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. (See Alex Thompson's short contextual essays on "If We Must Die" written for this site: here, here, and here)
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 contribution to the Harlem Renaissance movement is a bit more complex than is often acknowledged. For one thing, 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. In 1923 to 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. McKay's international perspective does not take away from his ability to comment on matters of race and the emerging black aesthetics of his peers, but it does suggest he had a somewhat oblique relationship to some of the themes and ideas so central to writers like Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, or Nella Larsen.
McKay's outsider status as a Jamaican immigrant also suggested another important difference from other African American writers. Although he eventually became an American citizen, for most of his writing career, McKay was a British subject because of his birth in the British colony of Jamaica. His experience of racism was different from that of African Americans raised in the Jim Crow era in the United States. McKay grew up in an almost entirely black social milieu that did not have the kind of systematic racial segregation and oppression that was dominant in the United States at that time. McKay certainly experienced racism in Jamaica, but it was not the institutionalized racism of the United States in the early twentieth century.
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. 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.
“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.