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An inspiration to Langston Hughes, Claude McKay was at the forefront of the Harlem Renaissance with poetry and novels that gave an honest depiction of the Black experience in America.
Claude McKay was born Festus Claudius McKay in 1889 in Sunnyville, Jamaica. His parents, Thomas Francis and Hannah Ann Elizabeth, were peasant farmers but rather well off. They instilled in McKay a sense of pride in his African heritage. During McKay's childhood, he developed an interest in poetry under the tutelage of his brother and schoolteacher, Urian Theophilus, and his English neighbor, Walter Jekyll.
Claude McKay was particularly interested in the British greats such as John Milton and Alexander Pope, but Jekyll encouraged him to find his own voice and to use a Jamaican dialect. In 1906, McKay left Sunnyville for work. He apprenticed as a woodworker in Brown’s Town before traveling to the capital, Kingston, to become a constable. Throughout it all, he was writing poetry inspired by his experiences.
Once again finding encouragement from Jekyll, Claude McKay published his first two poetry collections in 1912. Songs of Jamaica painted an idyllic picture of peasant life. Constab Ballads, on the other hand, looked at the oppression of black Jamaicans. Together, they explored the duality of the black experience in Jamaica. For Songs of Jamaica, McKay won an award and grant from the Jamaican Institute of Arts and Sciences.
Show you de place where I was born,
Of which I am so proud,
'Mongst de banana-field an' corn
On a lone mountain-road.”
- Claude McKay, “My Mountain Home,” 1912
Claude McKay used the money he received to finance a one-way journey to the United States. Stopping in South Carolina for a short time, he made his way to Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Finding he did not like it there, he attended Kansas State college for a bit before leaving school altogether for New York City in 1914.
The same year he moved to New York City, Claude McKay married his childhood sweetheart, Eulalie Imelda Lewars. They had one daughter together, but the marriage didn’t last long, and he had no interest in being a part of his daughter’s life. Instead, he worked menial jobs to support himself while doubling down on his writing career.
In 1917, Claude McKay had two poems published in a periodical and began writing poems for Pearson’s Magazine. During this time, he wrote “To the White Fiends,” a popular poem that addressed and challenged white oppressors. He drew the attention of Max Eastman; an editor of Liberator magazine and they formed a friendship. It was in Liberator magazine that McKay published his arguably most popular poem, “If We Must Die.”
In 1919, Claude McKay left the United States for a two-year stint in Europe, where he lived in London for a period of time. In 1920, he published his third poetry collection, Spring in New Hampshire. Once back in the United States in 1921, he settled in Harlem where he began work on Harlem Shadows, a poetry collection made up of past works from previous volumes, magazines, and periodicals. Published in 1922, it solidified his position as a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance.
The Harlem Renaissance
a cultural movement based in Harlem in the 1920s that celebrated black culture, art, music, and literature
During the 1920s, Claude McKay became involved with the Universal Negro Improvement Association and wrote for its publication, Negro World. He also visited the Soviet Union to attend the International Communist Party’s Fourth Congress. (More on McKay’s interest in communism later.)
In the late 1920s, Claude McKay moved to Paris where he worked as an artist’s model to support himself. While there, he rubbed shoulders with the likes of political activist, Upton Sinclair, and poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay. Unfortunately, while there, he also fell severely ill with a respiratory infection.
Once Claude McKay recovered, he set upon a decade-long tour of Europe and North Africa. During this time, he published his three novels:
Home to Harlem (1928)
Banjo, A Story without a Plot (1929)
Banana Bottom (1933)
He also published a short story collection, Gingertown, in 1932 before returning home to the United States in 1934.
In 1937, Claude McKay published his biography, A Long Way Home. By the late 1930s, McKay had developed an interest in Catholicism and became involved with Harlem’s Friendship House. These experiences inspired his essay collection, Harlem: Negro Metropolis, published in 1940, the same year he became a U.S. citizen.
Some historians question the authenticity of A Long Way Home. For example, McKay denies any connection to communism despite clear evidence to the contrary.
In the early 1940s, Claude McKay left New York City for Chicago to work as a teacher for a Catholic organization. Unfortunately, by the mid-1940s, his health was rapidly declining. He battled several illnesses before dying of heart failure in 1948.
Claude McKay covered a variety of themes, but placed an emphasis on the black experience of oppression in America and elsewhere (e.g., Jamaica). We’re going to take a look at two of his popular, earlier poems that we mentioned above.
First, let’s take a look at “To the White Fiends”:
Think you I am not fiend and savage too?
Think you I could not arm me with a gun
And shoot down ten of you for every one
Of my black brothers murdered, burnt by you?
Be not deceived, for every deed you do
I could match – out-match: am I not Africa's son,”
- Claude McKay, “To the White Fiends,” 1918
Here, Claude McKay directly addressed white oppressors and threatened retaliation for their horrific treatment of African Americans in a militant call for civil rights.
The next poem, “If We Must Die,” once again addresses the oppression of African Americans:
“If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!”
- Claude McKay, “If We Must Die,” 1919
Although McKay wrote “If We Must Die” specifically about the plight of African Americans, oppressed people of all backgrounds felt the sentiment of the poem and rallied behind it.
Home to Harlem was not only Claude McKay’s most successful novel but the most successful book written by an African American of the time. While Home to Harlem deals with issues of oppression like most of McKay’s works, it also emphasizes Black pride and gives a look into the lives of ordinary, working-class B;ack people in Harlem.
'It's the same life, even ef they drink champagne and we drink gin.'" - Claude McKay, Home to Harlem, 1928
In the 1920s, Claude McKay developed an interest in communism, seeing it as a way to achieve equality for all. As we discussed earlier, he even attended the International Community Party’s Fourth Congress during one of his trips to the Soviet Union. It was not until the late 1930s that he began to distance himself from communism. And, of course, in his autobiography, he vehemently denied any association with communism to throw followers of McCarthyism off his back.
Claude McKay was among the older writers of the Harlem Renaissance and greatly influenced the younger writers of the movement, such as Langston Hughes. He encouraged them to highlight their own unique experiences as Black men and women in America. Today, he is among the most notable writers of the Harlem Renaissance with his unique perspective as a Jamaican immigrant.
Claude McKay published "The Lynching" in 1922.
Claude McKay acknowledged and challenged the racism in America while also remaining hopeful for the future.
Claude McKay wrote three novels, multiple collections of poetry, a collection of short stories, a collection of essays, and an autobiography.
Claude McKay was known for his literary contributions to the Harlem Renaissance.
Claude McKay wrote about the black experience in America and elsewhere.
Where was Claude McKay born?
What was the name of Claude McKay's English neighbor that encouraged him to pursue a career in poetry?
Which of Claude McKay's novels became the most popular book written by a black man at the time?
Home to Harlem
Max Eastman published Claude McKay's poems in what publication?
What is the name of Claude McKay's autobiography?
A Long Way Home
What religion did Claude McKay convert to later in life?
Claude McKay had ties to communism.
What Claude McKay poem became a rallying cry for oppressed people of all backgrounds?
"My Mountain Home"
When was Claude McKay born?
When did Claude McKay first move to New York City?
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