Claude McKay: Jamaica’s Poet Laureate 1890 – 1948

If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making the mark at our accursed lot.

By Dr. Rebecca Tortello

Claude McKay – Jamaica’s Poet Laureate

SO QUOTED Winston Churchill in a speech before Parliament in the 1940s in which he issued a rallying cry for Britain to go to war against Hitler’s Nazi Germany. An anthem of resistance, the sonnet belongs to Jamaican-born poet Claude McKay who wrote these words in 1919 during what was known as the Red Summer ­ a period of particular racial violence against American blacks.

Festus Claudius McKay was born in Clarendon in 1890 to Thomas and Hannah McKay, farmers. The youngest of eleven children he would go on to become one of the leading figures of the 1920s American cultural movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. From an early age he was an avid reader and he began writing poetry at the age of ten. As a teenager, McKay was apprenticed to a cabinetmaker after the trade school he was supposed to attend was destroyed by the 1907 earthquake. In that same year, something far more propitious occurred — he acquired a mentor by the name of Walter Jekyll. Jekyll, an Englishman who became an avid collector of Jamaican folklore, encouraged McKay to write in Jamaican dialect.

Yet, although McKay continued to write, he was not yet ready to devote his life to writing. Unsure of his true calling but knowing it was not cabinetmaking he left his apprenticeship in 1911 to join the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF). This experience was difficult and short-lived as he decided to migrate to America in 1912. McKay had a hard time adjusting to urban life in Kingston and many themes found in his later work ­ the opposition of urban and rural life, class differences and the concept of exile – first appeared in “The Constab Ballads,” a work inspired by his time with the JCF. In America he enrolled in Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to study agronomy. Instead, he encountered the harsh reality of racism in the American south ­ an experience that would inspire much of his subsequent poetry. At the time of his migration he had already published two volumes of dialect verse ­ “Songs of Jamaica” (1912) and “Constab Ballads” (1912). Indeed his early dialect poetry is today seen as critical to the development of a national Jamaican literature.

McKay soon left Tuskegee for Kansas State College in Manhattan, Kansas and by 1914, after receiving a financial gift from Jekyll, Claude moved to New York City where he married his high school sweetheart, Eulalie Imelda Lewis. He also invested in a restaurant. Although both partnerships were short-lived, with Eulalie returning to Jamaica to give birth to their daughter, McKay stayed in New York and took on a series of menial jobs, all the while continuing to write poetry. Finally, in 1917, he was able to publish two poems (which he had begun writing in standard English to increase their readability), “Invocation” and “The Harlem Dancer,” under a pseudonym. His talent as a lyric poet earned him recognition, particularly from Frank Harris, editor of Pearson’s magazine, and Max Eastman, editor of The Liberator, a socialist journal. Both men became instrumental in launching McKay’s career in America.

McKay eventually became an editor at Eastman’s The Liberator. A staunch socialist who would increasingly embrace the tenets of communism, regarding it as an alternative to racism and colonialism, he also wrote articles for a number of left-wing publications. His protest poetry of the early 1920s was seen to exemplify the New Negro spirit. In addition to “If We Must Die” other notable pieces, all sonnets, include “Baptism,” “The White House,” and “The Lynching.” Their strength lies in McKay’s choice of the working class as his focus and his direct way of dealing with racial issues as shown in the following excerpt from the “White House:”

Your door is shut against my face,
And I am sharp as steel with discontent,

But I possess the courage
and the grace

To bear my anger proudly
and th
en spent.

It is not surprising that other Harlem Renaissance poets such as Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson and Countée Cullen, cited McKay as a leading inspirational force.

