One of the most distinguished poets of our time Claude McKay was born in Sunny Ville, Jamaica, British West Indies in September 15, 1889, as the youngest of eleven children of his peasant parents in Jamaica, Thomas Francis and Ann Elizabeth (Edwards) McKay. McKay’s family was fairly well off having received land from the bride’s and the groom’s fathers.He. is mostly known by his much-quoted sonnet: “If we Must Die” which was popularized during World War II by British Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill.
Raised in Sunny Ville, in Clarendon Hills Parish by a compassionate mother and a stern father who passed on to his children much of the Ashanti customs and traditions of Ghana where he hailed from, his poetry demonstrates his undying attachment to his roots and a deep affection for Clarendon where he was born and raised. Such nostalgia for Jamaica was demonstrated even in his later poems when abroad.
His early dialect verse makes nostalgic references to the Clarendon Hills. His father, Thomas McKay, had always shared with his children the story of his own father’s enslavement seeking thus to instill in them a suspicion of whites that would become particularly evident in the writings of his son. McKay’s profound respect for the sense of community encountered among rural Jamaican farmers and a somewhat skeptical attitude toward religion encouraged by his older brother, an elementary school teacher, left an indelible mark on his literary work.
At seventeen, McKay through a government sponsorship became apprenticed to a cabinet-maker in Brown’s Town. At nineteen, moving on to Kingston, the capital, he joined the Police Force where his gentle disposition received its first great jolt. For then West Indian Policemen were recruited more for their muscle than their brain, which they were expected to celebrate and honor every hour whilst on the beat.
The Police Force was therefore not the best place for one like McKay who was always upset by human suffering. Two collections of poetry that he published in 1912 emerged largely out of his experience as a constabulary which he found along with urban life in general to be alienating. He felt uncomfortably located between the Jamaican elite and the great mass of the urban poor. Many of the concerns that would occupy much of his later work such as the opposition of the city and the country, the problems of exile, and the relation of the black intellectuals to their common folks appear first in these poems.
His second volume of poems of dialect verse Constab Ballads accurately records such experiences. His first volume of poems Songs of Jamaica was written only to relieve his bitter feelings of guilt while in the force. He calmly keeps reprimanding those responsible for social injustices to his people. To relieve his feelings, he sought to write of redeeming features in the dark picture. His gentle nature led him to pity his people’s suffering and to protest against it. He thus got compelled to relieve himself by celebrating their cheerfulness and other positive qualities. Their interest and vitality as human beings is enriched by their cheerfulness and good humor which vibrates in spite of generally dispiriting conditions.
His sympathy for the criminals, whom he often considered the victims of an unjust colonial order, could not allow him to work as a police constable beyond a year. During the ensuing two years back at Clarendon Parish he was encouraged to write Jamaican Dialect Poetry by Walter Jekyll, an English collector of island folklore with whom McKay had forged a close relationship. Jekyll had introduced him to English poets such as Milton and Pope.
In 1912 McKay published two volumes of poetry Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads. Songs of Jamaica with an introduction and melodies by Jekyll to celebrate the unpretentious nature and the simplicity of the Jamaican peasants who are closely bonded to their native soil. Constab Ballads centres more on Kingston and the contempt and exploitation suffered there by dark-skinned blacks at the hands of whites and mulattos. These books made McKay the first black to receive the medal of the Jamaican Institute of Arts and Sciences with a substantial cash award which he was to use to fund his education at Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, the United States.
He seemed to have regretted later having been “an agent of colonial oppression in a most brutal manner.” In both works McKay made extensive use of the Jamaican language, a patois of English.
When in 1912 McKay left Jamaica for the U.S.A., it was inevitable that this should lead to an eruption of Negro verse from his pen. For here was a man with a proud sense of his race, who had seen his people suffering in Jamaica and had fled an evergreen land with its luxuriantly waving palms bending to the force of the persistent tropical winds in quest of more opportunities in a more open world.
