Jamaican Claude McKay

Claude McKay 

Festus Claudius McKay on September 15, 1889 in Clarendon, Jamaica

The Social Critic

CLAUDE McKAY (September 15, 1889-  May 22, 1948) was a Jamaican-American writer, and poet,  activist, and social critic.  He was a seminal figure in the Harlem Renaissance who, along with Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, Wallace Thurman, Richard Burce Nugent, Jessie Redmon Fauset and others, came to be known as the “Niggerati Writers”. 

McKay wrote three novels: “Home to Harlem” (1928), a best-seller which won hum the Harmon Gold Award for Literature, “Banjo” (1929), and “Banana Bottom” (1933). McKay also authored a collection of short stories, “Gingertown” (1932), and two autobiographical books, “A Long Way from Home” (1937) and “Harlem: Negro Metropolis” (1940).  His 1922 book of poetry, “Harlem Shadows”, was among the first books published during the Harlem Renaissance.  His poetry collection, “Selected Poems”, was published posthumously in 1953.

Early life

Claude McKay was born Festus Claudius McKay in Nairne Castle near James HillClarendon, Jamaica on September 15, 1889.  He was the youngest child of Thomas Francis McKay and Hannah Ann Elizabeth Edwards, well-to-do farmers who had enough property to qualify to vote.  Thomas McKay's father was of Ashanti descent, and Claude recounted that his father would share stories of Ashanti customs with him.  Claude's mother was of Malagasy ancestry.

Claude McKay  

Claude McKay

At four years old, McKay started basic school at the church that he attended.  At age seven, he was sent to live with his oldest brother, a school teacher, to be given the best education available.  While living with his oldest brother, Uriah Theodore, McKay became an avid reader of classical and British literature, as well as philosophy, science and theology.  He started writing poetry at the age of 10.

In 1906, McKay became an apprentice to a carriage and cabinet maker known as ‘Old Brenga’.  He stayed in his apprenticeship for about two years.  During that time, in 1907, McKay met a man named Walter Jekyll who became a mentor and an inspiration for him and encouraged McKay to concentrate on his writing.  Jekyll convinced McKay to write in his native dialect and even later set some of McKay's verses to music.  Jekyll helped McKay publish his first book of poems, “Songs of Jamaica”, in 1912.  These were the first poems published in Jamaican Patois (dialect of mainly English words and African structure).  McKay's next volume, “Constab Ballads”, came out in the same year and was based on his experience as a police officer in Jamaica.

Claude McKay as a constable in Kingston in 1909 

Claude McKay as a constable in Kingston in 1909

Career in the United States

McKay left for the U.S. in 1912 to attend Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute, but did not become an American citizen until 1940.  McKay was shocked by the intense racism he encountered when he arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, where many public facilities were segregated, which inspired him to write more poetry.   At Tuskegee, he disliked the ‘semi-military, machine like existence there’ and quickly left to study at Kansas State University.  At Kansas State, he read W. E. B. Du Bois' “Souls of Black Folk”, which had a major impact on him and stirred within him a desire for  political involvement.  But despite remarkable academic performance, in 1914 McKay decided he did not want to be an agronomist and moved to New York.  A financial gift from Jekyll enabled him to invest in a restaurant and married his childhood sweetheart, Eulalie Lewars.

Neither venture lasted for even a year.  Lewars returned to Jamaica to give birth to their daughter.  McKay was forced to take a series of menial jobs.  He was finally able to publish two poems, "Invocation" and "The Harlem Dancer," under a pseudonym in 1917.  McKay's talent as a lyric poet earned him recognition, particularly from Frank Harris, editor of Pearson's magazine, and Max Eastman, editor of The Liberator, a socialist journal.  Both became instrumental in McKay's early career.

