Claude McKay

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This article is about the Jamaican writer. For the Australian journalist (1878–1972), see Claude Eric Fergusson McKay.
Claude McKay
Mackey.jpg
Born Festus Claudius McKay
(1889-09-15)September 15, 1889
Clarendon, Jamaica
Died May 22, 1948(1948-05-22) (aged 58)
Chicago, Illinois
Occupation Writer, poet
Period Harlem Renaissance
Notable works Home to Harlem
Notable awards Harmon Gold Award

Festus Claudius "Claude" McKay (September 15, 1889[1] – May 22, 1948) was a Jamaican-American writer and poet, who was a seminal figure in the Harlem Renaissance. He wrote four novels: Home to Harlem (1928), a best-seller that won the Harmon Gold Award for Literature, Banjo (1929), Banana Bottom (1933), and in 1941 a manuscript called Amiable With Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem that has not yet been published.[2] McKay also authored collections of poetry, a collection of short stories, Gingertown (1932), two autobiographical books, A Long Way from Home (1937) and My Green Hills of Jamaica (published posthumously), and a non-fiction, socio-historical treatise entitled Harlem: Negro Metropolis (1940). His 1922 poetry collection, Harlem Shadows, was among the first books published during the Harlem Renaissance. His Selected Poems was published posthumously, in 1953.

McKay was attracted to communism in his early life, but he always asserted that he never became an official member of the Communist Party USA. However, some scholars dispute the claim that he was not a communist at that time, noting his close ties to active members, his attendance at communist-led events, and his months-long stay in the Soviet Union in 1922–23, which he wrote about very favorably.[3] He gradually became disillusioned with communism, however, and by the mid-1930s, he had begun to write negatively about it.[4]

Early life[edit]

Claude McKay was born in Nairne Castle near James Hill,[5] Clarendon, Jamaica. He was the youngest child of Thomas Francis McKay and Hannah Ann Elizabeth Edwards, well-to-do farmers who had enough property to qualify to vote. Thomas McKay's father was of Ashanti descent, and Claude recounted that his father would share stories of Ashanti customs with him. Claude's mother was of Malagasy ancestry.[6]

At four years old, McKay started basic school at the church that he attended. At the age of seven, he was sent to live with his oldest brother, Uriah Theodore, a teacher, to be given the best education available. While living with this brother, McKay became an avid reader of classical and British literature, as well as philosophy, science and theology. He started writing poetry at the age of 10.

In 1906, McKay became apprenticed to a carriage and cabinet maker known as Old Brenga, staying in his apprenticeship for about two years. During that time, in 1907, McKay met a man named Walter Jekyll, who became a mentor and an inspiration for him and encouraged him to concentrate on his writing. Jekyll convinced McKay to write in his native dialect and even later set some of McKay's verses to music. Jekyll helped McKay publish his first book of poems, Songs of Jamaica, in 1912. These were the first poems published in Jamaican Patois (dialect of mainly English words and African structure). McKay's next volume, Constab Ballads (1912), was based on his experiences of joining the constabulary for a brief period in 1911.[7][8]

Career in the United States[edit]

McKay left for the U.S. in 1912 to attend Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute. McKay was shocked by the intense racism he encountered when he arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, where many public facilities were segregated, which inspired him to write more poetry. At Tuskegee, he disliked the "semi-military, machine-like existence there" and quickly left to study at Kansas State University. At Kansas State, he read W. E. B. Du Bois' Souls of Black Folk, which had a major impact on him and stirred his political involvement. But despite superior academic performance, in 1914 McKay decided he did not want to be an agronomist and moved to New York, where he married his childhood sweetheart Eulalie Lewars.

