven upon the earth's white breast,
The dusky, half-clad girls of tired feet
Are trudging, thinly shod, from street to street.
Ah, stern harsh world, that in the wretched way
Of poverty, dishonor and disgrace,
Has pushed the timid little feet of clay,
The sacred brown feet of my fallen race!
Ah, heart of me, the weary, weary feet
In Harlem wandering from street to street.

From Selected Poems of Claude McKay, by Claude McKay. Twayne Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 1953.

Moving on again

This restlessness spurred McKay to move on again. In 1923 he left his job at the Liberator and traveled to Russia, where he planned to attend the Communist Party's Fourth Congress. At this event Communist sympathizers (those who believe in an economic system that promotes the ownership of all property by the community as a whole) from all over the world gathered in a country ruled by a Communist government. McKay was thrilled by the warm welcome he received from the Russian people, who viewed him as a distinguished black poet and an omen of good luck: "Never in my life," he wrote in his autobiography, "did I feel prouder of being an African, a black...." He met with some important Russian leaders during his stay, and he delivered a speech on racism in the United States and how even American socialists had failed to overcome it.

By the end of 1923 McKay had become disenchanted with Russia and had made his way to Paris, France, where he earned money as an artists' model. For the next nine years he wandered throughout Europe—writing when he could and living and working variously as a valet, a domestic, and a movie extra in France, Germany, Spain, and Morocco. McKay experienced a life of intensity and adventure, but he also endured bouts of serious illness and times when he had little or no money. Throughout this period his writing shifted from poetry to fiction as he produced three novels and a collection of short stories.

Home to Harlem is a hit

The first of McKay's three novels was his most celebrated. Published in 1928, Home to Harlem concerns two main characters: Jake is streetwise, uneducated, and fun-loving, but also honest and moral; Ray is serious, intellectual, and pessimistic. The two become friends when Jake runs away from the army (after learning that, because of his race, he would not be allowed to fight) and returns to Harlem. They work together on the railroad and enjoy the pleasures of Harlem while Jake searches for the prostitute who has won his love and Ray struggles with his identity. McKay's novel was praised for its treatment of racial issues and its realistic descriptions of Harlem scenes and people, which were seen as more authentic than those created by white author Carl Van Vechten in his novel Nigger Heaven (see Chapter 3). But not everybody liked Home toHarlem. W.E.B. Du Bois and his Talented Tenth (Du Bois's term for the highest-achieving segment of African American society) claimed it showed black people in a bad light; Du Bois went so far as to say that after reading the novel he felt "distinctly like taking a bath."

Excerpt from Home to Harlem by Claude McKay

"Good old New York! The same old wench of a city. Elevated racketing over you' head. Subway bellowing under you' feet. Me foh wrastling round them piers again. Scratching down to the bottom of them ships and scrambling out. All alongshore for me now. No more fooling with the sea. Same old New York. But the ofay faces am different from those ovah across the pond. Sure they is. Stiffer. Tighter. Yes, they is that ... But the sun does better here than over there. And the sky's so high and dry and blue. And the air it—O Gawd it works in you' flesh and blood like Scotch. O Lawdy, Lawdy! I wants to live to a hundred and finish mah days in New York."

Jake threw himself up as if to catch the air pouring down from the blue sky. . . .

"Harlem! Harlem! Little thicker, little darker and noisier and smellier, but Harlem just the same. The niggers done plowed through Hundred and Thirtieth Street. Heading straight foh One Hundred and Twenty-fifth. Sapdes beyong Eighth Avenue. Going, going, going Harlem! Going up! Nevah befoh I seed so many dickty shines in sich swell motorcars. Plenty moh nigger shops. Seventh Avenue done gone high-brown. O Lawdy! Harlem bigger, Harlem better ... and sweeter." (pp. 25–26)

From "Zeddy," in Home To Harlem, by Claude McKay. Northeastern University Press, 1987. Copyright (c) 1928 by Harper & Brothers. Copyright renewed (c) 1955 by Hope McKay Virtue. Reproduced by permission.

