Claude McKay's Early Poetry (1911-1922): A Digital Collection

Claude McKay's Queer Poetics: Public Humanities Syllabus

Essay Author: Sarah Heidebrink-Bruno

This “public humanities syllabus” (in the manner of the Baltimore Syllabus or the Charleston Syllabus) explores the ways in which Claude McKay’s sexuality influences his sexual politics and aesthetics within several of the poems featured in his Harlem Shadows collection and elsewhere in his work. The intended purpose of this syllabus and accompanying annotated bibliography is to highlight select texts that a reader may be interested in pursuing, in order to better understand how McKay’s poetics revealed homoerotic themes, even as he was compelled to conceal his own sexual identity. In other words, this syllabus encourages the interested reader to shine a light on McKay’s writings, in order to better understand what exists within the shadows. Moreover, this syllabus seeks to reclaim McKay’s black, queer identity from its textual silence in order to explore his historical role on the periphery of the Harlem Renaissance, as well as current scholarship that explores his position within a transatlantic, diasporic context.

Although this syllabus may be especially useful to students and scholars of gender studies, queer theory, and the intersections of race and sexuality, it is also a helpful tool for all readers who simply wish to explore and understand how McKay’s sexual identity impacted his personal and professional relationships, travel plans and sojourns abroad, and most importantly, his radical writings. It is important to note that this syllabus represents a partial, but evolving, list of suggested texts. We also welcome guests’ recommendations and annotations if you are interested in contributing to the project. If you have any further suggestions, please feel free to contact the writer, Sarah Heidebrink-Bruno, at or the site webmaster.

 McKay, Claude. A Long Way from Home. Boston, Massachusetts: Mariner Books, 1970. Print.

Perhaps the best place to start one’s research is with the author’s own memoirs. In A Long Way from Home, Claude McKay recounts his personal history, including an allusion to his early sexual experiences. Using coded language, McKay admits that “sex was never much of a problem for [him]. [He] played at sex as a child in a healthy, harmless way. When [he] was seventeen or eighteen, [he] became away of the ripe urge of potency and also the strange manifestations and complications of sex” (188). Thus, McKay simultaneously reveals and conceals information about his developing sexual identity. Though he indicates that he enjoyed his early sexual development in the bucolic setting of his native Jamaica, he also hints at the later “strange manifestations and complications of sex” that arose as he grew older, which could refer to his same-sex desires and relationships.

McKay’s memoir is also a rich source of information regarding his thoughts on inter-racial relations and friendships, in particular, his chapter entitled “White Friends.” Several of his sensual poems from Harlem Shadows further explore the complications inherent in inter-racial romantic relationships (please refer to his Harlem Shadowspoetry for further readings). Although the sex and gender of the speaker and the lover are purposefully obscured in these poems, it is clear that inter-racial couples experienced an array of additional pressures, including social prejudices and the fear of “betraying one’s race.”

Chauncey, George. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. New York, New York: BasicBooks, 1994. Print.

In Gay New York, George Chauncey postulates that New York’s gay rights movement did not begin with the 1969 Stonewall riots, as is commonly believed. Instead, Chauncey locates an earlier historical moment, demonstrating a vivacious gay community in the early 20th century, which was curtailed and forced underground by the New York State Liquor Authority (or SLA). When the SLA gained control of bars’ liquor licenses, they penalized bar owners if their bars appeared to be open to solicitations or if the clientele appeared to be too openly welcoming to homosexual patrons, which went against then-Mayor La Guardia’s reform coalition. However, Chauncey demonstrates that the gay community (in particular, gay men) had access to a variety of locations that wed the private with the public, including public bath houses, parks, and drag balls, which created opportunities to meet with other members of the LGBTQ community as well as the general public.

Moreover, Chauncey’s work reveals that the homosexual-heterosexual binary that typifies 21st century understandings of sexual orientation did not have a firm grasp on early 20th century sensibilities, which were rooted in terms of masculinity and femininity. In other words, traditionally masculine men could still engage in same-sex acts with effeminate men, without compromising their masculinity or being labeled as gay, provided that they maintained the dominant role. Although this text does not specifically focus on Claude McKay, it does provide readers with a broader understanding of the gay community that existed during the Harlem Renaissance.