McKay published two poems in 1917 in The Seven Arts under the pseudonym Eli Edwards while working as a waiter on the railways. In 1919, he met Crystal and Max Eastman, who produced The Liberator (where McKay would serve as co-executive editor until 1922).[9] It was here, as the co-editor of The Liberator, that he published one of his most famous poems, "If We Must Die", during the "Red Summer", a period of intense racial violence against black people in Anglo-American societies. The poem was reportedly later quoted by Winston Churchill during World War II.[10]

McKay became involved with a group of black radicals who were unhappy both with Marcus Garvey's nationalism and the middle-class reformist NAACP. These included other Caribbean writers such as Cyril Briggs, Richard B. Moore and Wilfrid Domingo. They fought for black self-determination within the context of socialist revolution. Together they founded the semi-secret revolutionary organization, the African Blood Brotherhood. Hubert Harrison had asked McKay to write for Garvey's Negro World, but only a few copies of the paper have survived from this period, none of which contain any articles by McKay. McKay soon left for London, England.

In London[edit]

McKay arrived in London in autumn 1919. He used to frequent a soldier's club in Drury Lane and the International Socialist Club in Shoreditch. A militant atheist, he also joined the Rationalist Press Association. It was during this period that McKay's commitment to socialism deepened and he read Marx assiduously. At the International Socialist Club, McKay met Shapurji Saklatvala, A. J. Cook, Guy Aldred, Jack Tanner, Arthur McManus, William Gallacher, Sylvia Pankhurst and George Lansbury. He was soon invited to write for Workers' Dreadnought.

In 1920, the Daily Herald, a socialist paper published by George Lansbury, included a racist article written by E. D. Morel. Entitled "Black Scourge in Europe: Sexual Horror Let Loose by France on the Rhine", it insinuated gross hypersexuality on black people in general, but Lansbury refused to print McKay's response. This response then appeared in Workers' Dreadnought. This started his regular involvement with Workers' Dreadnought and the Workers' Socialist Federation, a Council Communist group active in the East End and which had a majority of women involved in it at all levels of the organization. He became a paid journalist for the paper; some people claim he was the first black journalist in Britain. He attended the Communist Unity Conference that established the Communist Party of Great Britain. At this time he also had some of his poetry published in the Cambridge Magazine, edited by C. K. Ogden.

When Sylvia Pankhurst was arrested under the Defence of the Realm Act for publishing articles "calculated and likely to cause sedition amongst His Majesty's forces, in the Navy, and among the civilian population," McKay had his rooms searched. He is likely to have been the author of "The Yellow Peril and the Dockers" attributed to "Leon Lopez", which was one of the articles cited by the government in its case against Workers' Dreadnought.

In Russia[edit]

From November 1922 to June 1923, he visited the Soviet Union and attended the fourth congress of the Communist International in Moscow. There, he met many leading Bolsheviks including Leon Trotsky, Nikolai Bukharin and Karl Radek. Claude McKay details his experience in Russia in the essay "Soviet Russia and the Negro" published in the December 1923 issue of The Crisis Magazine.[11]

Claude McKay at the Kremlin Crisis Dec 1923

McKay wrote the manuscripts for a book of essays called Negroes in America and three stories published as Lynching in America, both of which appeared first in Russian and were re-translated into English; McKay's original English manuscripts have been lost.[12] When Russia was under the rule of communists led by Lenin he was invited to Russia during the reconstruction of the country, out of the experience of going from one end of the country to the other he wrote one of his most famous poems: "If We Must Die." It was revolutionary and it appealed and gave courage to the minorities' fight against great odds.[13]

Home to Harlem and other works[edit]

In 1928, McKay published his most famous novel, Home to Harlem, which won the Harmon Gold Award for Literature. The novel, which depicted street life in Harlem, would have a major impact on black intellectuals in the Caribbean, West Africa, and Europe.[14]

McKay's novel gained a substantial readership, especially with people who wanted to know more about the intense, and sometimes shocking, details of Harlem nightlife. His novel was an attempt to capture the energetic and intense spirit of the "uprooted black vagabonds." Home to Harlem was a work in which McKay looked among the common people for a distinctive black identity.

