Festus Claudius "Claude" McKay (September 15, 1889 – May 22, 1948) was a Jamaican-American writer and poet, who was a seminal figure in the Harlem Renaissance. He wrote four novels: Home to Harlem (1928), a best-seller that won the Harmon Gold Award for Literature, Banjo (1929), Banana Bottom (1933), and in 1941 a manuscript called Amiable With Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem that hasn't yet been published. McKay additionally authored collections of poetry, a collection of short stories, Gingertown (1932), two autobiographical books, A Long Way from Home (1937) and My Green Hills of Jamaica (published posthumously), and a non-fiction, socio-historical treatise entitled Harlem: Negro Metropolis (1940). His 1922 poetry collection, Harlem Shadows, was amongst the first books published throughout the Harlem Renaissance. His Selected Poems was published posthumously, in 1953.
McKay was attracted to communism in his early life, but he always asserted that he never became an official member of the Communist Party USA. Notwithstanding a few scholars dispute the claim that he wasn't a communist at that time, noting his close ties to active members, his attendance at communist-led events, and his months-long stay in the Soviet Union in 1922–23, which he wrote about quite favorably. He gradually became disillusioned with communism, however, and by the mid-1930s, had begun to write negatively about it.
Claude McKay began life in Nairne Castle near James Hill, Clarendon, Jamaica. He had been 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 parents were of Ashanti descent, like a large number of additional black Jamaicans. Claude recounted that his parents would share storeys of Ashanti customs with him.
At the age of four years, McKay started basic school at the church that he attended. At the age of seven, he had been sent to live with his oldest brother, Uriah Theodore, a teacher, to be given the best education available. While living with this brother, 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 apprenticed to a carriage and cabinet maker known as Old Brenga, staying in his apprenticeship for about two years. Throughout that time, in 1907, McKay met a man named Walter Jekyll, who became a mentor and an inspiration for him and encouraged him to concentrate on his writing. Jekyll convinced McKay to write in his native dialect and even later set a few 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 (1912), was based on his experiences of joining the constabulary for a brief period in 1911.
Career in the United States
McKay left for the U.S. in 1912 to attend Tuskegee Institute. McKay was shocked by the intense racism he encountered when he arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, where a large number of public facilities were segregated, which inspired him to write more poetry. At Tuskegee, he disliked the "semi-military, machine-like existence there" and 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 his political involvement. But notwithstanding superior academic performance, in 1914 McKay decided he didn't want to be an agronomist and moved to New York, where he married his childhood sweetheart Eulalie Lewars.
McKay published two poems in 1917 in The Seven Arts under the pseudonym 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, as the co-editor of The Liberator, that he published one of his most famous poems, "If We Must Die", throughout the "Red Summer", a period of intense racial violence against black people in Anglo-American societies. The poem was reportedly later quoted by Winston Churchill throughout World War II.
McKay became involved with a group of black radicals who were unhappy both with Marcus Garvey's nationalism and the middle-class reformist NAACP. These included additional Caribbean writers like Cyril Briggs, Richard 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. Hubert Harrison had asked McKay to write for Garvey's Negro World, but only a few copies of the paper have survived from this period, none of which contain any articles by McKay. McKay soon left for London, England.
McKay arrived in London in autumn 1919. He used to frequent a soldier's club in Drury Lane and the International Socialist Club in Shoreditch. A militant atheist, he additionally joined the Rationalist Press Association. It was throughout this period that McKay's commitment to socialism deepened and he read Marx assiduously. At the International Socialist Club, McKay met Shapurji Saklatvala, A. J. Cook, Guy Aldred, Jack Tanner, Arthur McManus, William Gallacher, Sylvia Pankhurst and George Lansbury. He had been soon invited to write for Workers' Dreadnought.
In April 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", it insinuated gross hypersexuality on black people in general, but Lansbury refused to print McKay's response. This response then appeared in Workers' Dreadnought. Since January 1920, he had been involved with the Workers' Dreadnought and the Workers' Socialist Federation, a Council Communist group active in the East End and which had a majority of women involved in it at all levels of the organization. He became a paid journalist for the paper; a few people claim he had been the first black journalist in Britain. He attended the Communist Unity Conference that established the Communist Party of Great Britain. At this time he additionally had a few of his poetry published in the Cambridge Magazine, edited by C. K. Ogden.
When Sylvia Pankhurst was arrested under the Defense of the Realm Act for publishing articles "calculated and likely to cause sedition amongst His Majesty's forces, in the Navy, and amongst 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 Workers' Dreadnought.
From November 1922 to June 1923, he visited the Soviet Union and attended the fourth congress of the Communist International in Moscow. There, he met a large number of leading Bolsheviks including Leon Trotsky, Nikolai Bukharin and Karl Radek. Claude McKay details his experience in Russia in the essay "Soviet Russia and the Negro" published in the December 1923 issue of The Crisis magazine.
McKay wrote the manuscripts for a book of essays called Negroes in America and three storeys published as Lynching in America, both of which appeared first in Russian and were re-translated into English; McKay's original English manuscripts have been lost. When Russia was under the rule of communists led by Lenin he had been invited to Russia throughout the reconstruction of the country.
Home to Harlem and additional 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 Caribbean, West Africa, and Europe.
McKay's novel gained a substantial readership, especially with people who wanted to know more about the intense, and at times 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 work in which McKay looked amongst the common people for a distinctive black identity.
Despite this, 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." As Du Bois said, "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.
McKay's additional novels were Banjo (1929), and Banana Bottom (1933). Banjo was noted in part for its portrayal of how the French treated people from its sub-Saharan African colonies, as the novel centres on black seamen in Marseilles. 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 a principal theme of a black individual in search of establishing a cultural identity in a white society. The book discusses underlying racial and cultural tensions.
McKay additionally authored a collection of short stories, Gingertown (1932), two autobiographical books, A Long Way from Home (1937) and My Green Hills of Jamaica (published posthumously in 1979), and a non-fiction, socio-historical treatise entitled Harlem: Negro Metropolis (1940). His collection Selected Poems (1953) was published posthumously and included a Foreword by John Dewey.
McKay became an American citizen in 1940.
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 heavily influenced a generation of black authors including James Baldwin and Richard Wright.
- Jamaican Institute of Arts and Sciences, Musgrave 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.
- Order of Jamaica, 1977.