African American Poetry (1870-1926): A Digital Anthology

Claude McKay: Biography and Links to Full Text Collections

The following text is contributed by Heather Simoneau, with edits and contributions from Amardeep Singh

Claude McKay was an early twentieth-century author of poetry, essays, novels, and short stories. One of the pioneering figures of the literary and artistic movement known as the Harlem Renaissance, he has historically been best known for his poem, "If We Must Die," which first appeared in July 1919 in the Liberator in response to the racialized violence of the "Red Summer" of that tumultuous year. 

Born Festus Claudius McKay on September 15, 1889 in Sunny Ville, Jamaica, McKay was one of eleven children. His parents were prominent farmers in Jamaica. His elder brother, Uriah Theophilus, was a teacher, from whom Claude received much of his education as a youth. In 1912, after winning a local award for his poetry, McKay moved to the U.S. to study agriculture at the Tuskegee Institute with a plan to work in his family’s farming business. Unhappy with the racial climate at Tuskegee, McKay transferred to Kansas State College, but abandoned his studies in agriculture after a year to move to New York. In 1914, he briefly married Eulalie Imelda Lewars, with whom he had a daughter. After his marriage ended, McKay stayed in New York and worked a series of menial jobs while steadily resuming his commitment to writing poetry. McKay began publishing poetry again in 1916, in various American little magazines. He began to publish more frequently beginning in 1919, benefiting from relationships with established editors like Max Eastman. 

McKay's first poetry published in the U.S. was in Seven Arts, a modernist "little magazine." There, in October 1917, under the pseudonym Eli Edwards, McKay published two sonnets, "Invocation," and "The Harlem Dancer." McKay also started publishing poetry in The Liberator Magazine, a Marxist magazine. In July 1919, McKay published several important poems in The Liberator, including "If We Must Die," "A Roman Holiday," "A Capitalist at Dinner," "The Barrier," and "Negro Dancers." While in England, McKay worked for the Marxist magazine Workers Dreadnought; he also cultivated a relationship with the British editor C.K. Ogden, through whom he was able to publish a sizeable collection of poetry in Cambridge Magazine. This collection became the starting point for McKay's first new book of poetry since leaving Jamaica, Spring in New Hampshire (1920). Spring in New Hampshire was published in England only. Later, McKay would use many of the poems in that collection when he published Harlem Shadows in New York in 1922. 

McKay spent much of the 1920s—the peak decade of the Harlem Renaissance—not actually living in Harlem, or even New York City. From 1919-1921, McKay was in London, writing for the Marxist publication, Workers Dreadnought. After that magazine was dissolved by British authorities, leading to the arrest of several contributors, McKay returned to New York and lived there between and 1921 and early 1923. McKay then visited the Soviet Union, and met with leaders of the Communist Party (some of his meetings were documented in The Crisis). Between 1923 and 1934, McKay travelled through Europe, Russia, and northern Africa while concentrating on his fiction writing; he wrote many of his well-known novels in the 1920s (including Home to Harlem) while living in France. 

Through the late 1910s to the mid-1920s, McKay was actively involved with the Communist Party. This too marked him as different from many of his peers in the Harlem Renaissance—most of whom emphasized racial uplift more than class warfare (a notable exception was of course Langston Hughes, who was involved with the Communist party in the early 1930s). According to Gene Andrew Jarrett, the editor of McKay's autobiography, A Long Way From Home, McKay believed that the Harlem Renaissance lacked class consciousness, effective political mobilization, and was subject to weak leadership (xviii). McKay's frustration with the rest of the movement’s political activity kept him from being as integrated in the Harlem Renaissance as the other writers and artists of the movement.

Later in life, McKay lived in Chicago. His political commitments were considerably softened in the 1930s (he renounced Communism). Notably, McKay converted to Catholicism in 1942. Claude McKay died May 22, 1948 in Chicago of heart failure. After his funeral that was held in Harlem, McKay was buried in New York.

References

“CLAUDE M’KAY, AUTHOR AND POET.” New York Times (1923-Current file): 19. May 24 1948. ProQuest. Web. 6 Oct. 2015.

McKay, Claude. A Long Way from Home. Ed. Gene Andrew Jarrett. New Brunswick, NJ, USA: Rutgers University Press, 2007.  ProQuest ebrary. Web. 5 October 2015.

McLeod, Alan L. “Festus Claudius McKay.” Twentieth-Century Caribbean and Black African Writers: First Series. Ed. Bernth Lindfors and Reinhard Sander. Detroit: Gale, 1992. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 117. Literature Resource Center. Web. 6 Oct. 2015.

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