More accomplished works of fiction

Despite such criticisms, Home to Harlem won the Harmon Foundation's gold medal for literature, and it was the first novel by a black writer to become a bestseller. (It was reprinted five times in two months.) None of McKay's subsequent books was as successful, though all received positive reviews. Banjo (1929) continued McKay's exploration of black identity through the story of three black sailors who congregate on a beach in France; each character has a different viewpoint and faces different issues. In Banana Bottom (1933), a young black girl who has been raped is taken out of her Caribbean island community by a white missionary couple. After being educated in Britain, she returns to the island to embrace her own culture and heritage. Gingertown (1932) is a collection of twelve short stories set in both Harlem and Jamaica. The volume includes "Near-White," about a black woman who passes as white; "Highball," in which a successful black entertainer who has married a white woman still feels excluded from the white world; and "The Strange Burial of Sue," about an unfaithful wife who is defended, after her death, by both her husband and her lover against the minister who tries to condemn her.

A return to Harlem

By 1934 McKay found himself longing to return to the United States but penniless. His old friend Max Eastman took up a collection to pay for McKay's return voyage. Back in Harlem, the author continued to express his independent and defiant spirit. He hoped to found a new magazine that would appeal to all segments of the African American community, not just the educated elite, but this dream never came true. Nor was he able to establish the black writer's guild he had envisioned.

Three years after his return to the United States, McKay wrote his autobiography, A Long Way from Home (1937), followed three years later by Harlem: Negro Metropolis, a collection of essays on Harlem. Between these two publications, he met Ellen Tarry, a children's book author of mixed racial heritage and a strong Catholic faith. She became a major influence on McKay.

In 1941 McKay was working in a shipyard when he suffered a stroke. He recovered, but this turned out to be just the first in a string of illnesses that would plague him for the remaining seven years of his life. In 1944 he converted to Catholicism and moved to Chicago, where he took a job teaching at the Catholic Youth Organization. He died in May of 1948 of heart failure. At the time of his death, McKay had removed himself from the literary scene, and his work was not as appreciated as it had been during the Harlem Renaissance. He had not even been able to find a publisher for his Selected Poems. (They were finally published five years after his death.) The volume's previously unpublished poems reflect his travels in the late 1920s and early 1930s, especially during the time he spent in Russia and Spain. One poem in particular, "St. Isaac's Church, Petrograd," expresses a renewed awareness of God that anticipates his later conversion to Catholicism.

A troubadour wanderer

During his lifetime McKay had an uneasy relationship with other African American writers, and he scorned the idea that he belonged to any organized literary movement. But in the decades following his death—and especially during the 1960s, when the African American artists of the Black Arts movement were exploring and celebrating their racial identity—McKay's work was much read and quoted. A new generation admired his spirited independence, his bitter denunciations of racism, and his belief that black people should think of themselves as a group unified by common interests. Yet McKay remains an essentially solitary figure; as he said about himself in his autobiography, "All my life I have been a troubadour wanderer, nourishing myself mainly on the poetry of existence."

For More Information


Bone, Robert A. The Negro Novel in America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1958.

Cooper, Wayne, ed. The Passion of Claude McKay. New York: Schocken, 1973.

Cooper, Wayne, ed. Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996.

Gayle, Addison, Jr. Claude McKay: The Black Poet at War. Detroit: Broadside, 1972.

Giles, James R. Claude McKay. New York: Twayne, 1976.

Hathaway, Heather. Caribbean Waves: Relocating Claude McKay and PauleMarshall. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.

Huggins, Nathan Irvin. Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.

Kellner, Bruce, ed. The Harlem Renaissance: A Historical Dictionary for theEra. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984.

Lewis, David Levering. When Harlem Was in Vogue. New York: Knopf, 1981.

McKay, Claude. A Long Way from Home. 1937. Reprint. New York: New YorkTimes and Arno Press, 1969.

Tillery, Tyrone. Claude McKay: A Black Poet's Struggle for Identity. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.