And he goes to America to meet unimaginable Negro suffering. But rather than return to the less demanding life of Jamaica, he felt a compulsion to remain and join the struggle, for he was already bound with the American blacks in their bondage. And no wonder. For McKay’s early years in New York were a time of growing racial bitterness, with the stiffening of the South. Negro disillusionment with Booker T. Washington and a consequent adjustment of the Negro attitude; the increase in white hysteria and violence, which was to become even harsher after the war which had been fought by them as well as in defence of democracy and the rise of Garveyism and the hostility between Garvey and the N.A.A.C.P. and others – all such factors combined to bring about the Negro Renaissance, of which McKay became an integral part.
McKay however maintained for a long time a sober reaction to his new and disturbing environment. Determined to maintain the dignity of his poet’s calling, he refused to allow the quality of his reaction as a poet to be warped. He equally refused to allow his ambitions and status as a human being to be destroyed. His verses remained virile keeping with the prevailing atmosphere then, for those early years in America were really crucial years for the Black cause. But the virility of his verse is based on more than mere bitterness. It includes and depends on a certain resilience – or stubborn humanity traceable to McKay’s capacity to react to Negro suffering not just as a Negro, but as a human being. For as he maintains, the writer must always retain this capacity for a larger and more basic reaction as a human being to maintain his humanity.
In so doing he would avoid stunting his emotional growth and his stature as a human being. By identifying with his own race, a writer can proceed to that greater and more meaningful identification based on his humanity thus qualifying him to handle “racial” material.
“If We Must Die” immediately won popularity among Afroamericans, but the tone of the Negro critics was apologetic. To them a poem that voiced the deep-rooted instinct of self-preservation seemed merely a daring piece of impertinence. William S Braithwaite whom McKay described as the dean of Negro critics denounced him as a “violent and angry propagandist using his poetic gifts to clothe [arrogant] and defiant thoughts.” Whilst another disciple characterized him as “rebellious and vituperative.”
McKay goes on to point out the lapses and failings in respectable Negro opinion and criticism. This in turn brings in distortions and evasions in their representation and interpretation of the social realities informing the texts.
This brought about the apparent ambivalence in his love-hate relationship with America. Having had no illusions about America and the experience of its Negroes, he could at the same time pay her the tribute she deserved: one reflecting both its appeal as well as its bitter dejection. which he still endures as a necessary test of his resilience. In paying her this tribute he triumphs through his successful resistance to the threat of spiritual corrosion America’s ‘hate’ threatens to start within him. He could thus “stand within her walls with not a shred / Of terror, malice, not a word of fear.” Or as in “Through Agony,” he refuses to meet hate with hate. McKay thus continued his admiration for America despite the pain which she caused.
McKay sees not only the violence done to his own people, but that which the whites inflict on themselves as well. McKay is touched by misery: in “The Castaway” where, standing in a beautiful park, he is attracted not by the visible delights of nature but by “the castaways of earth,” the lonely and derelict, and turns away in misery. And it is mot clear and does not matter if they are black or white. In “Rest in Peace” his tender heart responds to the suffering of his people as he bids farewell to a departed friend.
McKay meets America’s challenge as man and poet. He meets the challenge which America’s hate sets for his humanity, and in his resistance he flings back his challenge to the forces of hate in “America.” As poet and man he enforces self-discipline which gives to his pain a dignity through which his verse sometimes transcends racial protest and becomes human protest.
McKay’s poetry certainly reflected another aspect of Negro reaction. This reaction is a new consciousness of the African connection following Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa” appeal. Intellectual Negro poetry was thus moving nearer to Africa spiritually. Garvey’s call for a black man’s religion was paralleled in sophisticated verse, So was his insistence on the past glories of the Negro race. So was the new pride he encouraged in Negro beauty and indeed in everything black, ideas of which he sometimes put into rather indifferent verse romanticizing Africa. McKay does the same in poems like “Harlem Shadows.”
