Writer Claude McKay was a pre-eminent poet and novelist of the Harlem Renaissance. His experiences coming up in Colonial Jamaica in the late 1800's to the early 1900's heavily influenced McKay's writing; and his encounters with racism in America affected him deeply, just check out his defiance in "If We Must Die", one of my all-time favorite poems.
Claude McKay was born to farmers in the Jamaican countryside in 1889. In 1912 he published two books: Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads; both are volumes of poetry written in patois (Jamaican dialect patwa) and reflected McKay's belief in the resilience, self-sufficiency and strong community values shared by people of his rural Jamaica.
Although migrated from Jamaica to the United States in 1912 to study agriculture at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, by 1914, he had move north to Harlem, like tens of thousands of African-Americans from the South, and immediately began writing poetry again. In 1919, he wrote the sonnet "If We Must Die"- a call to arms for African Americans to stand up to the violence being unleashed on blacks in that post World War I era. In that same year, Claude McKay became contributor and editor at The Liberator magazine.
McKay in Europe (Turns to Communism)
McKay grew angry , rebellious and increasingly more radical in his views against the oppression of blacks. He attended the Fourth Congress of The Third Communist International in Moscow in 1922 and by 1923 was living in Western Europe and Tangiers. But soon, he grew disillusioned by, and then became critical of, American, British and Soviet communists. By the 1930's, he abandoned communism altogether. In his vocal criticism of international communism, he never wavered in his championing of the cause of working-class blacks and never stopped bigging up the need for community development. By 1934 McKay was back in Harlem, USA, where he continued to write and publish.
The Claude McKay died in Chicago in 1948.
On June 2, 2016, in a proclamation that June had been declared National Caribbean-American Heritage Month, President Barack Obama stated "...the legacy of Caribbean Americans is one of tenacity and drive... and by carrying out Jamaican-American poet Claude McKay's call to 'strive on to gain the height/ although it may not be in sight', we can enable more young people, at home and in the Caribbean, to reach for the change that is within their grasp."*
* The Weekly Star (June 9-15, 2016 North American Ed., p.19): June Declared National Caribbean-American Heritage Month
Cooper, Wayne F.. Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance: A Biography. Baton Rouge, LA, 1987
Claude McKay's Works
Songs of Jamaica (1912)
Constab Ballads (1912)
Spring in New Hampshire and Other Poems (1920)
Harlem Shadows (1922)
Home to Harlem (1928)
Banana Bottom (1933)
Collections of Short Stories
A Long Way from Home (1937)
Collection of Essays
Harlem, Negro Metropolis (1940)