Biography of Claude McKay

One of the crucial black writers of the early twentieth century, Claude McKay lived a complicated life in which the only real constant, as he himself put it in 1937, was that he was "a troubadour wanderer, nourishing myself mainly on the poetry of existence." He is best-known today as a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, and indeed James Weldon Johnson declared that "Claude McKay's poetry was one of the great forces in bringing about what is often called the 'Negro Literary Renaissance," even calling McKay's Harlem Shadows (1922) its "first fruit." Yet as a Jamaican-born immigrant who was not only significantly older that most of his Harlem Renaissance contemporaries but also spent most of the 1920s abroad, McKay also differed significantly from many of the writers in that movement. Often he disagreed outright with figures of the black intelligentsia and black middle class, who disliked his frank depictions of Harlem night life and the black lower classes; McKay claimed in response that he understood the black masses better than they did. In fact, while throughout his life McKay adopted several different "-isms"—including rationalism/agnosticism, Marxism, and Catholicism—his fundamental sympathies always lay with the oppressed, the downtrodden, and what he called the "peasant" class—and any movement that would labor to improve their lot.

Born Festus Claudius McKay in Jamaica in 1889 (though many sources say 1890), McKay was one of the first major poets to use Jamaican English as an effective voice for poetry, and he was posthumously declared Jamaica's national poet. McKay's family was relatively well-off, and McKay reported to James Weldon Johnson in a letter that “in my village, I grew up on equal terms with white, mulatto and black children of every race because my father was a big peasant and belonged. The difference on the island is economic, not social.” The youngest of 11 children, McKay spent his first 7 years living with his parents before leaving to live with his brother in order to further his education. His brother introduced him to "free thinkers," Shakespeare, and Victorian literature, and McKay received a colonial British education. During this time he began to write poetry, and in 1907 he met Walter Jekyll, a white British man living in Jamaica who would become a crucial mentor. With Jekyll's encouragement, McKay began to write Jamaican dialect verse, publishing two volumes in 1912: Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads. While formerly eclipsed by McKay's sonnets and poems about race relations in America, these volumes have recently been recognized as significant contributions to early modernist writing.

McKay emigrated to the United States in 1912, initially to study at the Tuskegee Institute. He soon left to spend two years at Kansas State College before moving to Harlem in 1914, where he worked odd jobs to support himself. He married his childhood sweetheart from Jamaica, Eulalie Imelda Lewars, but the marriage failed, and she went back to Jamaica. McKay stayed, publishing poems under the name "Eli Edwards" in 1917. In 1919 McKay published his most famous poem, "If We Must Die," in the socialist magazine The Liberator, where he would later become an editor.He lived in Europe from 1919 to 1921, publishing a book of poems called Spring in New Hampshire in England in 1920. Interested in the Russian Revolution and committed to Marxism, he visited Soviet Russia in 1922-23, where he participated in the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, met with Soviet leaders and literary figures, toured Soviet military bases, and wrote for the Soviet press. He published his first novel, the successful Home to Harlem, in 1928, followed by his other novels Banjo (1929) and Banana Bottom (1933) as well as the short story collection Gingertown (1932). After living in France and Morocco during most of the 1920s and early 1930s, financial difficulties brought him back to the U.S. in 1934.

McKay spent the rest of his life in America, becoming a citizen in 1940, and he continued to publish essays and articles as well as an autobiography, A Long Way from Home (1937), and a nonfiction book on Harlem, Harlem: Negro Metropolis (1940). In his later years, he repudiated communism and became increasingly interested in Catholicism, viewing the Catholic Church as one of the few organizations actually sympathetic to "ordinary mortals, workers and peasants." Recognizing the importance of religion in black life, and seeing in Catholicism a sense of tradition and a connection to the past, he surprised many by officially converting. In 1944 he left New York for Chicago, where he died of heart failure in 1948, spending his last years in poverty teaching at a Catholic youth organization. My Green Hills of Jamaica, his second autobiography, was published posthumously in 1978, and in 2009 a previously-unknown manuscript of McKay's entitled "Amiable With Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem" came to light.

All of these tensions, beauties, and complexities of McKay's life are ultimately present in his work, which often focuses on his perennial themes of exile, race relations, romance, urban life, religion, and nature. While much of his poetry proceeds from English models, McKay is able to infuse new significance into these models by exploiting tensions between form and content or by subverting their original cultural functions. In a poem like "Outcast," for instance, McKay's reference to "my spirit, bondaged by my body" recalls the poetic tradition of the "dialogue between self and body" but gives it new political content in the context of slavery and racial dispossession. In fact, scholars have pointed out that one of the central and crucial features of McKay's work is its insistence on thinking about racism, capitalism, and sexuality in tandem. At the same time, though, McKay coupled this emphasis with a resistance to any notion of art as mere propaganda, writing to W.E.B. DuBois that "nowhere in your writings do you reveal any comprehension of esthetics and therefore you are not competent nor qualified to pass judgment on any work of art." With his ability to make art that addressed some of the most important issues of his (and our) time, McKay has proven not only an important influence on later black literature but a significant figure across multiple periods, schools, and genres whose work remains essential reading today.


Study Guides on Works by Claude McKay

First published in The Liberator in 1921, "America" is Jamaican-born poet Claude McKay's powerful reflection on both the attraction and the antagonism he felt toward the nation in which he spent much of his adult life. Written while McKay was...

Home to Harlem (1928) is author Claude McKay's first published novel. It tells the story of young Jake Brown, the protagonist of the novel, after he deserts the United States Army and heads off to London and a writer who immigrates to Haiti after...

"If We Must Die" is writer Claude McKay's most famous poem, showing his deft use of the form most associated with his work, the sonnet. McKay composed the poem in response to the outburst of racial violence in the summer of 1919, dubbed "The Red...

First published in 1920, Claude McKay's "The Lynching" stands as a powerful condemnation of one of the most horrific chapters of American history. A form of unlawful killing carried out by mobs, lynchings increased in the years after...