Festus Claudius McKay|
September 15, 1889
Clarendon Parish, Jamaica
May 22, 1948 (aged 58)|
|Occupation||Writer, poet, journalist|
|Education||Kansas State College, Tuskegee Institute (now known as Tuskegee University)|
|Notable works||Home to Harlem|
|Notable awards||Harmon Gold Award|
Festus Claudius "Claude" McKay (September 15, 1889 - May 22, 1948) was a Jamaican 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With Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem which remained unpublished until 2017. McKay also 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 among the first books published during 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. However, some scholars dispute that claim, 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 very favorably. He gradually became disillusioned with communism, however, and by the mid-1930s had begun to write negatively about it. By the late 1930s his anti-Stalinism isolated him from other Harlem intellectuals, and by 1942 he converted to Catholicism and left Harlem, and he worked for a Catholic organization until his death.
Festus Claudius McKay, known as Claude McKay, was born September 15, 1889 or 1890 in Nairne Castle near James Hill in upper Clarendon Parish, Jamaica. McKay referred to his home village as Sunny Ville, a name given to the area by locals. He was the youngest child of Thomas Francis McKay and Hannah Ann Elizabeth Edwards, well-to-do farmers who had enough property to qualify to vote. His parents were also active and well-respected members of the Baptist faith. Thomas was a strict, religious man who struggled to develop close relationships with his children due to his serious nature. In contrast, Hannah had a warmth that allowed her to give love freely to all of her children. Thomas was of Ashanti descent, while Hannah traced her ancestry to Madagascar. Claude recounted that his father would often share stories of Ashanti customs with the family.
At the age of four, McKay went to school at Mt. Zion Church. Around the age of nine, he was sent to live with his oldest brother, Uriah Theodore, also known as U'Theo, a teacher, to be given a proper education. Due to his brother's influence, McKay became an avid reader of classical and British literature, as well as philosophy, science and theology. At the age of 10, McKay started writing poetry.
As a teenager in 1906, McKay became apprenticed to a carriage and cabinet maker known as Old Brenga, maintaining his apprenticeship for about two years. During that time, in 1907, McKay met a man named Walter Jekyll, who became a mentor and an inspiration for him, who also encouraged him to concentrate on his writing. Jekyll convinced McKay to write in his native dialect, and then set some 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.
Claude McKay's poem "The Tropics in New York" highlights his memory of the Caribbean. The poem takes place in New York, where he worked as a labor worker. The fruits in New York causes the speaker of the poem to feel nostalgic. The poem describes the many Caribbean fruits integrated into the New York "cityscape," such as,"alligator pears, mangoes, and tangerines". The color of the fruits remind him of the colors and the diversity in Jamaica. He incorporates figurative language in order to; explain his longing for old ways. For example, the speaker describes how he is "hungry for old familiar ways/ a wave of longing through my body wept". He reminiscences on his life back home in Jamaica, which explains why he identifies with the many fruits sold on the New York city streets.
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 many public facilities were segregated; this inspired him to write more poetry. At Tuskegee, he disliked the "semi-military, machine-like existence there" and quickly 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 despite superior academic performance, in 1914 McKay decided he did not want to be an agronomist and moved to New York City, 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", during 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 during World War II.
In this period McKay joined the Industrial Workers of the World. He also 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 other Caribbean writers such as Cyril Briggs, Richard B. Moore, and Wilfred 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.
In 1919, McKay arrived in London, where he would frequent two clubs, a soldier's club in Drury Lane, and the International Socialist Club in Shoreditch. A militant atheist, he also joined the Rationalist Press Association. It was during 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 was 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. Lansbury refused to print McKay's response. This response then appeared in Workers' Dreadnought. In response to the "Black Horror on the Rhine" stories that the Daily Herald was running, McKay wrote:
Why this obscene maniacal outburst about the sex vitality of black men in a proletarian paper?" Rape is rape; the colour of the skin doesn't make it different. Negroes are no more over-sexed than Caucasians; mulatto children in the West Indies and America were not the result of parthenogenesis. If Negro troops had syphilis, they contracted it from the white and yellow races. As for German women, in their economic plight they were selling themselves to anyone. I do not protest because I happen to be a Negro ... I write because I feel that the ultimate result of your propaganda will be further strife and blood-spilling between whites and the many members of my race ... who have been dumped down on the English docks since the ending of the European war ... Bourbons of the United States will thank you, and the proletarian underworld of London will certainly gloat over the scoop of the Christian-Socialist pacifist Daily Herald.