Despite this, the book drew fire from one of McKay's heroes, W. E. B. Du Bois. To Du Bois, the novel's frank depictions of sexuality and the nightlife in Harlem only appealed to the "prurient demand[s]" of white readers and publishers looking for portrayals of black "licentiousness." As Du Bois said, "Home to Harlem ... for the most part nauseates me, and after the dirtier parts of its filth I feel distinctly like taking a bath."[14] Modern critics now dismiss this criticism from Du Bois, who was more concerned with using art as propaganda in the struggle for African-American political liberation than in the value of art to showcase the truth about the lives of black people.[15]

McKay's other novels were Banjo (1929), and Banana Bottom (1933). Banjo was noted in part for its portrayal of how the French treated people from its sub-Saharan African colonies, as the novel centers on black seamen in Marseilles. Aimé Césaire stated that in Banjo, blacks were described truthfully and without "inhibition or prejudice". Banana Bottom was McKay's third novel. The book is said to follow a principal theme of a black individual in search of establishing a cultural identity in a white society. The book discusses underlying racial and cultural tensions.

McKay also authored a collection of short stories, Gingertown (1932), two autobiographical books, A Long Way from Home (1937) and My Green Hills of Jamaica (published posthumously in 1979), and a non-fiction, socio-historical treatise entitled Harlem: Negro Metropolis (1940). His collection Selected Poems (1953) was published posthumously and included a Foreword by John Dewey.

McKay became an American citizen in 1940.

Becoming disillusioned with communism, McKay embraced the social teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, to which he converted in 1944.[16] He died from a heart attack in Chicago at the age of 59.

Legacy[edit]

In 1977, the government of Jamaica named Claude McKay the national poet and posthumously awarded him the Order of Jamaica for his contribution to literature.[17][18]

In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Claude McKay on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.[19] He is regarded as the "foremost left-wing black intellectual of his age" and his work heavily influenced a generation of black authors including James Baldwin and Richard Wright.[20]

Awards[edit]

  • Jamaican Institute of Arts and Sciences, Musgrave Medal, 1912,[21] for two volumes of poetry, Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads.
  • Harmon Foundation Award for distinguished literary achievement, NAACP, 1929, for Harlem Shadows and Home to Harlem.
  • James Weldon Johnson Literary Guild Award, 1937.
  • Order of Jamaica, 1977.[21]

Selected bibliography[edit]

Poetry collections[edit]

  • Songs of Jamaica (1912)
  • Constab Ballads (1912)
  • Spring in New Hampshire and Other Poems (1920)
  • Harlem Shadows (1922)
  • The Selected Poems of Claude McKay (1953)
  • America (1921)
  • If We Must Die
  • A Red Flower
  • A Memory of June
  • Enslaved Flower of Love Africa
  • Flame-Heart Romance The Harlem Dancer Exhortation: Summer 1919
  • Dawn in New York
  • The Lynching
  • I Shall Return

Fiction[edit]

  • Home to Harlem (1928)
  • Banjo (1929)
  • Banana Bottom (1933)
  • Gingertown (1932)

Non-fiction[edit]

  • A Long Way from Home (1937)
  • My Green Hills of Jamaica (1979)
  • Harlem: Negro Metropolis (1940)

Unknown manuscript[edit]

A previously unknown manuscript of a 1941 novel by McKay was authenticated in 2012. The manuscript, Amiable With Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem, was discovered by Jean-Christophe Cloutier in the Samuel Roth Papers, a previously untouched university archive at Columbia University, in 2009. The novel centers on the ideas and events (such as Benito Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia) that animated Harlem on the cusp of World War II. Working in collaboration, Professor Cloutier and Professor Brent Hayes Edwards successfully authenticated the manuscript, and have received permission from the McKay estate to publish the novel, a satire set in 1936, with an introduction about how it was found and its provenance verified.[2]

Sources[edit]

  • James, Winston (2001), A Fierce Hatred of Injustice: Claude McKay's Jamaica and His Poetry of Rebellion, London: Verso. ISBN 978-1859847404.
  • James, Winston (2003), "Becoming the People's Poet: Claude McKay's Jamaican Years, 1889-1912," in Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism, March 2003, No. 13, pp. 17–45.
  • Long, Richard A., Afro-American Writing: An Anthology of Prose and Poetry, Penn State Press, 1985. ISBN 0-271-00376-6

Chicago Defender articles[edit]

  • "Claude McKay, African Poet, Made Co-Editor", The Chicago Defender (National edition)(1921-1267), April 2, 1921; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Defender (1910-1975).
  • "Claude McKay, noted, Poet, Author, Once Idol of Russia, Dies Here", The Chicago Defender (1921-1967), May 29, 1948.
  • "McKay Going to Russia", The Chicago Defender (National edition)(1921-1967), August 19, 1922.
  • "Claude McKay by James Weldon Johnson", The Chicago Defender (National edition)(1921-1267), March 3, 1928.

