Born in Jamaica where he first published two collections of poem for juveniles, Claude McKay migrated to the U.S where he attended both Tuskegee Institute and Kansas State Univ. before becoming an essential and integral part of the Harlem Renaissance. In fact, the 1922 publication of his volume of poetry titled Harlem Shadows is almost universally defined by critics as the commencement of literary genius from the burgeoning school that would eventually become renowned worldwide as the Harlem Renaissance.
That the honor of being the first recognized work of literary greatness should go to Harlem Shadows seem only appropriate: the verse contained within present an evocative portrayal of what life was like in the black ghettos of New York. Six years later McKay would return to the cover the same territory in prose form with his novel Home to Harlem. The same New York. The same rundown neighborhoods. The same struggle. Only this time around, his evisceration of the struggle for blacks in white America would be the object of publication condemnation by W.E.B. Dubois.
Thus did Claude McKay build his reputation and the contribute mightily to the reputation of the Harlem Renaissance through poetry as well as prose that brought to life both the brittle daily existence for blacks in America and the iron will to transform alienation into rebellion. It would be a mistake, however, to situate McKay as merely a talented polemicist when he was also one of the finest composers of the simple love poem to come out of the Harlem Renaissance. The same man who could grit his teeth and write the ferocious lines “Although she feeds me bread of bitterness / And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth” in a poem of political protest was equally adept when it comes to the opening line of a tenderly erotic poem of romance: “The perfume of your body dulls my sense. / I want nor wine nor weed; your breath alone / Suffices.”
Although not nearly as well-known as Langston Hughes, Claude McKay is every bit his equal in writing the history of the poets of the Harlem Renaissance.