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McKay, Claude 1889–1948

Claude McKay 18891948

Poet, journalist, essayist, fiction writer

At a Glance

Became Key Figure in the Harlem Renaissance

Poetic Genius and Political Visionary

A Pilgrimage to the West

Home to Harlem

Selected writings


A major literary figure of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, Jamaican-born American poet Claude McKay dedicated his life to writing verse that promoted spiritual freedom and humanitarian social and political values. Tormented by the discriminatory barriers confronting African Americans in the twentieth century, McKay vented his feelings of frustration through poetry and served as a voice for awakening the masses to the devastating effects of racism in a white-dominated society. Although he is best known for his militantly angry poetic style, McKay also dealt with less inflammatory themes: his colorful pastoral scenes of the Jamaican countryside and lyrical ruminations on the beauty of Harlem dancers are especially memorable. A respected philosopher, a celebrant of primitivism, and the author of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction works, McKay produced a vast number of writings that helped lay the foundation for the emergence of modern African American literature.

Festus Claudius McKay was born in Sunny Ville, Jamaica, on September 15,1889, to Hannah Ann Elizabeth, a woman of warm humanitarian values, and Thomas McKay, a strictly pious Christian and successful landowner. McKay enjoyed a pleasant childhood playing within the mountain villages scattered throughout the Jamaican countryside. At age four, he attended school at Mt. Zion Church where he exhibited a strong interest in history and geography. Placed under the tutelage of his brother U Theo, a free-thinker and lay preacher, McKay was exposed to classical literature, socialist views, and the ideas of natural science and evolutionary naturalism. In his brothers library, McKay spent long hours reading William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and the biological and philosophical treatises of Thomas Huxley, Ernest Haekel, and Herbert Spencer. Through the guidance and encouragement of U Theo, McKay began to develop skills as a writer and poet.

In 1907, McKays literary talent attracted the notice of Walter Jekyll, an English gentleman and man of letters who urged McKay to write poetry in the native Jamaican dialect. Although most learned Jamaicans considered peasant dialect a vulgar tone, Jekyll awakened McKay to the natural beauty and rhythm of the language. At 23, McKay completed two volumes of dialect poetry: Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads. Awarded a gold medal by the Jamaican Institute of Arts and Sciences in Kingston, these two works contained a number of poems describing the hardships and racial injustices suffered by the Jamaican peasantry, as well as works celebrating the grandeur of Old England.

At a Glance

Born Festus Claudius McKay, September 15, 1889, in Sunny Ville, Jamaica; immigrated to U.S.; became naturalized U.S. citizen, 1940; died of heart disease, May 22, 1948, in Chicago, IL; buried in Calvary Cemetery, Woodside, NY; son of Thomas Francis (a farmer and landowner) and Hannah Ann Elizabeth (a farmer; maiden name, Edwards) McKay; married Imelda Edwards, July 30, 1914 (divorced); children: Ruth Hope. Education: Attended Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, 1912, and Kansas State College, 1912-14. Politics: Independent socialist. Religion: Converted to Catholicism, 1945.

Poet, journalist, essayist, fiction writer. Woodworkers apprentice, Browns Town, Jamaica, and constable, Kingston, both c. 1906; worked as a longshoreman, porter, bartender, and waiter, off and on beginning in 1910; first volumes of poetry, Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads, published in London, 1912; immigrated to United States, 1912; settled in New York City, 1914, and became a restaurateur; business failed; poems published in several journals, 1917-19; traveled to London and worked as a journalist, 1919-20; coeditor of the Liberator, New York City, 1921-22; attended Fourth Congress of the Third Communist International, Moscow, 1922; writer in Europe and North Africa, 1923-34; returned to the United States, February, 1934; took shelter in Catholic Friendship House, 1941; moved to Chicago, 1944.

Awards: Jamaican Institute of Arts and Sciences, gold 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.

Upon the completion of his free-thinking education, McKay aspired to become a peasant poet, supporting himself by farming in the Jamaican countryside. In order to prepare himself for the task of advancing Jamaican agriculture, McKay left for the United States in 1912 to study agronomy (field-crop production) at Booker T. Washingtons Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama. But, disenchanted with Tuskegees machine-like existence and semi-military organization, McKay left after a few months to attend Kansas State College. He tired of his studies after two years, however, and cancelled his plans to become an agronomist. The demon of poets had got hold of me, recalled McKay in his autobiography A Long Way from Home. I became a vagabondbut a vagabond with a purpose. I was determined to find expression in writing.