Festus Claude McKay 

Festus Claude McKay 

McKay published two poems in 1917 in Seven Arts under the Alias ‘Eli Edwards’ while working as a waiter on the railways.  In 1919 he met Crystal and Max Eastman, who produced The Liberator (where McKay would serve as Co-Executive Editor until 1922).  It was here that he published one of his most famous poems, "If We Must Die", an anthem of resistance later quoted by Winston Churchill during World War II.  This was published during the "Red Summer", a period of intense racial violence against black people in the American society.  This was during a period of his poetry which signaled the commencement of his life as a professional writer.

Claude McKay and Winston Churchill - The Uses of Poetry in a Time of War 

Claude McKay and Winston Churchill, (the Uses of Poetry in a Time of War)

McKay became involved with a group of black radicals who were unhappy with Marcus Garvey's nationalism as well as the middle class reformist NAACP.  These included other Caribbean writers such as Cyril BriggsRichard B. Moore, and Wilfrid Domingo.  They fought for black self-determination within the context of socialist revolution.  Together they founded the semi-secret revolutionary organization, the African Blood Brotherhood.  While Hubert Harrison had asked McKay to write for Garvey's Negro World, out of the  few copies of the paper that survived over the years, there  are none that contain McKay’s work..  McKay soon left the United States for LondonEngland.

McKay in London

McKay arrived in London in autumn 1919.  While there, he often frequented a soldier's club in Drury Lane and the International Socialist Club in Shoreditch.  A militant atheist, he also joined the Rationalist Press Association.  It was during this period that McKay's commitment to socialism deepened and he read Marx unremittingly.  At the International Socialist Club, McKay met Shapurji SaklatvalaA. J. CookGuy AldredJack TannerArthur McManusWilliam Gallacher, Sylvia Pankhurst and George Lansbury.  He was soon invited to write for the Workers' Dreadnought.

Claude McKay 

Claude McKay

In 1920, the Daily Herald, a socialist paper published by George Lansbury, included a racist article written by E. D. Morel. Entitled "Black Scourge in Europe: Sexual Horror Let Loose by France on the Rhine" which insinuated gross hypersexuality on black people in general.  When Lansbury refused to print McKay's response, the piece then appeared in Workers' Dreadnought.  This marked the start of his regular involvement with Workers' Dreadnought and the Workers' Socialist Federation, a Council Communist group active in the East End which had a majority of women involvment - at all levels of the organization.  McKay became a paid journalist for the paper.  There are many  claims that he was the first black journalist in Britain.  Also in Brtain, he published a book of verse, “Spring in New Hampshire”, which was released in an expanded version in the United States in 1922.  He attended the Communist Unity Conference which established the Communist Party of Great Britain.  The same year, “Harlem Shadows”, perhaps his most significant poetry collection appeared.  At this time he also had some of his poetry published in the Cambridge Magazine, edited by C. K. Ogden.

When Sylvia Pankhurst was arrested under the Defence of the Realm Act for publishing articles "calculated and likely to cause sedition amongst His Majesty's forces, in the Navy, and among the civilian population," McKay had his rooms searched.  He is likely to have been the author of "The Yellow peril and the Dockers" attributed to Leon Lopez, which was one of the articles cited by the government in its case against the Workers' Dreadnought, and in its arrest of Sylvia Pankhurst.

 Claude McKay

Claude McKay 

In 1922, McKay began a twelve-year sojourn through Europe, the Soviet Union, and Africa. This was a period marked by poverty and illness.  During his year long stay in the Soviet Union, he  attended the fourth congress of the Communist International in Moscow. T here, he met many leading Bolsheviks including Leon TrotskyNikolai Bukharin and Karl Radek.  He wrote the manuscripts for a book of essays called “Negroes in America”. During his stay he  also wrote three stories published together under the name  “Lynching in America”.  Both works were originally published in Russian before being re-translated into English.  McKay's original English manuscripts have been lost.  “Negroes in America” was not published in the United States until 1979.

