Claude McKay was a Jamaican-born poet and novelist writing in the New Negro Era. McKay was born in the Clarendon region of Jamaica, where his father was a relatively prosperous farmer. Although McKay retained a lifelong love of the soil, he chose to work not on the land but in the Jamaican constabulary, or police force, and it was during his time as a “constab” in 1912 that he published his first two collections of poetry, Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads. These were the first books of verse to be published in the Jamaican vernacular, a medium in which the young McKay was encouraged to write by an expatriate English folklorist, Walter Jekyll, the first of a series of white male mentors who would include Frank Harris and Max Eastman. With venerable exceptions, such as Lloyd Brown’s West Indian Poetry, McKay’s dialect volumes have long suffered critical condescension or plain neglect; rehabilitated to critical discussion by Michael North in his groundbreaking Dialect of Modernism, these poems may now be read not as crude apprentice work but as an essential if controversial part of McKay’s career as a writer. The most remarkable of the dialect poems are creole monologues, like “A Midnight Woman to the Bobby,” and subtle subversions of the iniquities of colonialism, like “Quashie to Buccra.” Written in the Jamaican vernacular but in traditional form, the dialect poems lack, for commentators like the Barbadian poet-critic Kamau Brathwaite, an authentic environmental expression.
Yet all of McKay’s writing is driven by internal tensions. His poetry in standard English is characterized by a guiding tension between traditional, inherited forms, like that of the sonnet, and an urgent, often topical, subject matter. The most famous of these sonnets, “If We Must Die,” was written amid the race riots of the Red Summer of 1919, and yet the poem has been countermanded to other occasions and other causes: it was allegedly quoted, without attribution to the author, by Winston Churchill during World War II. McKay had left Jamaica for the United States in 1912, intending to study agronomy at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama; he did not complete his studies, working instead as a waiter and on the railroads and eventually as a journalist. Although he would never return to the Caribbean, much of the poetry McKay wrote in the United States is inflected with nostalgia for his native place: writing from New York City about his island home, McKay’s major mode other than protest is that of urban pastoral.
McKay is frequently described as a prime mover within the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, the burgeoning of black culture at that time in New York and other Northern cities; however, McKay was at best equivocal in his response to the intellectual architects of the Renaissance. His inspiration came from the masses, from the ordinary folk, while his primary social and intellectual contacts in New York were with members of the white literary Left, principally Max Eastman, for whose journal the Liberator McKay was for a time the coeditor as well as a regular contributor. McKay spent a lengthy sojourn in England in 1920-1921, when he worked for the ex-suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst’s radical newspaper the Workers’ Dreadnought. Moving in radical circles in London, he highlighted the prejudice afflicting black people, especially seamen, in Britain and made common cause between Irish, Indian, and African American nationalisms. On meeting his idol, George Bernard Shaw, McKay was disappointed that the Irishman did not share his perspective on the connections between various anticolonial causes; McKay was further disenchanted when Shaw advised him that as a black man he would be better advised to give up poetry to pursue a career as a boxer. Notwithstanding this, McKay published his first book of poetry in standard English, Spring in New Hampshire, in England in 1920; the majority of the poems from that volume were subsequently reproduced in his first American book publication, Harlem Shadows, in 1922.
McKay did not remain long on his return to the United States. A self-styled vagabond wanderer, he traveled in 1922 to the then Soviet Union as a delegate to the Fourth Congress of the Third Communist International, and after a prolonged stay in the USSR, went on to France and thence to North Africa, not returning to the United States until 1934. He vividly documents his 12-year absence in his autobiography, A Long Way from Home (1937). McKay published two of his three novels in the 1920s, Home to Harlem in 1928 and Banjo in 1929. Home to Harlem was regarded by such pillars of the Harlem Renaissance establishment as W. E. B. Du Bois as a scurrilous exposé of the seamy underside of black American life, and therefore at odds with the philosophy of positive racial representation favored by Du Bois and other influential Harlemites. (Du Bois stated he felt like taking a bath after reading it.) McKay’s two major characters, Jake and Ray, represent the warring elements of the author’s own personality, the easygoing and natural drifter (Jake) versus the intellectual and Caribbean exile (Ray). Ray reappears in Banjo in much the same role and finds in that novel’s eponymous hero another version of Jake, the natural man, to offset his own intellectual and introspective propensities. Set in the French port of Marseilles, Banjo celebrates the international and transnational quality of black experience; in this respect, the novel would prove a crucial influence upon the Négritude movement led by the Martinican poet and statesman Aime Cesaire and the Senegalese writer and leader Leopold Sedar Senghor. In Home to Harlem and Banjo, McKay returns to the black vernacular and develops in both novels a version of the black picaresque—Banjo is subtitled “A Novel without a Plot.”
Banana Bottom (1933), McKay’s third and final novel (he published a collection of short stories, Gingertown, in 1932), is quite different. Set in Jamaica, with a female protagonist, Bita Plant, the novel celebrates closure, with the marriage of Bita to Jubban, a peasant farmer who symbolizes the land on which he works and embodies the culmination of the organic metaphors that are found throughout McKay’s writing.
McKay’s life, like his writing, is filled with often fierce contradictions: a Communist and then an equally fervid anti-Communist, who converted to Catholicism in the 1940s; born a British citizen in colonial Jamaica, he has frequently been seconded to the canon of African American literature despite the emphatically international contours of his career and experience. As an exile from his native Caribbean, McKay would long be regarded as an outsider to the indigenous culture of that region. And yet, as Kamau Brathwaite has pointed out, it is “McKay the exile” who is the founder of a Caribbean literary tradition characterized by migration and exile from home.
Caribbean Literature; Creole/Criollo; Harlem Renaissance; Négritude
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