Since January 1920, McKay 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; some people claim he was the first black journalist in Britain. He attended the Communist Unity Conference that established the Communist Party of Great Britain. At this time he also had some of his poetry published in the Cambridge Magazine, edited by C. K. Ogden.
When Sylvia Pankhurst was arrested under the Defence of the Realm Act for publishing articles "calculated and likely to cause sedition among His Majesty's forces, in the Navy, and among 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.
When Russia was under the rule of communists led by Lenin he was invited to Russia during the reconstruction of the country. In November 1922, in what he referred to as his "Magic Pilgrimage," he traveled to Russia with Max Eastman to take part in the Fourth Congress of the Communist International in Petrograd and Moscow. McKay financed his trip to Russia by repackaging and selling Harlem Shadows, "complete with a signed photograph and an inflated price tag" to members of an NAACP donor list. He was greeted in Russia with an "ecstatic welcome" and "rock-star treatment." 
McKay wrote about his travels in Morocco in his autobiography A Long Way from Home.
Claude McKay was a poet who flourished during the Harlem Renaissance, a major literary movement in the 1920s. During this time, McKay's poems challenged white authority while celebrating Jamaican culture. He also wrote tales about the trials and tribulations of life as a black man in both Jamaica and America. McKay was not secretive about his hatred for racism and felt that racist people were stupid and could not look past their shortsightedness and hatred. In tales such as Home to Harlem, McKay depicts a culture in Harlem that is full of drug use, prostitution, and a variety of sexual encounters. His depiction was criticized as a negative portrayal of Harlem and its lower-class citizens by prominent figures such as W. E. B. DuBois, but was later applauded as a literary force in the Harlem Renaissance. McKay's poetry brought awareness to the racist treatment that many black individuals faced.
One of his works that challenges racial discrimination in the Harlem Renaissance is his poem If We Must Die. It looks to defend black rights and threatens for prejudice and abuse. He wanted his people to fight with determination and courage to those who would murder them. It calls to any race or anyone being discriminated against to fight for their freedom and what's right. What influenced him to write this poem was the clash between white and African Americans. Claude Mckay was afraid of the dangers that were happening all over the United States. The hangings, the shootings, the murders. Working as a porter on the railways, he would go from town to town not knowing what to expect. Some nights he would stay indoors because of the fear of danger going on outside. The creation of this poem had pushed him to become one of the most influential spokesman that promoted radicalism in America.
Claude McKay divested himself from many aspects and growing prescriptions of modernism. McKay paved a path of his own as a modernist in two ways. By the beginning of the 20th century, the sonnet form had become an antiquated poetic style, but McKay found it an ideal a medium to convey his ideas. Many modernists, however, rejected and criticized his use of the sonnet. Despite their reaction, he persevered and created a significant number of modern sonnets.
Having spent time amongst the artists of Paris in the 1920s, McKay was intimately acquainted with the dynamics between painters and models and the manner in which modernist painters presented African subjects and African culture. In her article, "Caribbean Models for Modernism in the Work of Claude McKay and Jean Rhys," Leah Rosenberg writes, "The fascination with African art and its identification with female sexuality was characteristic of modernist and avant-garde primitivism". The inclination to stereotype and caricatures the African physical form created, however inadvertently, a form of hegemony reminiscent to McKay of the colonialism he grew up with in Jamaica. "Sexuality and black culture," Rosenberg explains, "held a privileged place in modernist and avant-garde art from Picasso to Gertrude Stein". In need of money, McKay posed nude for the Cubist painter Andre Lhote. Through his experience, McKay saw first-hand how the larger social hegemony between European white supremacy and people of Afro-Caribbean descent could play itself out between the artist and its subject. McKay critically recalled the experience in various ways in many of his most notable works. In doing so, he shined a critical light on a cornerstone of modernism and once again pushed back against a system in which he found himself.
McKay joined the Industrial Workers of the World in autumn 1919, whilst working in factory following his time working as a dining car waiter on the railways. According to McKay's autobiographies A Long Way From Home and My Green Hills of Jamaica, he claimed the black intellectual was drawn to the Communist party because it offered independence. McKay believed that the Communists in the US had other things on their agenda, and the African Americans were not part of that at all. He also thought that they were using the Negro race to fight their battles. Because of his thoughts on communism in America, he sought out help from Russia. He addressed the Communists in Russia with his speech "Report on the Negro Question" and argued that America was not fully accepting of the Negro Communists.