When McKay arrived in America he enrolled in Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute with the intent to study agriculture disrupted his studies at Tuskegee Institute after only two months there and out of frustration. He enrolled at Kansas State College where he remained until 1914. Then after two years he resumed his career as a writer. He then went to new York where like Hughes he landed in Harlem. Whilst familiarizing himself with the literary scene in New York, he supported himself as a waiter and a porter from 1915 to 1918. His first break came in 1917 when Waldo Frank, a Jewish radical novelist and cultural critic published two of his sonnets “The Harlem Dancer” and “Invocation” in the December issue of The Seven Arts, a highly respected avant-garde magazine.
Between 1918 and 1919, McKay went abroad, visited England and lived in London for more than a year. There he compiled Spring in New Hampshire and Other Poems (1920). In 1919, on his return to New York, McKay joined the staff of Liberator magazine as associate editor and continued in that position until 1922, a period in which Max Eastman was then the editor. In 1922, McKay completed Harlem Shadows, a work of poetry considered a landmark of the Harlem Renaissance .
Short- story writer Frank Harris who published several of McKay’s poems in Pearson’s seems also to have made a major impression on the young poet. Unlike later black writers, McKay did not rely primarily on such periodicals as the Crisis and Opportunity as outlets for his verse. Though he wrote for black magazines occasionally, his literary ties were mostly with white publications, particularly with the leftist magazines based in Greenwich Village. Indeed, Max Eastman, the dean of the American literary left in the early twentieth century, published McKay’s “The Dominant White” in the April 1919 issue of The Liberator and nine more of his poems in the July issue. McKay later served as Eastman’s editorial staff contributing essays and reviews as well as poetry. He also befriended the famous white American poet Edward Arlington Robinson.
In 1919, he met George Bernard Shaw the British playwright whilst visiting England. G.K Ogden included nearly two dozen of McKay’s poems in the summer 1920 issue of Cambridge Magazine. I.A. Richards, one of the foremost English literary critics of the twentieth century, wrote the preface for McKay’s third book of verse, Spring in New Hampshire. According to Richards, McKay’s was among the best works being produced in Great Britain then.
On his return to the US, McKay continued to work for and contribute to a number of publications including that of his fellow Jamaican, Marcus Garvey, Negro World. The next year in 1922, he published his most important poetry collection, Harlem Shadows, thus virtually inaugurating the Harlem Renaissance. That book was a means through which he could place the militant “If We Must Die” inside of a book. This sonnet inspired by the racial violence that racked America in 1919 interpreted as a war-like cry by black radicals later served as one of the unofficial rallying cries of the Allied Forces in World War II, particularly after being recited in an emotionally charged speech before the House of Commons in response to Nazi Germany’s threat of invasion during World War II. Harlem Shadows marked a point of no return for several literary figures in Harlem who saw in McKay’s masterful treatment of racial issues evidence that a black writer’s insights into matters of race could serve on more than on occasional basis as suitable subjects for poetry.
That same year McKay visited the USSR. For being active in the social justice movement, McKay had become a Communist, believing that communism offered his cause greater hope. In 1923, in Moscow McKay addressed the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, as a black poet sympathetic to the Soviet cause. He achieved instant popularity among the proletariat as well as with Communist Party officials of the USSR. He was introduced to the Soviet leaders and had his poem “Petrograd May Day, 1923” published in translation in Pravda. Nevertheless, dismayed by the rigid ideological requirements of the Communist Party concerning all artistic productions, and perhaps a little tired of being treated as a novelty, and having to subjugate his art to political propaganda.
McKay traveled extensively abroad. After visits to Berlin and Paris, he settled down in France for a decade. He, however, remained in contact with the expatriate community of American writers.
Whilst in France his first novel Home to Harlem was produced in 1928 and work on his second Banjo was started. This last novel was completed during his travels in Spain and Morocco in 1929.
