Claude McKay (1889-1948)
A seminal figure in the Harlem Renaissance, the poet and author wrote three novels: Home to Harlem (1928), a best-seller which won the Harmon Gold Award for Literature, Banjo (1929), and Banana Bottom (1933).
Born in 1889 in James Hill, Clarendon, Claude McKay was an internationally acclaimed writer and poet. He was apprenticed to a cabinetmaker and wheelwright in Browns Town, St. Ann after completing elementary school. In 1910, he relocated to Kingston and briefly joined the constabulary force.
In the earliest days of his career as a poet, McKay was encouraged by Walter Jekyll, an English man, to write more poems in dialect than in Standard English. This advice would be proved sound when in 1912, a London publishing house produced McKay’s first volumes of poems, written in dialect – Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads – for which he was awarded the Silver Musgrave Medal of the Institute of Jamaica. McKay used the award money received from the IOJ to relocate to the United States. He studied at the Tuskegee Institute, later renamed the Tuskegee University, for six months and the Kansas State College for two years. In 1914, he moved to New York City, settling in Harlem where he became one of the leading writers of the Harlem Negro Renaissance.
McKay’s second collection of poems was published in 1917 under the pseudonym Eli Edwards. Additional poems were printed in Pearson’s Magazine and the radical magazineLiberator. The poems in the Liberator had included If We Must Die, which warned of retaliation in response to racial prejudice and abuse and the race riots of 1919, it quickly became McKay’s best-known work. Later that year, he left the United States for two years of European travel and in 1920, published a new collection of poems, Spring in New Hampshire, which included, Harlem Shadows.
Returning to the United States in 1921, McKay became embroiled in a variety of social and political causes. He collaborated with the Universal Negro Improvement Association and maintained his intellectual interest in Communist journalism which included a trip to the Soviet Union for the Communist Party’s Fourth Congress as an unofficial observer. He left Russia in 1923 but did not return to the United States until 1937, ultimately spending 11 professionally rewarding years in Europe and North Africa where he wrote three novels—Home to Harlem, Banjo and Banana Bottom—as well as a short story collection. Home to Harlem was the most popular of the three, though all were critically acclaimed. The books were published in the United States but written in France, Germany, Spain and North Africa.
Home to Harlem was attacked by the Black community for presenting too many issues of a disreputable nature about that social group. The story abounds with characters who are stevedores, railway workers, waiters, prostitutes, pimps, homosexuals, brothels, fornication, adultery, venereal disease, drugs, brawls, laughter, sensual dancers, soul food, blues rhythms, the soulful music of the ghetto – it did not paint the Harlem of the Negro elite but rather its working class members. The book angered Harlem’s prominent citizens, including Marcus Garvey who called on black authors to advance the race through healthy and decent literature. And WEB Dubois accused McKay of buckling to the White community’s demands for Negroes to be characterized as depraved.
Back in Harlem in 1937, McKay worked on his autobiography, A Long Way from Home, which explored his experiences of living as an oppressed minority and raised arguments for a broad movement against colonialism and segregation. The book was criticized for its overt observations as McKay explored his most controversial interests and beliefs. In addition, his denials of having joined the Communist Party, notwithstanding his having made several trips to the Soviet Union became an issue of conflict.
McKay went through several changes toward the end of his life. He embraced Catholicism, retreated from Communism entirely, and officially became an American citizen in 1940. His experiences working with Catholic relief organizations in New York inspired a new essay collection, Harlem: Negro Metropolis, which explored his observations and analysis of the African-American community in Harlem at that time. McKay died of a heart attack in Chicago, Illinois, on May 22, 1948 and was buried in New York.
In 1977 the Jamaican Government on behalf of the people of Jamaica posthumously awarded Claude McKay the Order of Jamaica in respect and admiration for his great contribution to literature. In 2012, a researcher discovered an unpublished Claude McKay novel, Amiable with Big Teeth, in the Columbia University archives.
Jamaica Information Service http://jis.gov.jm/search/claude+mckay
Jamaica National Heritage Trust http://www.jnht.com/site_claude_mckays_birthplace.php
Morris, Mervyn. Contending Values – The Prose Fiction of Claude McKay. Jamaica Journal: Vol. 9: 2&3 (1975).