Became Key Figure in the Harlem Renaissance

With funds acquired from an anonymous benefactor, McKay, like thousands of resourceful West Indians, traveled to Harlem in New York City in 1914. Once in Harlem, McKay joined the Negro Renaissance writers revolt against white cultural standards by seeking to write works reflecting the life of the black masses. Like the other young Renaissance writers, McKays primary aim was to exalt the cultural heritage of people of color and to legitimize the differences inherent in all cultures. McKay claimed in A Long Way from Home that by reading all the great poets he could feel their race, their class, their roots in the soil. Thus, he set out to write poetry that would express the uniqueness of the black experience.

Drawn to the capital of black culture, McKay became impassioned by the jazz music and stage shows featured on Harlems 135th Street. After establishing himself as the proprietor of a small restaurant in the black section of mid-Manhattan, McKay married his Jamaican childhood sweetheart, Imelda Edwards, on July 30, 1914. Within a few months, however, McKay faced failure in business and marriage. On her return to Jamaica shortly afterward, Imelda gave birth to McKays only child, Ruth Hope, a daughter he would never see. Disillusioned by middle class pursuits and without ambition to resume a formal education, McKays rebellious nature led him to return to the writing of poetry. While working as a stevedore, porter, and busboy, McKay divided his time between observing the condition of black workers and writing.

In search of an editor, McKay came into contact with Joel Spingarn, literary critic and early founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), who recommended McKay to James Oppenheim and Waldo Frank, editors of the avant garde publication Seven Arts. Despite their criticism of McKays formal sonnet style, Oppenheim and Frank published two of McKays poems, Harlem Dancer and Invocation, in the December 1917 issue of Seven Arts. That same year, McKay took a job as a dining car waiter on the Pennsylvania Railroad, a job that exposed him to the many African American communities located in the cities of the industrial Northeast. In 1918, McKay was introduced to Frank Harris, editor of Pearsons Magazine, who published five of his poems including The Lynching.

Following the end of the First World War in 1918, McKay, like a great number of black Americans, became disillusioned over the resurgence of racial violence and the indifferent treatment of black veterans in the United States. He had long been aware of racial injustice, but he was deeply disturbed by the bloody race riots of 1919 that swept through major American cities like Chicago. It was at this time that McKay met Max Eastman, a Communist sympathizer and chief editor of a radical publication called the Masses. In Eastman, McKay found a literary mentor and personal confidant who remained one of his closest lifelong friends. McKays association with Eastman helped strengthen his radical political views and establish him as a member of New Yorks postwar Greenwich Village literary scene.

Poetic Genius and Political Visionary

In reaction to the wave of racial violence and the U.S. governments suppressive actions against domestic radicalism during the Red Scare of 1919, McKay wrote the powerful poem If We Must Die. Published in the July edition of the Liberator, the successor of the Masses, If We Must Die is a bitter yet profound poem calling for a universal movement against oppressionone that embodied such a passionately human message that British statesman and author Winston Churchill quoted from it in a speech he gave during World War II.

Though it was criticized by conservative African Americans, If We Must Die appeared in black newspapers across the country, earning him national recognition as one of Americas most talented new black poetic voices. But the poem also attracted the attention of the U.S. State Departments committee investigating African American radicals. The State Departments attempt to label the poem as radical, antidemocratic propaganda put a great deal of pressure upon McKay who, since quitting the railroad job earlier that year, had joined the revolutionary organization known as the Industrial Workers of the World.

But not long afterward, McKay received an opportunity to travel to Europe at the expense of two English admirers of his poetry. Bound for London in late 1919, McKay continued his involvement in radical politics. Upon joining the International Club, McKay became exposed to various European radical intellectuals and the serious study of Marxist ideology, which calls for the achievement of a classless society. For the year he remained in England, McKay worked as journalist for Workers Dreadnought, a Communist weekly publication edited by Sylvia Pankhurst. In a real sense McKay completed in London the political self-education he had begun in the United States, wrote historian Wayne F. Cooper in Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem RenaissanceA Biography. But once in England, as Cooper pointed out, all of McKays romantic thoughts of the grandeur of British culture quickly waned: he became a disillusioned witness to the racial inequities faced by foreign-born blacks and the left-wing apathy toward the plight of the nationalist movements in Ireland, India, and other countries under colonial rule.