McKay had left for Russia around September 20th and stayed there from 1922 until 1923.   He continued his travels and entered the city of Berlin in the summer of 1923 for a brief stay.  He left Berlin in October and went to Paris, where he found out that he had contracted syphilis while in Berlin. He was hospitalized and was released in good health in November 1923.  He was part of the expatriate scene while he stayed in Paris.  

In December he came down with a serious case of influenza while posing nude in some art studios.  His stay in Paris lasted from late August 1923 until January 1924.  The Crisis published another article about Claude in April 1924.  McKay spent over eight years in France travelling to Marseilles and other parts of the south of France.  “Banjo, A Story without a Plot” (1929) was noted in part for its portrayal of how the French treated people from its sub-Saharan African colonies, as the novel centers on black seamen in Marseilles.  It followed the exploits of an expatriate African-American musician in Marseilles, a locale McKay knew well from this period.  This book would have a major influence on a new breed of black French intellectuals such as Léopold Sédar Senghor and Aimé Césaire.

 Claude McKay - Banjo

Claude McKay, Banjo

Home to Harlem and Other Works

In 1928, McKay published his most famous novel, “Home to Harlem”, which won the Harmon Gold Award for Literature.  The novel, which depicted street life in Harlem, would have a major impact on black intellectuals in the CaribbeanWest Africa, and Europe.

McKay's novel gained a substantial readership, especially with people who wanted to know more about the intense, and sometimes shocking, details of Harlem nightlife.  His novel was an attempt to capture the energetic and intense spirit of the "uprooted black vagabonds." “Home to Harlem” was a piece of work in which McKay looked among the common people for a distinctive black identity.

“Home to Harlem” was critically acclaimed but it engendered controversy for its frank portrayal of the underside of Harlem life.  In fact, the book drew fire from one of McKay's heroes, W. E. B. Du Bois.  To Du Bois, the novel's frank depictions of sexuality and the nightlife in Harlem only appealed to the "prurient demand[s]" of white readers and publishers looking for portrayals of black "licentiousness." Du Bois is to have said that, "Home to Harlem... for the most part nauseates me, and after the dirtier parts of its filth I feel distinctly like taking a bath."  

Modern critics now dismiss this criticism from Du Bois, who was more concerned with using art as propaganda in the struggle for African American political liberation than in the value of art to showcase the truth about the lives of black people.   It is also fair speculation that Du Bois’ snobbery and detestation of Marcus Garvey had also left a bitter taste in is mouth for another Jamaican intellectual who threatened his relevance.  McKay's other novels were “Banjo” (1930), and “Banana Bottom” (1933).  

Claude McKay - Banana Bottom 

Claude McKay’s, Banana Bottom

In the spring of 1926 McKay landed a job working in a movie studio for Rex Ingrams.  He summarized novels that seemed like good material for conversation in motion pictures.  He was also a dancer in The Garden of Allah.  While working for Rex, he spent a lot of time in Nice befriending the local people, but was met with a lot of racial hostility by the crewmembers.

McKay's novel and his presence in France influenced Léopold Sédar Senghor, Aimé Césaire, and other pioneers of the Negritude literary movement that took hold in French West Africa and the West Indies.   Aimé Césaire stated that in Banjo, “blacks were described truthfully and without inhibition or prejudice".  “Banana Bottom” was McKay's third novel.  The book is said to follow the theme of a black individual in search of establishing a cultural identity in a white society.  The book discusses underlying racial and cultural tensions.  Often perceived as McKay's finest novel, “Banana Bottom” tells the story of Bita Plant, who returns to Jamaica after being educated in England and struggles to form an identity that reconciles the aesthetic values imposed upon her abroad with her appreciation for her native roots.

McKay had moved to Morocco in 1930, but his financial situation forced him to return to the United States in 1934.  He gained acceptance to the Federal Writers Project in 1936 and completed his autobiography, “A Long Way from Home”, in 1937.  Although no longer sympathetic toward communism, he remained a socialist, publishing essays and articles in The Nation, the New Leader, and the New York Amsterdam News.  Never able to regain the stature he had achieved during the 1920s, McKay blamed his chronic financial difficulties on his race and his failure to obtain academic credentials and associations.