McKay, Claude

views updated May 29 2018

McKay, Claude

September 15, 1889
May 22, 1948

The poet and novelist Festus Claudius "Claude" McKay was the child of independent small farmers. In 1912 he published two volumes of Jamaican dialect poetry, Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads. They reflect the British imperial influences of his youth and reveal that the rebellion that characterized McKay's American poetry lay in both his Jamaican experience and his later experience of white racism in the United States. His Jamaican poetry also contains early versions of his pastoral longing for childhood innocence and his primal faith in the self-sufficiency and enduring virtues of the rural black community of his childhood and youth.

McKay left Jamaica in 1912 to study agriculture at Tuskegee Institute and Kansas State University, but in 1914 he moved to New York City, where he began again to write poetry. In 1919, he became a regular contributor to the revolutionary literary monthly the Liberator, and he achieved fame among black Americans for his sonnet "If We Must Die," which exhorted African Americans to fight bravely against the violence directed against them in the reactionary aftermath of World War I. Although expressed in traditional sonnet form, McKay's postWorld War I poetry heralded modern black expressions of anger, alienation, and rebellion, and he quickly became a disturbing, seminal voice in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. His collected American poetry includes Spring in New Hampshire and Other Poems (1920) and Harlem Shadows (1922).

The years between 1919 and 1922 marked the height of McKay's political radicalism. In 1922 he journeyed to Moscow, where he attended the Fourth Congress of the Third Communist International, but his independence and his criticisms of American and British Communists led to his abandonment of communism. In the 1930s he became a vocal critic of international communism because of its antidemocratic dominance by the Soviet Union.

From 1923 until 1934, McKay lived in western Europe and Tangiers. While abroad, he published three novelsHome to Harlem (1928), Banjo (1929), and Banana Bottom (1933)plus one collection of short stories, Gingertown (1932). In his novels, McKay rebelled against the genteel traditions of older black writers, and he offended leaders of black protest by writing, in Home to Harlem and Banjo, of essentially leaderless rural black migrants and their predicaments in the modern, mechanistic, urban West. Both are picaresque novels that celebrate the natural resilience and ingenuity of "primitive" black heroes. To McKay's critics, his characters were irresponsible degenerates, not exemplary models of racial wisdom, and he was accused of pandering to the worst white stereotypes of African Americans.

In Gingertown and Banana Bottom, McKay retreated to the Jamaica of his childhood to recapture a lost pastoral world of blacks governed by their own rural community values. Although critics still debate the merits of McKay's fiction, it provided encouragement to younger black writers. Banjo, in particular, by stressing that blacks should build upon their own cultural values, influenced the founding generation of the Francophone Négritude movement.

In 1934, the Great Depression forced McKay back to the United States, and for the rest of his life he wrote primarily as a journalist critical of international communism, middle-class black integrationism, and white American racial and political hypocrisy. In his essays he continued to champion working-class African Americans, whom he believed understood better than their leaders the necessity of community development. He published a memoir, A Long Way from Home (1937), and a collection of essays, Harlem, Negro Metropolis (1940), based largely on materials about Harlem folk life he collected as a member of New York City's Federal Writers Project. In 1944ill, broke, and intellectually isolatedhe joined the Roman Catholic Church, and he spent the last years of his life in Chicago working for the Catholic Youth Organization.

Although he is best known as a poet and novelist of the Harlem Renaissance, McKay's social criticism in the 1930s and 1940s was not negligible, though it was controversial, and it has since remained hard to grasp because he was neither a black nationalist, an internationalist, nor a traditional integrationist. He instead believed deeply that blacks, in their various American ethnicities, had much to contribute as ethnic groups and as a race to the collective American life, and that in the future a recognition, acceptance, and celebration of differences between peoplesand not simply individual integrationwould best strengthen and bring together the American populace.

See also Liberator, The ; Harlem Renaissance; Poetry, U.S.; Négritude


Cooper, Wayne F., ed. Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance: A Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987.

Giles, James R. Claude McKay. Boston: Twayne, 1976.

