The timeline below gives a summary of McKay’s life and activities leading up to the publication of Harlem Shadows in 1922. The timeline emphasizes McKay’s publication history in the 1910s and early 1920s, including his contributions to magazines such as Pearson’s, Cambridge Magazine, Workers Dreadnought, and The Messenger.
1889: Claude McKay is born in Clarendon Parish, Jamaica.
1906-9. McKay passes the Jamaican government’s trade scholarship examination; works as apprentice craftsman in St. Ann’s Parish
1907 McKay meets Walter Jekyll, literary mentor and British folklorist, gay patron, and expatriate living in Jamaica
1912 While still in Jamaica, McKay publishes two books of poetry, Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads. In August, migrates to the United States. First enrolls at Tuskegee Institute to study agronomy.
1912 McKay drops out of Tuskegee; in October, transfers to Kansas State College.
1914 McKay drops out of Kansas State and moves to Harlem. Is briefly married to a Jamaican woman. She returns to Jamaica to give birth to their child.
1914-1918 World War I. McKay works several jobs; at a hotel in Hanover, NH; as a waiter in a New York women’s club; as a dining-car waiter on the Pennsylvania railroad.
1916 McKay sends several poems to William Stanley Braithwaite under the pseudonym Rhonda Hope. These remain unpublished during his lifetime, but the manuscripts survived and are accessible at Houghton library at Harvard University. They can also be found in William Maxwell’s The Complete Poetry of Claude McKay
October 1917 Publishes 2 sonnets in the modernist journal Seven Arts under a pseudonym (Eli Edwards). These can be accessed online in their original form at the Modernist Journals Project. (Poems are “Invocation” and “The Harlem Dancer”)
September 1918 Publishes 5 poems in Pearson’s Magazine, and also provides a substantial author’s note introducing himself to the readers’ of the magazine.
For more see here
Poems in Pearson’s include: “The White Fiends” “Is it Worth While?” “Harlem Shadows” “The Park in Spring” “The Conqueror.” “To the White Fiends” is republished in The Liberator in September 1919. Most of these poems (with the exception of “Harlem Shadows” of course) will not appear in Harlem Shadows.
April 1919: The Eastmans’ magazine, The Liberator, prints one of McKay’s poems, “The Dominant White” (not included in Harlem Shadows)
Spring 1919 McKay is invited by Crystal and Max Eastman to the offices of The Liberator. The Liberator will later publish “If We Must Die” in the July issue (along with 6 other poems).
July 1919. McKay publishes several important poems in The Liberator. The entirety of this issue has been scanned at Marxists.org and can be viewed here.
The other poems by McKay in the July issue are: “The Negro dancers” “The Barrier” (which deals with interracial desire), “After the Winters, “A Capitalist at Dinner” “The Little Peoples,” and “A Roman Holiday”). All of the poems except “A Capitalist at Dinner” deal with issues of race. Needless to say, it’s “If We Must Die” that’s had the most sizeable impact in terms of establishing Mckay’s reputation.
September 1919. The American black radical magazine The Messenger has a special issue on the summer race riots, and includes an approving editorial called “If We Must Die.” They also reprint McKay’s poem in this issue.
The Messenger also prints a new, political poem by McKay in this issue, “Labor’s Day,” elsewhere in the issue (p.31).
October 1919. McKay’s poem “J’Accuse” appears in The Messenger (an American black radical magazine) (thanks Chris Forster)
Autumn 1919. McKay travels to London. Cooper suggests “it was time for a change.” However, William Maxwell suggests McKay may have been trying to avoid being deported like Emma Goldman. Goldman’s deportation hearing was on October 27, 1920 and she was deported, along with 249 others rounded up in government raids, in November 1920.
December 1919. Poem “Soul and Body” appears in Pearson’s Magazine (does not appear in Harlem Shadows)
December 1919. Poem “Birds of Prey” appears in The Messenger
January 1920. Poems “Travail” and “Samson,” published in the British Communist magazine, The Workers Dreadnought. McKay also publishes an essay called “Socialism and the Negro” in this issue of Workers Dreadnought. Later in the spring of 1920, McKay would begin to work for this magazine as a paid staff member.
February 1920. Poem “To ‘Holy’ Russia” published in Workers Dreadnought
April 10 1920. Poems “Song of the New Worker and Soldier” and “Joy in the Woods” published in Workers Dreadnought
April 19, 1920. Poem “A Hero of the Wars” published in Workers Dreadnought under the pseudonym “Hugh Hope”
April 24, 1920. Poem “Reality” published in Workers Dreadnought under the pseudonym Hugh Hope. McKay also publishes an important letter of protest regarding racist reporting in the British radical press in this issue of Workers Dreadnought.
June 1920: With the help of editor C.K. Ogden, Mckay publishes a sequence of 23 poems in Cambridge Magazine. There is almost no thematic overlap between these poems and the more actively propagandistic poems McKay publishes in Workers Dreadnought and The Messenger.
July 3 1920: Poem “Re-Affirmation” published in Workers Dreadnought under the pseudonym Hugh Hope
July 10 1920: Poem “The Beast” published in Workers Dreadnought under pseudonym Hugh Hope
October 9 1920: Poem “Battle” published in Workers Dreadnought
October 24 1920: Workers Dreadnought prints an article on discontented soldiers that provokes the British government to raid its offices and arrest Sylvia Pankhurst as well as several staff members and contributors associated with the Communist Party. McKay is present in the office, but escapes arrest or detention.
Fall 1920 Publishes third book of poetry, Spring in New Hampshire with London publishing house Grant Richards. Preface by noted literary critic I.A. Richards.
January 1921: McKay returns to the United States.
February 1921: McKay is invited by the Eastmans to join The Liberator as an Associate Editor
March 1922: Poem “My Love” Appears in Pearson’s Magazine (does not appear in Harlem Shadows)
Spring 1922. Harcourt, Brace, and Company accepts manuscript of Spring in New Hampshire, which becomes Harlem Shadows, his fourth book of poetry, introduced by Max Eastman. The collection contains about 70 poems, of which a good number had appeared elsewhere earlier (especially Spring in New Hampshire and Pearson’s Magazine). The collection contains some of McKay’s more provocative race-oriented poetry, but not the Communist poems he had been publishing in Workers Dreadnought in 1920. Harlem Shadows is widely reviewed and appreciated both in the mainstream (white-dominated) press and in the black press.