After returning to New York in the winter of 1921, McKay was able to earn a steady income by taking a job as the assistant editor of the Liberator. In Harlem, McKay met with a circle of black socialists including Hubert Harrison and members of the African Blood Brotherhood led by Cyril Briggs and Richard B. Moore. At this time McKay also befriended intellectuals like writer James Weldon Johnsonthen executive secretary of the NAACPwho hailed his work as too powerful to be confined to the circle of race. In the spring of 1922, while McKay continued his editing job at the Liberator, a collection of poems titled Harlem Shadows was published as his first American book. A work containing seventy poems, all of which had been written since McKays arrival in the United States in 1912, Harlem Shadows emerged as a great critical success that marked a major turning point in his literary career.

A Pilgrimage to the West

Troubled by disputes over race and political ideology among the Liberators staff members, McKay left the magazine in June of 1922. The author had grown weary of the racist conditions in the United States and became committed to a global political and social outlook. Although not a member of the Communist party, McKay decided to travel to Soviet Russia to observe the grand experiment of communism. He joined the millions of workers, writers, and intellectuals who, as he wrote in A Long Way from Home, became fascinated by the Russian thunder rolling around the world. With funds raised by friends and colleagues, McKay traveled to Liverpool, England, and then Berlin, where he secured a visa to enter the Soviet Union. Arriving in Moscow early in November 1922, McKay was stirred by the semi-oriental splendor of Russian culture and the vibrant character of Moscow, which he described as a bright Byzantine fair.

In Moscow, McKay was allowed to attend the meeting of the Fourth Congress of the Third Communist International, or Comintern. One of the few blacks among the delegation, McKay spoke out against racial oppression and the American Communist partys stance on maintaining an underground organization in the United States. His presence influenced the Soviets to create a Negro Commission intended to address the black struggle against racism. During his six-month stay, McKay found that his color and physical features made him a celebrity among the Russian people. On one occasion, for example, a joyful crowd of Russian peasants and soldiers carried McKay through the streets of Moscow on their shoulders.

In May of 1923, McKay left Russia and set out on a new career as an expatriate novelist. After a brief stay in Germany, he traveled to Paris where he fell ill with influenza in December. Despite his colorful experience with the Russian people, McKays trip to the Soviet Union did little to arouse his earlier interest in communism. As a true artist, McKay found communism too disciplined and confining to his aesthetic outlook. Determined to become a novelist, McKay left Paris in January of 1924 for the French Mediterranean coastal seaport of Marseilles.

During time spent in nearby Toulon in 1925, McKay completed his first novel, titled Color Scheme, which was never published. Destitute and with no hope of publishing his novel, McKay wrote a series of short stories describing Negro life in Harlem. Eventually McKay expanded one of the stories into the novel Home to Harlem, a work dealing with a black soldiers return to New York following World War I. A landmark of black literature, Home to Harlem appeared in 1928 and emerged as one of the first bestsellers of African American literature. However, several leading black intellectuals, including W. E. B. Du Bois, admonished McKay for producing an exploitative work of fiction that depicted black characters as lowly, unrestrained, and primitively passionate. According to Du Bois, Home to Harlem plays upon deeply entrenched, ill-conceived, stereotypical images of people of colorthe very images that many black critics had worked so many years to eraseand therefore exacerbated the racist conditions plaguing African Americans in a white-dominated society.

By late 1928, McKay had journeyed to Morocco, where be became acquainted with the Moorish culture of cities like Casablanca, Fez, and Marakesh. While in North Africa, McKay worked on his second novel, Banjo, which was published in 1929. The story of Negro vagabond sailor/musician Banjo, also known as Lincoln Agrippa Daily, Banjo, like its predecessor, describes a black mans struggle within white society and his search for the true meaning of human existence.

Over the next four years, McKay resided for brief periods in Germany, Spain, and North Africa. In 1932 he published a book of twelve poems under the title Gingertown. The next year, the novel Banana Bottom about an educated black Jamaican womens attempt to return to the peasant culture of her youthemerged as McKays last and most critically acclaimed work of long fiction. Banana Bottom is said to exemplify the maturity and refinement of McKays use of theme and form, but like Gingertown, the book failed to sell and left McKay further in debt to his publisher. After living as a peasant poet in a small rented cottage in Tangiers, McKay decided to return to the United States. Without assurance of employment, McKay sailed for New York on February 1, 1934.

