A poet, novelist, journalist, and political radical, Claude Festus McKay made profound contributions to the formation of the Caribbean, Harlem Renaissance, modernist, Negritude, and queer literary traditions. He belongs to the tradition of black Atlantic public intellectuals, such as C. L. R. James, who brought a Marxist critique to the politics of race and art and challenged dominant conceptions of modernity by placing the black proletariat and peasantry at its center.
McKay was born on September 15, 1889 to prosperous farmers in Clarendon Parish, Jamaica and received an intellectually open education. In 1912, he immigrated to the United States, and with his famous sonnet “If we must die” (1919) established himself as the leading black poet in the United States, a position reinforced with Harlem Shadows (1922), a founding text of the Harlem Renaissance. He soon gained a reputation as a prominent political radical, and in 1919 traveled to London, where he published a volume of poetry, Spring in New Hampshire and Other Poems (1920). After returning to the States, he traveled to Moscow in 1922 for the Fourth Congress of the Third International, but because of his association with communism, was barred re-entry into the United States, and Britain banned him from its colonial territories. Between 1923 and 1934 he lived in France and Morocco and traveled to other countries, and wrote three novels and a collection of short stories published in New York as part of the Harlem Renaissance.
In 1934, McKay was able to return to the United States, where he suffered financial and health problems, converted to Catholicism, and died May 22, 1948. During this period he wrote two memoirs, A Long Way From Home (1937) and My Green Hills of Jamaica (1979a); Harlem: Negro Metropolis (1940), an analysis of the history, culture, and politics of Harlem; and a large body of poetry, most notably the “cycle manuscript,” a collection of 54 poems.
McKay's first two books of poetry, Songs of Jamaica (1912) and Constab Ballads (1912), are written in Jamaica Creole and heroic couplets. They reflect both Jamaican peasant culture and his training in British romanticism and German philosophy. Featuring peasant speakers, McKay's dialect verse portrayed the hardship of peasant labor and the satisfaction Jamaicans took in their work. McKay also celebrated contemporary and historical militancy; for instance, his prize-winning poem, “George William Gordon to the Oppressed Natives,” commemorated the 1865 Morant Bay peasant rebellion. Published in the local press and presented at literary and debating clubs, these poems participated in an emergent cultural nationalism in Jamaica and provoked debate about the legitimacy of “dialect” as a literary language.
In a significant break from his dialect verse, McKay established himself as the leading black poet in the United States with the sonnet and other poetic forms. McKay published in the journals such as the Liberator and African American publications such as Alain Locke's The New Negro anthology (1926). Despite their formal conservatism, McKay's poems are powerful portrayals of black humanity which condemn lynching, working-class exploitation, and colonialism. “If we must die,” for instance, decries the violence against returning African American servicemen and union workers in the summer of 1919. “Harlem Dancer” and “Harlem Shadows” portray African American prostitutes as complex, alienated human beings, oppressed by poverty and shame.
McKay wrote three influential novels: Home to Harlem (1928), regarded as the first bestselling novel by an African American author; Banjo: A Story Without a Plot (1929), which inspired Aimé Césaire and Leopold Senghor in establishing the Negritude movement; and Banana Bottom (1933), a foundational Caribbean novel. In these works, McKay returns to the vernacular in diction and in subject. Centered on the relationship between a Haitian poet and working-class Harlemites, Home to Harlem presents Harlem as an international, proletarian, and polymorphously sexual “Negro metropolis” whose soul and power lie in its jazz, brothels, cabarets, and laboring classes. Home to Harlem was strongly criticized by both W. E. B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey for pandering to white prurience by focusing on the “underworld.”
Banjo is the story of a homosocial and homoerotic international community of black vagabonds in post-World War I Marseilles; it develops the vision of black politics and aesthetics presented in Home to Harlem by addressing the linked development of European and US imperialism and by articulating a theory of black subaltern culture as a unique form of resistance against the oppressive forces of modernity. In contrast, Banana Bottom (1933) returns to the rural Jamaica of McKay's youth and is the story of a black woman who marries a peasant and settles in rural Jamaica. All three novels, however, critique European colonialism, US imperialism, capitalism, and bourgeois propriety and center on the role of the artist and of art.
McKay was honored with the Musgrave Silver Medal from the Institute of Jamaica (1912), the Harmon Gold Award for literature (1929), and the Order of Jamaica (1977). His oeuvre illuminates the profoundly international and political nature of literary movements in the first half of the twentieth century.
SEE ALSO: The City in Fiction (AF); The Harlem Renaissance (AF); James, C. L. R. (WF); Modernist Fiction (AF); Queer Modernism (AF); West Indian Fiction (WF)
- Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. (1987).
- Caribbean Waves. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. (1999).
- Claude McKay, Code Name Sasha: Queer Black Marxism and the Harlem Renaissance. Gainesville: University Press of Florida. (2007).
- A Fierce Hatred of Injustice: Claude McKay's Jamaica and His Poetry of Rebellion. Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle. (2001).
- The New Negro: An Interpretation. New York: Boni. (1925).
- Harlem: Negro Metropolis. New York: E. P. Dutton. (1940).
- Banana Bottom . San Diego: Harcourt, Brace. (1961).
- Banjo . New York: Harcourt Brace. (1970).
- A Long Way From Home . New York: Harcourt Brace. (1970).
- The Passion of Claude McKay: Selected Poetry and Prose, 1912–1948 (ed. Cooper, W. ). New York: Schocken. (1973).
- My Green Hills of Jamaica (ed. Morris, M. ). Kingston, Jamaica: Heinemann. (1979).
- The Negroes in America (trans. Winter, R. J. ) Port Washington, NY: Kennikat. (1979).
- Home to Harlem . Boston: Northeastern University Press. (1987).
- Harlem Glory. Chicago: Kerr. (1990).
- Complete Poems (ed. Maxwell, W. ). Urbana: University of Illinois Press. (2004).
Although he is counted among the cadre of African-American poets who gained prominence during the Harlem Renaissance, Claude McKay did not...
Born into a poor family in Sunny Ville (Clarendon Parish), Jamaica, McKay, at a young age, became interested in the Caribbean...
Harlem Shadows (1922) was Claude McKay’s first book of poetry published in the United States. This collection of poems follows rigid structures...