References[edit]

  1. ^ See James, Winston (2003), "Becoming the People's Poet: Claude McKay's Jamaican Years, 1889-1912," in Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism, March 2003, No. 13, pp. 17-45; note 8. There has been much confusion over whether McKay was born in 1889 or 1890, but his birth certificate has been discovered showing that he was, in fact, born in 1889.
  2. ^ a b Felicia R. Lee, "New Novel of Harlem Renaissance Is Found," The New York Times, September 14, 2012.
  3. ^ Tyrone Tillery, Claude McKay: A Black Poet's Struggle for Identity. University of Massachusetts Press, 1992, pp. 64-65, 68-70.
  4. ^ Wayne F. Cooper, Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance, Louisiana State University Press, 1987, pp. 294-295.
  5. ^ Many sources claim this birthplace; however, Winston James (2003) says McKay was born in the village of Nairne Castle.
  6. ^ Long (1985), p. 353.
  7. ^ Posted by Em (2004-02-26). ""Biography, McKay's Jamaica Years, Still Further Continued", The Dialect Poetry of Claude McKay". Claudemckay.blogspot.co.uk. Retrieved 2013-12-04. 
  8. ^ Freda Scott Giles, "Claude McKay's Life", Modern American Poetry.
  9. ^ The Chicago Defender (National edition) (1921-1967); April 2, 1921; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Defender (1910-1975), p. 1.
  10. ^ According to David Freeman ("Churchill quoted radical poet Claude McKay"; originally published in Finest Hour 125, Winter 2004-025), while Churchill may have been familiar with McKay's words there is no documented evidence of him citing the poem in any speech. The Churchill Centre and Museum at the Churchill War Rooms, London.
  11. ^ McKay, Claude (December 1923). "Soviet Russia and the Negro". The Crisis: 61. 
  12. ^ Baldwin, Kate A. (2002). Beyond the Color Line and the Iron Curtain: Reading Encounters between Black and Red, 1922-1963. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press. pp. 28–32. ISBN 978-0-8223-2976-3. 
  13. ^ "Claude McKay, Noted Poet, Author, Once Idol of Russia, Dies Here", The Chicago Defender (National edition) (1921-1967); May 29, 1948; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Defender (1910-1975).
  14. ^ a b "Haiti and Black Transnationalism: Remapping the Migrant Geography of Home to Harlem - Critical Essay | African American Review | Find Articles at BNET.com". Findarticles.com. Retrieved 2013-12-04. 
  15. ^ "The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism". Press.jhu.edu. Retrieved 2013-12-04. 
  16. ^ James, Winston (2001). A Fierce Hatred of Injustice: Claude McKay's Jamaica and His Poetry of Rebellion (London: Verso), p. 46.
  17. ^ "Claude McKay", in Julie Buckner Armstrong, Amy Schmidt (eds), ''The Civil Rights Reader: American Literature from Jim Crow to Reconciliation'', University of georgia Press, 2009, p. 62. Books.google.co.uk. Retrieved 2013-12-04. 
  18. ^ "Jamaica National Heritage Trust". Jnht.com. 2007-02-19. Retrieved 2013-12-04. 
  19. ^ Asante, Molefi Kete (2002). 100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. ISBN 1-57392-963-8.
  20. ^ "Mckay, Claude (1890-1948)", from St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale.
  21. ^ a b "McKay, Claude", in Brian Shaffer (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Fiction, Blackwell Publishing, 2011, p. 701.

External links[edit]