 Claude McKay - Selected Poems

Claude McKay, Selected Poems

McKay never returned to the homeland he left in 1912.  He became a U.S. citizen in 1940.  McKay was drawn to communism in his early life, but he was never a member of the Communist Party.  Becoming disillusioned with communism and in a move that surprised his friends, McKay abandoned his lifelong agnosticism and embraced the social teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, to which he converted in 1944.  In the same year, McKay left New York for Chicago, where he worked for the Catholic Youth Organization.  As he grew older, high blood pressure and heart disease led to a steady physical decline.  He eventually succumbed to congestive heart failure in Chicago at the age of 59.  He was buried in New York after a funeral service was held in Harlem.

Legacy

McKay became infuriated with Alain Locke when he published one of his poems with a changed title.  The Survey Graphic published McKay's poem as "White Houses" instead of "The White House."  His anger may have been justified as "The White House," together with sonnets "Baptism," and  "The Lynching," are recognized as some of McKay’s finest protest poetry.  

The generation of poets who formed the core of the Harlem Renaissance, like Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, identified McKay as a leading inspirational force, even though he did not write modern verse.  His innovation lay in the directness with which he spoke of racial issues and his choice of the working class, rather than the middle class, as his focus.

McKay also authored a collection of short stories, “Gingertown” (1932), and two autobiographical books, “A Long Way from Home” (1937) and “Harlem: Negro Metropolis” (1940).  These gained little attention but have remained important historical sources.  After his death, his book of poems, “Selected Poems of Claude McKay” (1953), and his second autobiography, “My Green Hills of Jamaica” (1979), were published-along with an essay in Phylon entitled "Boyhood in Jamaica."

In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Claude McKay on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.  He is regarded as the "foremost left-wing black intellectual of his age” and his work served as a great influence for a generation of black authors including James Baldwin and Richard Wright.

“Claude McKay was a man who believed that blacks should have an alliance with whites, but he also thought it was imperative for blacks to have self-confidence and faith in one another” (Cooper 323).  Throughout his career as a writer he always struggled to make ends meet, and he was often lucky enough to find aid, enabling his artistic endeavors. 

Claude McKay has left his mark as one of the major artists in poetry, of the Harlem Renaissance.  

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.

Bibliography

The bulk of McKay's papers are located in the James Weldon Johnson Collection at Yale University.  Numerous letters are widely scattered; some sources include the Schomburg and H. L. Mencken collections at the New York City Public Library; the William Stanley Brathwaite Papers at Harvard University; the Alain Locke Papers at Howard University; the NAACP Papers in the Library of Congress; the Eastman Papers at the University of Indiana, Bloomington; the Rosenwald Fund Papers at Fisk University; and the Countee Cullen Papers at Dillard University. 

“Selected Poems of Claude McKay”, an extensive collection, was published in 1953.  American Mercury, The Crisis, The Liberator, and Opportunity are among the many, and highly diversified set of periodicals in which McKay's poems, articles, book reviews, and short stories appear.  Early poems can be found in the Jamaican newspapers Jamaica Times and Kingston Daily Gleaner. Late poems appear in Catholic Worker.

Extensive bibliographies can be found in several unpublished dissertations.

Published, full-length biographical and critical studies which are also useful bibliographic and biographical resources, include:

  • Wayne F. Cooper, Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance, a Biography (1987);
  • Tyrone Tillary, Claude McKay: A Black Poet's Struggle for Identity (1992);
  • James R. Giles, Claude McKay (1976).
  • Stephen H. Bronz, Roots of Negro Racial Consciousness: The 1920s,
  • Three Harlem Renaissance Authors
  • Addison Gayle, Claude McKay: The Black Poet at War (1972)
  • Wayne F. Cooper, ed., The Passion of Claude McKay (1973),
  • An obituary appears in the New York Times, 24 May 1948.

 

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