Holcomb, Gary Edward. Claude McKay, Code Name Sasha: Black Marxism and the Harlem Renaissance. Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida Press, 2007. Print.

Gary Holcomb’s Claude McKay, Code Name Sasha was the first book of its kind to deeply examine the complexity of McKay’s “competing” and overlapping identities as a black, queer, diasporic, briefly Communist, and rigorously-inspired writer. Holcomb frames McKay’s movements under his alias, Sasha, a code name he used to divert FBI investigators, who believed he was spreading Bolshevik propaganda, during his trip to the Soviet Union in 1922. Holcomb argues that, as Sasha, McKay was able to more thoroughly embody his subversive black and queer Marxist identity, which he then explores further in coded language in his memoir, A Long Way from Home. Furthermore, Holcomb demonstrates how McKay’s various transatlantic travels allowed McKay to better understand and enact his multiple identities within the black diaspora.

Holcomb’s main project is to address the question of how we reconcile McKay’s black nationalist beliefs with his queerness as well as his early Marxist explorations. Ultimately, Holcomb suggests that a critical queer theory lens can help readers to understand one’s identity as constantly “becoming,” rather than a fixed stance. This kind of framework can enable readers to see McKay’s various pluralities not as competing parts of himself, but as evolving, sometimes converging or diverging, parts of his holistic self. Moreover, Holcomb claims that one cannot disentangle McKay’s political writings from his queer subversion or his status as a black man because all of these facets acted as a direct challenge to white, hetero-patriarchal culture.

Sedgwick, Eve. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1990. Print.

Eve Sedgwick explores the origins and social repercussion of the so-called “closet” that serves as a kind of boundary between the public and private life, or perhaps overt performances of sexuality versus covert ones. Though Epistemology of the Closet is a densely theoretical text, it offers an interesting historical overview of the construction of homo- and heterosexual identities in the early 20th century, when McKay lived and wrote. According to Sedgwick, around this time, one’s sexual identity became increasingly associated with the sex and gender of the object of one’s desire, rather than one’s relationship with one’s sexuality. In other words, instead of a person’s sexuality being self-defined, it was constructed around the kind of person with whom one wished to engage in sex acts.

However, Sedgwick questions the separation of homo- and hetero-sexuality, pondering whether or not these are fixed identities or dependent upon varied, sometimes changing factors. Furthermore, Sedgwick argues throughout her text that although they may be related, all oppressions are differently constructed, therefore it is important to consider the unique and sometimes overlapping structures of these oppressions. Using McKay as a kind of case study for Sedgwick’s theories could be an interesting intellectual exercise, especially when considering his early marriage to a woman, their subsequent divorce, his rumored relationships with white men as well as men of color, and the intentional ambiguity of many of his more sensual poems.

Shane Vogel, The Scene of Harlem Cabaret: Race, Sexuality, Performance. Chicago, Illinois: Chicago University Press, 2009. Print.

In The Scene of Harlem Cabaret: Race, Sexuality, Performance, Shane Vogel invites the reader to explore the nightlife of the Harlem Renaissance, particularly cabarets. According to Vogel, the cabaret is a site of performance that not only counteracts the racial stigmas depicted in minstrelsy shows, but also serves as a keystone of gay and lesbian history during the Harlem Renaissance. Vogel argues that black homosexuals had to find a way to express their sexual identities in a relatively safe space that operated outside of legal governance. Thus, the cabaret became a key site of sexual freedom that existed off the mainstream grid.

Vogel also draws a specific distinction between the sociological writings of W. E. B. Du Bois and Claude McKay, claiming that the former was more concerned with empirical evidence whereas the latter was interested in gathering a non-linear, Modernist series of impressions. However, Vogel complicates this comparison by indicating that the two writers were nevertheless profoundly impacted by the role of art and performance in their writings. Vogel further claims that both Du Bois and McKay learned how to channel and describe the art of romance because of their interactions with performances, citing McKay’s interest in cabarets in particular.

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