McKay left America for England in 1919. He worked at the British socialist journal, “Workers’ Drednought,” and published a book of verse, “Spring in New Hampshire,” which was released in an expanded version in the United States in 1922, a year after his return to America. That same year, “Harlem Shadows,” perhaps his most significant poetry collection, appeared. Soon after McKay began a twelve-year sojourn through Europe, the Soviet Union, and Africa. Wracked as he was by poverty and illness, his travels were far from carefree. While in the Soviet Union he explored his ideas about communism and compiled his journalistic essays into a book, The Negroes in America, which would remain unpublished in the United States until

Home to Harlem

1979. Although known today more for his poetry, particularly his early sonnets, than his novels, his 1928 novel, Home to Harlem, received wide critical acclaim and was the most popular novel by a black American author at the time. It stirred up a great deal of controversy due to its depiction of the underside of Harlem life.
His next novel, Banjo: A Story without a Plot (1929), continued McKay’s trend of exploring the issues of race and class in connection with communism and capitalism. It followed the exploits of an expatriate African-American musician in Marseilles, a favourite spot of McKay’s. This novel and McKay’s presence in France is said to have influenced other Negritude literary movement pioneers such as Léopold Sédar Senghor in French West Africa and Aimé Césaire, in the French West Indies. Yet, Banjo did not sell well and neither did Gingertown, a short story collection, published in 1932. However, McKay was nothing if not prolific and in 1933 he published Banana Bottom, which is often touted as McKay’s finest novel. It tells the story of a woman, Bita Plant, who returns to Jamaica after being educated in England and struggles with identity issues. In 1937, McKay published his autobiography after being accepted to the Federal Writers Project in 1936. Today his novels are considered emblematic of the possibilities and problems of Pan-Africanism at the end of the colonial era. They are also said to influence writers of African descent throughout the world.

Although McKay remained a socialist throughout his life he did distance himself from communism in the 1930s and began to be involved in anti-communism movements. He produced the non-fiction work, Harlem: Negro Metropolis, which did not gain much attention despite its heavy anti-communist stance.

McKay never returned to Jamaica. He became a U.S. citizen in 1940. High blood pressure and heart disease continued to plague him and in 1948 he eventually succumbed to congestive heart failure in Chicago where he had moved in 1944 to work for the Catholic Youth Organization, abandoning years of agnosticism.

Newspaper clipping from The Gleaner of June 7, 1978

His book, On Becoming a Catholic was published in 1945. His second autobiography, My Green Hills of Jamaica, was published posthumously in 1979.

Assessments of McKay’s influence vary. While recent years have seen increased interest in his novels and autobiographies, modern critics still tend to agree that McKay’s greatest literary contributions are to be found among his early sonnets. McKay ended one of his sonnets, A Long Way from Home, with this apt self-assessment, which in itself could have been a fitting epitaph: “I have nothing to give but my singing. All my life I have been a troubadour wanderer, nourishing myself mainly on the poetry of existence. And all I offer here is the distilled poetry ofmy experience.”

* McKay’s papers can be found in the James Weldon Johnson Collection at Yale University. His letters are widely scattered, including the Schomburg and H. L. Mencken collections at the New York City Public Library; the William Stanley Brathwaite Papers at Harvard University; the Alain Locke Papers at Howard University; the NAACP Papers in the Library of Congress; the Eastman Papers at the University of Indiana, Bloomington; the Rosenwald Fund Papers at Fisk University; and the Countee Cullen Papers at Dillard University.

* The Harlem Renaissance ­ From 1920 until about 1930 an unprecedented outburst of creative activity among African-Americans occurred in all fields of art. Beginning as a series of literary discussions in the lower Manhattan (Greenwich Village) and upper Manhattan (Harlem) sections of New York City, this African-American cultural movement became known as “The New Negro Movement” and later as the Harlem Renaissance. More than a literary movement and more than a social revolt against racism, the Harlem Renaissance exalted the unique culture of African-Americans and redefined African-American expression. African-Americans were encouraged to celebrate their heritage and to become “The New Negro,” a term coined in 1925 by sociologist and critic Alain LeRoy Locke. One of the factors contributing to the rise of the Harlem Renaissance was the great migration of African-Americans to northern cities (such as New York City, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.) between 1919
and 1926.

Sources: ~diesmanj/harlem_intro.html; Burnett, P. (1986). Editor. The Pennguin Book of Caribbean Verse. London, Penguin Group, http://www. nku. edu/ ~diesmanj/ harlem_intro.html


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