Home to Harlem

Arriving in New York after a twelve-year hiatus, McKay faced many obstacles amid the economic crisis of the Great Depression. As the Harlem Renaissance literary scene fell into decline during the early 1930s, African American writers found they no longer were given the attention and prestige they once received in the white market place. Plagued by health problems and the effects of poverty, McKay also experienced the pain of loneliness and isolation. In 1936 he published his autobiography A Long Way from Home, in which he stresses the need for blacks to develop cultural and economic solidarity in order to take their place in a new socialist universal order. McKays last book, Harlem: Negro Metropolis, published in 1940, was written from the research gathered during his employment at the Federal Writers Project, a government relief program designed to offer jobs to unemployed writers.

As the next decade progressed, McKays health steadily worsened. Stricken with dropsy and utterly destitute, he sought refuge in the Catholic Friendship House. Upon the invitation of Bishop Bernard Sheil, McKay moved to Chicago in 1944, where he joined the Catholic Church a year later. In Catholicism, McKay found physical and spiritual shelter and a universal theology that he believed could counter the forces of communism and fascism. Near the end of his life, McKay completed a memoir of his childhood, My Green Hills of Jamaica, which remained unpublished until 1981. In reference to the book, McKay related in a letter to Max Eastman, I do not want to go sour on humanity, even after living in this awful land of the U.S.A. I still like to think of people as I did as a boy in Jamaica.

Despite his disillusionment and years of alienation, McKay never lost the faith that somewhere in human beings there exists a hidden spiritual force, one that had been left in the shadows of totalitarian regimes, capitalist exploitation, and colonial domination. For McKay, art was never a means of escape, but a way to confront the world and to expose the true nature of the human spirit. His poetry connects the black artists struggle with the struggles of all humanity. An elder member of the Harlem Renaissance, McKay led the way for the emergence of a modern African American literary tradition that includes such writers as Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin. McKays work is representative of the black artists struggle to gain recognition in the Western world. Like so many other artistic geniuses who lived their lives as outsiders, McKay remained the peasant poet in the modern age, a poetic visionary devoted to awakening the minds and spirits of all humanity.

Selected writings

Poetry volumes

Songs of Jamaica, Aston W. Gardner, 1912.

Constab Ballads, Watts, 1912.

Spring in New Hampshire, Grant Richards, 1920.

Harlem Shadows, introduction by Max Eastman, Harcourt, 1922.


Home to Harlem, Harper, 1928.

Banjo: A Story without a Plot, Harper, 1929.

Banana Bottom, Harper, 1933.


Negry v Amerike (nonfiction), Russian-language version published in Moscow, 1923, re-translated into English and published as The Negroes in America, Kennikat, 1977.

Gingertown (short stories), Harper, 1932.

A Long Way from Home (autobiography), Lee Furman, 1937.

Harlem: Negro Metropolis (nonfiction), E. P. Dutton, 1940.

My Green Hills of Jamaica (memoir), 1981.


Selected Poems of Claude McKay, introduction by John Dewey, biographical note by Max Eastman, Bookman, 1953.

The Dialectic Poetry of Claude McKay, edited by Wayne F. Cooper, Books for Libraries Press, 1972.

The Passion of Claude McKay: Selected Poetry and Prose, 1912-1948, edited by Wayne F. Cooper, Schocken, 1973.

Contributor to periodicals, including Workers Dreadnought, Negro World, Catholic Worker, Seven Arts (under pseudonym Eli Edwards), New York Herald Tribune Books, Phylon, Pearsons Magazine, Liberator, and others.



Black Literature Criticism, Gale, 1992, pp. 1375-1401.

Bone, Robert A., The Negro Novel in America, Yale University Press, 1954.

Cooper, Wayne F., Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem RenaissanceA Biography, Louisiana State University Press, 1987.

Cruse, Harold, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: From Its Origin to the Present, Morrow, 1967.

Du Bois, W. E. B., The Souls of Black Folk, 1903, reprinted, Penguin, 1982.

Fullwinder, S. P., The Mood and Mind of Black America: 20th Century Thought, Dorsey Press, 1969.

