Authors: Claude McKay

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Jamaican poet, novelist, and short-story writer

Identity: African American


Born to Thomas Francis and Ann Elizabeth Edwards McKay in Sunny Ville, Jamaica, Festus Claudius McKay was the eleventh and youngest child of a family proud of its Ashanti ancestry. Although his parents, native Jamaicans, were peasants, they revered their West African heritage and imbued their children with racial pride.{$I[AN]9810001037}{$I[A]McKay, Claude[MacKay, Claude]}{$I[geo]JAMAICA;McKay, Claude[MacKay, Claude]}{$I[geo]WEST INDIES;McKay, Claude[MacKay, Claude]}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;McKay, Claude[MacKay, Claude]}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;McKay, Claude[MacKay, Claude]}{$I[tim]1889;McKay, Claude[MacKay, Claude]}

Claude McKay

(Library of Congress)

McKay’s brother, Uriah Theophilus McKay, taught in an elementary school and had a good personal library. An educated Englishman, Walter Jekyll, had come to Jamaica to collect folktales, and, meeting the adolescent McKay, he gave him the run of his substantial library. Claude McKay learned the world by reading in both libraries. By the time he was seventeen, he was studying cabinetmaking, but he soon left this work; at nineteen he was a constable in Kingston.

McKay’s parents taught the boy early to distrust white people. McKay knew no racial discrimination during his childhood in Sunny Ville, where blacks were in the majority. In Kingston, however, he first became aware of racial prejudice. Having learned from his father to respect the purity of his race, he looked down on people of color who had mixed blood–despite his mother’s probably being a mulatto.

McKay’s brother exposed him to agnosticism and philosophy; Jekyll exposed him to literature. McKay read extensively in the Romantic poets as well as in classical writers. Jekyll, who was translating the philosophical writings of Arthur Schopenhauer, infused McKay with an enthusiasm for Schopenhauer’s philosophy. In 1912, Jekyll, who encouraged McKay in his writing, arranged to have his first book of poems, Songs of Jamaica, published in Great Britain, and later the same year, Constab Ballads appeared. These two collections, consisting largely of work in McKay’s favorite poetic form, sonnets, showed two sides of Claude McKay. The earlier work revealed a Jamaican black writing about his Jamaican youth, in dialect and from a position of racial pride; Constab Ballads focuses on the city and on the degradation of blacks in the metropolitan environment.

McKay was the first black to be awarded a medal by the Institute of Arts and Sciences in Jamaica; his prize money financed his first trip to the United States in 1912. There, he attended Tuskegee Institute. Unhappy at Tuskegee, he soon left to study agriculture at Kansas State University, where he stayed until 1914. Leaving Kansas State after two years, McKay headed for Harlem, the cultural and spiritual center of black intellectuals and artists in the United States. He struggled, supporting himself with a procession of menial jobs and concentrating on his poetry. He began to attract the attention of such editors as Frank Harris and William Stanley Braithwaite. His poems were published frequently, and in 1918 his angry poem “To the White Fiends” was published in Pearson’s Magazine; it had been rejected first by Crisis, the major literary magazine for blacks, as too militant.

Braithwaite urged McKay to conceal his black identity, contending that his opportunities to publish would improve if he were not easily identifiable in his writing as black. McKay utterly rejected such suggestions because they ran completely counter to his racial pride. By 1919, he left the United States for Europe, spending the better part of two years in the Low Countries and in England. He gained recognition quickly, and when Spring in New Hampshire, and Other Poems was published, well-known critic I. A. Richards wrote the introduction.

Max Eastman, editor of The Liberator, had published McKay’s work. He brought him back to the United States in 1921 as an associate editor of the magazine. With Eastman, McKay went to the Soviet Union. His collection of poems Harlem Shadows, his last book of new poems, was published the year before his trip to the Soviet Union to attend the Fourth Congress of the Communist Party, where he was lionized (although he ultimately developed an antipathy to communism).

For the next decade, McKay lived mostly in Germany, France, Spain, and Morocco. During this period his three novels and his collection of short stories appeared. The protagonist of Home to Harlem, Jake, is a proud black man oppressed by racism; he wanders through Harlem seeking the prostitute who secretly returned the fifty dollars he had given her to his pocket before he left her. The antagonist, Ray, is a young Haitian in some ways resembling McKay.

McKay’s autobiography, A Long Way from Home, considers the black artist trying to bring into alignment conflicting views of art and society with which minority artists necessarily deal. Shortly after it was published, McKay met Ellen Tarry, a mulatto writer, who was Catholic. She had a profound impact on his thinking. McKay, who had considered Catholicism while he lived in Spain, converted to that religion before his death in Chicago, where he had gone to teach in the Catholic Youth Organization.

BibliographyCooper, Wayne F. Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987. This first full-length biography of McKay is a fascinating and very readable book. Special attention is paid to McKay’s early life in Jamaica and the complex influences of his family. Includes nine photographs and a useful index.Gayle, Addison, Jr. Claude McKay: The Black Poet at War. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1972. This brief study looks closely at four poems–“Flame-Heart,” “Harlem Shadows,” “To the White Fiends,” and “If We Must Die”–as they demonstrate McKay’s growing skill and militancy throughout his career. Gayle argues that McKay was an important revolutionary poet.Giles, James R. Claude McKay. Boston: Twayne, 1976. This study examines McKay’s work as it was influenced by his homeland of Jamaica, the Harlem Renaissance, the Communist Party, and the Roman Catholic Church. Giles asserts that McKay’s fiction represents his major achievement. The book includes a chronology and a briefly annotated bibliography.Hathaway, Heather. Caribbean Waves: Relocating Claude McKay and Paule Marshall. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999. A biographical and critical study of the lives and works of two writers and the way that their works have been shaped by their backgrounds as Caribbean immigrants.Holcomb, Gary Edward. Claude McKay, Code Name Sasha: Queer Black Marxism and the Harlem Renaissance. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2007. This work takes a look at the life and writing career of Claude McKay and examines his importance during the Harlem Renaissance. Essential for those interested in McKay or African American studies, in general.James, Winston. A Fierce Hatred of Injustice: Claude McKay’s Jamaica and His Poetry of Rebellion. New York: Verso, 2000. A critical study of McKay’s early writing with a focus on the poet’s use of Jamaican creole in two early collections, Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads, and in his previously uncollected poems for the Jamaican press. An anthology of the latter is provided together with McKay’s comic sketch about Jamaican peasant life and his autobiographical essay.LeSeur, Geta. “Claude McKay’s Marxism.” In The Harlem Renaissance: Revaluations, edited by Amritjit Singh, William S. Shiver, and Stanley Brodwin. New York: Garland, 1989. This article examines McKay’s struggle to find in Marxism the solution to the “Negro question” and looks at his trip to Russia to assess Marxism in action firsthand in 1922 and 1923.Schwarz, A. B. Christa. Gay Voices of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003. Schwarz examines the work of four leading writers from the Harlem Renaissance–Countée Cullen, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Richard Bruce Nugent–and their sexually nonconformist or gay literary voices.Tillery, Tyrone. Claude McKay: A Black Poet’s Struggle for Identity. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992. A well-documented biography tracing McKay’s search for a movement with which to identify: black radical, socialist, communist, Catholic.
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