In these two novels of the 1920s McKay investigated how the concepts of race and class worked in a world dominated by capitalism and colonialism, and how cosmopolitan and rural black communities can be reconciled to each other.
Home to Harlem. the first bestseller novel by an African-American that won the Harmon Gold Award for Literature was reprinted five times in two months. It was more commercially successful than any novel by an African American author to that point. For it satisfied a consuming curiosity among Americans for information about the nightlife and the lowlife of Harlem. The novel examines two characters who literally take the reader on a tour of Harlem. Jake, an African American longshoreman, a hedonist, and a World War 1 veteran, deserts the army and returns to his beloved Harlem where he falls in love with a whore after she affectionately and surreptitiously returns the money he has paid her.
Through Jake we are introduced to Ray, a Haitian intellectual expatriate who worries constantly and feels isolated from the African American community as a result of his European education. He thus envies Jake who is more spontaneous and direct. As for Ray, his own desire to become a writer interferes with his enjoyment of life. The stern W.E.B. Du Bois was caustic in denouncing McKay’s presentation of Harlem, declaring that the book “for the most part nauseates me, and after the dirtier parts of its filth, I feel distinctly like taking a bath.” In response, McKay accused Du Bois of failing to make the proper distinction “between the task of propaganda and the work of art.”
Ray appears again in Banjo with another “natural” black character, the African American musician Lincoln Agrippa Daily. Set in the old French port of Marseilles, this second novel of McKay features a shifting group of black longshoremen sailors and drifters from Africa. As in his first, McKay articulates the need for the exiled black intellectual to return to his common black folks.
McKay’s third novel, Banana Bottom regarded generally as his finest fictional achievement takes the theme of the two previous novels even further. It depicts also a black individual in white western culture juxtaposing two opposing value systems – Anglo-Saxon civilization versus Jamaican folk culture. It tells the story of a Jamaican peasant girl, Bita Plant, who is rescued by white missionaries after being raped. In taking refuge with her new protectors she also becomes their prisoner with all their cultural values being foisted upon her and her introduction to their organized Christian educational system.
All this culminates in a bungled attempt to arrange her marriage to an aspiring priest. But Bita escapes from him as he attempts to rape her. But later overcoming the memory of rape she returns to the people in their native town of Jubilee where she eventually finds happiness – fulfillment. She ends up thus rejecting European culture and the Jamaican elite, choosing to rejoin the farming folk. This novel did not make much of an impression on the reading public then.
After twelve years wandering through Europe and North Africa, McKay returned to Harlem. Three years later in 1937 he completed his autobiography, A Long Way from Home, in a futile attempt to bolster his financial and literary fortunes. His interest in Roman Catholicism which was growing significantly during the 1940s after his repudiation of communism and officially joined the church in 1944. Though he wrote much new poetry then, he failed to publish any, a failure he blamed on the Communist Party in the U.S. ). His final work Selected Poems (1953) was published posthumously.
From 1932 until his death in Chicago 1948, McKay never left the United States. His interest in communism dwindled, according to Sister Mary Anthony: he had caught some of the spirit of that Catholic apostolate. And gradually he came to realize for himself that in Catholicism lay the hope of the race, indeed, of all the races. He was received into the Church in Chicago in October, 1944, by Bishop Bernard Sheil and is now on the staff of the Bishop Sheil School in that city.
By the mid 1940s McKay’s health had deteriorated and after enduring several illnesses, he died of heart failure in Chicago in 1948.
McKay’s work as a poet, novelist, and essayist has been widely seen as heralding several of the most significant moments in African American culture. His protest poetry was seen by many as the premier example of the “New Negro” spirit. His novels were sophisticated considerations of the problems and possibilities of Pan-Africanism at the end of the colonial era, influencing writers of African descent throughout the world. His early poetry in Jamaican patois and his fiction set in Jamaica are now seen as crucial to the development of a national Jamaican literature.