Biography (Critical Survey of Poetry: American Poets)
Festus Claudius McKay was born in 1889 on a small farm in Clarendon Parish, Jamaica. His parents were well-respected members of the community and of the local Baptist church. He received his early education from his older brother, a schoolteacher near Montego Bay. In 1907, he was apprenticed to a wheelwright and cabinetmaker in Brown’s Town; this apprenticeship was short-lived, but it was in Brown’s Town that McKay entered into a far more fruitful apprenticeship of another sort. Walter Jekyll, an English aristocrat and student of Jamaican culture, came to know young Claude and undertook the boy’s literary education. As McKay recalled years later in his autobiography, A Long Way from Home, Jekyll opened a whole new world to him:I read poetry: Childe Harold, The Dunciad, Essay on Man, Paradise Lost, the Elizabethan lyrics, Leaves of Grass, the lyrics of Shelley and Keats and of the late Victorian poets, and . . . we read together pieces out of Dante, Leopardi, and Goethe, Villon and Baudelaire.
It was Jekyll who first recognized and nurtured McKay’s gift for writing poetry, and who encouraged him to put that gift to work in the service of his own Jamaican dialect. The result was the publication of Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads. The first is a celebration of peasant life, somewhat after the manner of Robert Burns; Constab Ballads is more like Rudyard Kipling, drawing as it does on McKay’s...
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Claude McKay was the youngest of eleven children in a rural Jamaican family. His parents instilled pride in an African heritage in their children. McKay’s brother Uriah Theophilus and the English folklorist and linguist Walter Jekyll introduced McKay to philosophy and literature, notably to English poetry.
When he was nineteen McKay moved to Kingston and worked as a constable for almost a year. Encouraged by Jekyll, McKay published two volumes of poetry in Jamaican dialect in 1912, Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads. The first collection echoes McKay’s love for the natural beauty of Jamaica while the second reflects his disenchantment with urban life in Kingston.
In 1912 McKay left Jamaica for the United States and studied at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and at Kansas State College before moving to Harlem in 1914. His most famous poem, “If We Must Die,” was published in 1919 and proved to be a harbinger of the Harlem Renaissance. The poem depicts violence as a dignified response to racial oppression.
Soon thereafter McKay published two other volumes of poetry, Spring in New Hampshire and Other Poems and Harlem Shadows, which portray the homesickness and racism that troubled McKay in the United States. Some of McKay’s poems were anthologized in Alain Locke’s The New Negro...
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Biography (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Festus Claudius McKay was born to Hannah Ann Elizabeth McKay (née Edwards) and Thomas McKay, peasant farmers and landowners of Clarendon Parish, Jamaica. He was educated by his schoolteacher brother, Uriah Theodore, studying, among other things, British and classical literature. Encouraged in his early attempts to write poetry, by 1912 McKay had published two volumes of poetry, Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads. They were written in the dialect of Jamaica’s folk culture and were based on peasant life and his experiences working for a brief time in 1911 as a policeman.
In 1912, McKay went to the United States to attend college, starting at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama but transferring to Kansas State College. After a year in Kansas, however, he dropped out and went to New York City, where he worked at various jobs, including that of railroad dining-car waiter. He married his childhood sweetheart, Imelda Lewars, in 1914, but she returned to Jamaica to have their daughter, who was named Ruth Hope, and McKay reportedly never saw his daughter. He and his wife divorced after only about a year of marriage.
He continued to write poetry, sometimes using the pseudonym Eli Edwards. He was also becoming more seriously involved with radical political and literary figures such as Hubert H. Harrison and Cyril V. Briggs, two West Indian writers with socialist and communist leanings, and Max and Crystal Eastman, siblings who were...
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Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Born to Thomas Francis and Ann Elizabeth Edwards McKay in Sunny Ville, Jamaica, Festus Claudius McKay was the eleventh and youngest child of a family proud of its Ashanti ancestry. Although his parents, native Jamaicans, were peasants, they revered their West African heritage and imbued their children with racial pride.
McKay’s brother, Uriah Theophilus McKay, taught in an elementary school and had a good personal library. An educated Englishman, Walter Jekyll, had come to Jamaica to collect folktales, and, meeting the adolescent McKay, he gave him the run of his substantial library. Claude McKay learned the world by reading in both libraries. By the time he was seventeen, he was studying cabinetmaking, but he soon left this work; at nineteen he was a constable in Kingston.
McKay’s parents taught the boy early to distrust white people. McKay knew no racial discrimination during his childhood in Sunny Ville, where blacks were in the majority. In Kingston, however, he first became aware of racial prejudice. Having learned from his father to respect the purity of his race, he looked down on people of color who had mixed blood—despite his mother’s probably being a mulatto.
McKay’s brother exposed him to agnosticism and philosophy; Jekyll exposed him to literature. McKay read extensively in the Romantic poets as well as in...
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