After his speech, he was asked by the Communist Party in Russia to explore this idea more in the form of a book. He wrote Negry v Amerike in 1923. He wrote this in Russian, and it was not translated into English until 1979. Later in life, he came to the conclusion that the Communist Party suppressed the idea of individuality and independent thought.[dubious ] Before coming back to America, he denounced the Communist thoughts[dubious ] and looked for other areas to meet his needs.
It is widely assumed that McKay was bisexual, as he pursued relationships with both men and women throughout his life. He particularly enjoyed the simultaneous secrecy of New York City; he never officially "came out" nor explicitly stated his sexual preference, but he was able to enter the "clandestine" homosexual communities of New York and find acceptance within them. Despite never having confirmed his sexuality, homosexual sentiments are clear in several of his poems. In others, the gender of the speaker is not identified, which leaves to interpretation the nature of the relationships presented in said works.
Some key evidence that could support the idea of Claude Mckay being bisexual could be his relationship with Walter Jekyll. Some say that it may have been a homosexual relationship between a younger man seduced by an older man. According to Josephine Herbst, she claims that he was bisexual and that she could personally attest that she received syphilis from him during their relationship. However, in his works, nothing provides key evidence to support this idea. During his life, Mckay was attracted to several men like Max Eastman from the Liberator, Frank Harris, who was an editor for Pearson's Magazine, and Bishop Henry Sheil who worked for the Catholic Church. Walter Jekyll's influence on Mckay resulted in a combination of social implications.
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 sometimes 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 among the common people for a distinctive black identity.
Despite this, the book drew fire from one of McKay's contemporaries, 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 other 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 centers 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 also 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 1943, before his death, one year before his conversion into Catholicism, McKay started "Cycle Manuscript", it was a collection of 44 poems, most of it being sonnets. In addition, McKay wrote a letter to Max Eastman, editor of the socialist journal The Liberator, Harlem Renaissance leader, and McKay's close friend, asking Eastman "to look through" all the poems and to make any needed "revisions". Despite Eastman's revisions, McKay's collection would never be published. The "Cycle Manuscript" remains to be a typescript at the Beinecke Library at Yale University, as the "Cycle Manuscript" is an important document that illustrates the reflections of an emotional poet who was seeking self-actualization at his point of his life.
Becoming disillusioned with communism, McKay embraced the social teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, to which he converted in 1944. He died from a heart attack in Chicago at the age of 58 and is buried at Calvary Cemetery (Queens, New York).
Toward the end of McKay's life, McKay embraced Catholicism, retreating from Communism entirely. His sudden conversion into Catholicism puzzled many for over half a century. When McKay converted into Catholicism in his final years, he was perceived to be suffering from poverty, health problems, and political and social exclusion by his own beloved Harlem. Before his actual conversion, he wrote to long-time friend and mentor, Max Eastman, about "doing a lot of reading and research, especially on Catholic work among Negroes----Because if and when I take the step I want to be intellectually honest and sincere about it".(McKay to Eastman, June 1, 1944). Five months later, when McKay was baptized into the Holy Roman Catholic Church, he wrote to Eastman to assure him that "I am not less the fighter" for doing so (McKay to Eastman, October 16, 1944, Rpt. in Passion 305)".
In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Claude McKay on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans. McKay 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.
Claude McKay's poem "If We Must Die" was recited in the film August 28: A Day in the Life of a People, which debuted at the opening of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2016.
A previously unknown manuscript of a 1941 novel by McKay was authenticated in 2012. The manuscript, Amiable With Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem, was discovered by Columbia graduate student Jean-Christophe Cloutier in the Samuel Roth Papers, a previously untouched university archive at Columbia University, in 2009. The novel centers on the ideas and events that animated Harlem on the cusp of World War II (such as Benito Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia). Working in collaboration, Professor Cloutier (now at the University of Pennsylvania) and his advisor Professor Brent Hayes Edwards successfully authenticated the manuscript, and have received permission from the McKay estate to publish the novel, a satire set in 1936, with an introduction about how it was found and its provenance verified.