Gayle, Addison, Jr., Claude McKay: The Black Poet at War, Broadside Press, 1972.

Giles, James R., Claude McKay, Twayne, 1976.

McKay, Claude, A Long Way from Home, Arno Press and the New York Times, 1969.

McKay, Claude, The Passion of Claude McKay: Selected Poetry and Prose, 1912-1948, edited by Wayne F. Cooper, Schocken, 1973.

McKay, Claude, Selected Poems of Claude McKay, introduction by John Dewey, biographical note by Max Eastman, Bookman, 1953.

Tillery, Tyrone, Claude McKay: A Black Poets Struggle for Identity, University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.

Wagner, Jean, Black Poets of the United States: From Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes, translated from original French by Kenneth Douglas, University of Illinois Press, 1973.


CLA Journal, March 1972; June 1973; December 1975; March 1980.

Crisis, June 1928, p. 202.

Nation, June 7, 1922, pp. 694-95.

Phylon, Fall 1948; Fall 1964.

John Cohassey

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Claude McKay

Claude McKay

Claude McKay (1890-1948), Jamaican-born poet and novelist, is often called "the first voice of the Harlem renaissance." His verse and fiction are best known for protesting the social evils that plagued blacks.

Claude McKay was born in Jamaica, British West Indies, on Sept. 15, 1890. He began writing poetry, principally in Jamaican dialect, while a schoolboy. After a brief apprenticeship to a cabinetmaker and a short time as a policeman, he went to the United States and enrolled at Tuskegee Institute; later he went to Kansas State University. Neither school suited him, so he moved to New York, where a little interest in his first two volumes of poems—Constab Ballads and Songs from Jamaica (published in England, 1912)—preceded him.

Under the name Eli Edwards, McKay published a number of poems in American magazines; under his own name he published (in England) Spring in New Hampshire (1920). He was listed as associate editor of the Liberator, a "radical" magazine, which was the first to print "If We Must Die." This poem has come to be thought of as the birth cry of the "new Negro." It set the tone of protest that marks his fourth and best-known volume of verse, Harlem Shadows (1922), which also contains poems on conventional romantic themes.

In 1922 McKay represented the American Workers party at the Third Internationale in Moscow. He stayed in Europe for several years, settling in southern France, where he wrote most of his fiction. Home to Harlem (1928), a sensational revelation of black ghetto life, is his best-known novel. Banjo (1929) does for the French seaport city of Marseilles what the first novel did for New York's Harlem: it portrays life in the lower depths. Gingertown (1932) is a volume of unexceptional short stories, and Banana Bottom (1933), set in the West Indies, returns to his earlier subject matter. His fiction tended to be sensationally "realistic" and to emphasize those sordid elements in Negro life that attracted the prurient interest of the public.

Back in America in 1936 McKay wrote his autobiography, A Long Way from Home (1937). The fluent ease that characterized his best prose style is missing in this book. In 1940 he published Harlem: Negro Metropolis, a kind of sociohistorical narrative that is interesting but without much substance.

All but forgotten, McKay died in Chicago on May 22, 1948. Selected Poems of Claude McKay appeared in 1953.

Further Reading

There is no full-length work, either critical or biographical, on McKay. For critical comments see J. Saunders Redding, To Make a Poet Black (1939); Sterling A. Brown, Arthur P. Davis, and Ulysses Lee, eds., Negro Caravan: Writings by American Negroes (1940); Rebecca C. Barton, Witnesses for Freedom: Negro Americans in Autobiography (1948); Hugh M. Gloster, Negro Voices in American Fiction (1948); and Stephen H. Bronz, Roots of Negro Racial Consciousness, the 1920s: Three Harlem Renaissance Authors (1964). □

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McKay, Claude

Claude McKay (məkā´), 1890–1948, American poet and novelist, b. Jamaica, studied at Tuskegee and the Univ. of Kansas. A major figure of the Harlem Renaissance, McKay is best remembered for his poems treating racial themes. His works include the volumes of poetry Spring in New Hampshire (1920) and Harlem Shadows (1922); and the novels Home to Harlem (1927), Banjo (1929), and Banana Bottom (1933). For years McKay was involved in radical political activities, but he became increasingly disillusioned, and in 1944 he converted to Roman Catholicism.

See his autobiography, A Long Way from Home (1937).

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