McKay, Claude. The Passion of Claude McKay: Selected Poetry and Prose, 19121948, edited by Wayne F. Cooper. New York: Schocken, 1973.

Tillery, Tyrone. Claude McKay: A Black Poet's Struggle for Identity. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.

wayne f. cooper (1996)

McKay, Claude

views updated May 23 2018

McKAY, Claude

McKAY, Claude (b. 15 September 1889; d. 22 May 1948), writer.

Though often associated with the Harlem Renaissance, Claude McKay began his literary career well before his arrival in Harlem and, despite the success he found there, held a deep mistrust of the most celebrated artists and intellectuals associated with that renowned movement. His literary efforts in Harlem were consistently eschewed or explicitly rejected by established black publications, and his personal and professional affiliations were almost exclusively with white editors and mentors.

Born the last of eleven children to farmers Thomas McKay and Hannah Edwards, McKay grew up in rural Jamaica. His upbringing was marked by poverty but inculcated in him unaffected values that he considered an indispensable alternative to the racism, anti-Semitism, and materialism that he would later discover in the United States.

At eighteen McKay formed a friendship with the English writer and aesthete, Walter Jekyll. A man in his mid-fifties, Jekyll took an interest in the samples of poetry McKay shared with him and, over several years, nurtured the young writer's evident talent. By age twenty-three, McKay had published two volumes of poetry, Songs of Jamaica (1912) and Constab Ballads (1912), both written in Jamaican patios. Largely overlooked by later critics, these collections so impressed his countrymen that McKay became the first black to receive a medal from the Jamaican Institute of Arts and Sciences. His winning of this prize coincided with a move to the United States, where McKay planned to study agronomy at Tuskegee Institute. Dissatisfaction with the curriculum there prompted a move to Kansas State College, where McKay engaged in a two-year course of study, interspersed with visits to Kansas City, Wichita, and Denver. Despite the college's benefits, McKay found its setting an isolating environment. In 1914 a gift from his old mentor provided him with the means to depart Kansas for New York City, where he reunited with Jamaican girlfriend Eulalie Edwards, married, and fathered a daughter—and then separated from his wife without ever meeting his child.

The collapse of his marriage notwithstanding, McKay found New York City an ideal setting, on account of Harlem's many distractions and large black population—particularly its Jamaicans and other West Indians. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a nascent National Urban League, both headquartered in New York, helped define the city as a center of black activism. McKay joined a throng of black artists, musicians, and writers, many of whom were finding an outlet for their creative energies for the first time. Dividing his energy between several of the various jobs open to black men—waiter, porter, bar-boy—and writing, McKay searched for a U.S. audience, abandoning dialect for more conservative verse and writing under male and female pen names. He eventually garnered the attention of first Frank Harris, publisher of Pearson's Magazine, and then Max Eastman, publisher of The Liberator.

In New York, McKay found literary and sexual release, but while his poetry occasionally featured romantic affairs between partners of unspecified gender, his prose very rarely hinted at homosexual desire. With few exceptions, he adhered to the general prohibition against public treatment of homosexuality in his writing, in part, perhaps, because his own sexual identity was in perpetual flux. McKay had long-term affairs with men and women and, had the term been in vogue, he likely would have self-identified as bisexual.

Stung by racism since his arrival in the United States, McKay left New York in 1919 for a two-year stay in London, where he worked for the Marxist periodical Worker's Dreadnought and published Spring in New Hampshire (1920). After returning to the United States, he worked as an editor at The Liberator and published Harlem Shadows (1922). Then came a pilgrimage to Russia and the start of "the expatriate years." While living first in various cities throughout France and Spain (1923–1930) and then in northern Africa (1930–1934), McKay found his muse and generated his best prose: Home to Harlem (1928), Banjo (1929), Gingertown (1932), and Banana Bottom (1933).

A return to Harlem in 1934 reestablished friendships with Countee Cullen and James Weldon Johnson among others, but the Great Depression and personality clashes with African American leaders severely limited his employment prospects. Although McKay would go on to publish A Long Way from Home (1937) and Harlem: Negro Metropolis (1940), commercial success and fame were behind him. In 1944 he moved to Chicago, where he died of congestive heart failure at age fifty-seven.


