African American Poetry (1870-1927): A Digital Anthology

Claude McKay, Biographical Note, "Caroling Dusk" (1927)

"I was born in a very little village high up in the hills of the parish of Clarendon in the island of Jamaica. The village was so small it hadn't a name like the larger surrounding villages. But our place was called Sunny Ville. I was the youngest of eleven.

My father was a peasant proprietor who owned his land and cultivated large tracts of coffee, cocoa, bananas and sugar-cane. When I was of school age I was sent to my brother who was a schoolmaster in a small town in the Northwestern part of the island. He educated me. He was a free-thinker and I became one, too, so soon as I could think about life and religion. I was never a child of any church. My brother had a nice library with books of all sorts and I read such free-thought writers as Haeckel, Huxley, Matthew Arnold, side by side with Shakespeare and the great English novelists and poets (excepting Browning) before I was fourteen. At that time Shakespeare to me was only a wonderful story-teller.

When I was seventeen I won a Jamaica Government Trade Scholarship and was apprenticed to a cabinet-maker and wheelwright. I hated trade and quit. When I was nineteen I joined the Jamaica Constabulary and left it after ten months. An English gentleman who was collecting Jamaica folklore became interested in my dialect verses and helped me to publish my first book: Songs of Jamaica, in 1911. I was twenty years old then.

The next year I went to the United States. First to an educational insti- tution for Negroes in the South. I did not like it, and left there after three months for a college in a Western state. There I stayed two years. Came to New York. Abandoned all thought of returning to the West Indies. Lost a few thousand dollars (a legacy) in high living and bad business. Went to work at various jobs, porter, houseman, longshoreman, bar-man, railroad club and hotel waiter. Kept on writing. The Seven Arts Magasine took two of my poems in 1917. In 1918 Frank Harris published some poems in Pearson's. In 1919 The Liberator published some things. The same year I went to Holland, Belgium and England. Lived in London over a year. Published Spring in New Hampshire. Returned to America in 1921. Got a job with Max Eastman on the Liberator. Kept it till Max Eastman left for Europe. Went to Russia in 1922. Harlem Shadows published 1922 by Harcourt, Brace & Co. Stayed six months in Moscow and Petrograd. Berlin in 1923. Paris at the end of 1923, where I was very ill for months. Been in France ever since trying to exist and write."

Published in Caroling Dusk1927