Cooper, Wayne F. Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987.

——,ed. The Passion of Claude McKay: Selected Poetry and Prose, 1912–1948. New York: Schocken, 1973.

Giles, James R. Claude McKay. Boston: Twayne, 1976.

Hathaway, Heather. Caribbean Waves: Relocating Claude McKay and Paule Marshall. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.

James, Winston. A Fierce Hatred of Injustice: Claude McKay's Jamaica and His Poetry of Rebellion. New York: Verso, 2000.

McKay, Claude. Harlem Shadows: The Poems of Claude McKay. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1922.

——. Gingertown. New York: Harper, 1932.

——. Harlem: Negro Metropolis. New York: Dutton, 1940.

——. Banjo: A Story without a Plot. New York: Harvest, 1970.

——. Banana Bottom. New York: Harvest, 1974.

——. Home to Harlem. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1987.

——. A Long Way from Home. New York: Harvest, 1989.

McLeod, A. L., ed. Claude McKay: Centennial Studies. New Delhi, India: Sterling, 1992.

Peter Taylor

see alsoharlem renaissance.

Claude McKay

views updated Jun 08 2018

Claude McKay

Claude McKay (1890-1948), Jamaican-born poet and novelist, is often called "the first voice of the Harlem renaissance." His verse and fiction are best known for protesting the social evils that plagued blacks.

Claude McKay was born in Jamaica, British West Indies, on Sept. 15, 1890. He began writing poetry, principally in Jamaican dialect, while a schoolboy. After a brief apprenticeship to a cabinetmaker and a short time as a policeman, he went to the United States and enrolled at Tuskegee Institute; later he went to Kansas State University. Neither school suited him, so he moved to New York, where a little interest in his first two volumes of poems—Constab Ballads and Songs from Jamaica (published in England, 1912)—preceded him.

Under the name Eli Edwards, McKay published a number of poems in American magazines; under his own name he published (in England) Spring in New Hampshire (1920). He was listed as associate editor of the Liberator, a "radical" magazine, which was the first to print "If We Must Die." This poem has come to be thought of as the birth cry of the "new Negro." It set the tone of protest that marks his fourth and best-known volume of verse, Harlem Shadows (1922), which also contains poems on conventional romantic themes.

In 1922 McKay represented the American Workers party at the Third Internationale in Moscow. He stayed in Europe for several years, settling in southern France, where he wrote most of his fiction. Home to Harlem (1928), a sensational revelation of black ghetto life, is his best-known novel. Banjo (1929) does for the French seaport city of Marseilles what the first novel did for New York's Harlem: it portrays life in the lower depths. Gingertown (1932) is a volume of unexceptional short stories, and Banana Bottom (1933), set in the West Indies, returns to his earlier subject matter. His fiction tended to be sensationally "realistic" and to emphasize those sordid elements in Negro life that attracted the prurient interest of the public.

Back in America in 1936 McKay wrote his autobiography, A Long Way from Home (1937). The fluent ease that characterized his best prose style is missing in this book. In 1940 he published Harlem: Negro Metropolis, a kind of sociohistorical narrative that is interesting but without much substance.

All but forgotten, McKay died in Chicago on May 22, 1948. Selected Poems of Claude McKay appeared in 1953.

Further Reading

There is no full-length work, either critical or biographical, on McKay. For critical comments see J. Saunders Redding, To Make a Poet Black (1939); Sterling A. Brown, Arthur P. Davis, and Ulysses Lee, eds., Negro Caravan: Writings by American Negroes (1940); Rebecca C. Barton, Witnesses for Freedom: Negro Americans in Autobiography (1948); Hugh M. Gloster,Negro Voices in American Fiction (1948); and Stephen H. Bronz, Roots of Negro Racial Consciousness, the 1920s: Three Harlem Renaissance Authors (1964). □

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