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 brief stint as a constable in Kingston, Jamaica.
Kingston gave McKay his first taste of city life and his first real taste of racism. The contempt of the city’s white and mulatto upper classes for rural and lower-class blacks was an unpleasant revelation. The most blatant racism that McKay witnessed in Kingston, however, was not Jamaican in origin—it was imported in the form of American tourists. He would come to know this brand of racism much more intimately in the next few years, for, after only eight months in the Kingston constabulary, he resigned his post and left for the United States. In 1912, he enrolled, first at Tuskegee Institute, then at Kansas State College, to study agronomy. His plan was to return to Jamaica to help modernize the island’s agriculture. The plan might have succeeded but for a gift of several thousand dollars from an unidentified patron—most likely Walter Jekyll—that paid McKay’s way to New York, where he invested his money in a restaurant and married Eulalie Imelda Edwards, an old Jamaican sweetheart. Neither marriage nor restaurant survived long, but McKay found a certain consolation in the bustle and energy of the city. One part of town in particular seemed to reach out to him: Harlem.
In the next five years or so he worked at a variety of jobs—bar boy, longshoreman, fireman, and finally porter, then waiter, on the Pennsylvania Railroad. This was yet another apprenticeship, one in which he further developed the sympathy for the working class that remained with him all his life. Since his youth he had leaned politically toward socialism, and his years among the proletariat solidified his beliefs. His race consciousness developed hand-in-hand with his class consciousness. During this period of apprenticeship and developing awareness, he wrote. In 1918, he began a long association with Max Eastman, editor of the Communist magazine, The Liberator. McKay began publishing poems and essays in this revolutionary journal, and eventually became an associate editor. In 1919, in response to that year’s bloody postwar race riots, McKay published in The Liberator what would become his most famous poem, “If We Must Die.” The defiant tone and...
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the open outrage of the poem caught the attention of the black community, and practically overnight, McKay was at the forefront of black American poets.
Then came another of the abrupt turns that were so much a part of McKay’s life and work. Before his newly won reputation had a chance to flourish, he left for England where he stayed for more than a year, writing and editing for a Communist newspaper, Workers’ Dreadnought, and, in 1920, publishing his first book of poetry since the Jamaican volumes, Spring in New Hampshire, and Other Poems. He returned to New York early in 1921 and spent the next two years with The Liberator, publishing a good bit of prose and verse and working on his principal book of poems, Harlem Shadows. Upon its publication in 1922, observes Wayne Cooper, McKay “was immediately acclaimed the best Negro poet since Paul Laurence Dunbar.” Once again, however, he did not linger long over success. He was tired and in need of a change, especially after a chance meeting with his former wife reopened old wounds. Late in 1922, he traveled to Moscow for the Fourth Congress of the Third International. He quickly became a great favorite with Muscovites, and was allowed to address the Congress on the plight of American blacks and on the problem of racism within the Communist Party. As McKay described it, he was greeted “like a black ikon in the flesh.” He was, it seemed, on the verge of a promising career as a political activist; but despite his successes in Russia, he still saw himself primarily as a writer. When he left Russia, he was “eager to resume what he considered the modern writer’s proper function—namely, to record as best he could the truths of his own experience.”
The 1920’s were the decade of the expatriate artist, but though he spent most of his time in France until settling in Tangiers in 1931, McKay had very little to do with such writers as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald; his exile was too different from theirs. During his stay in Europe and North Africa, McKay published all his major fiction, along with a number of magazine articles. His first two novels, Home to Harlem and Banjo, were financially successful, in spite of the outraged reaction they drew from most black American critics. Gingertown, a collection of short stories, was not nearly so successful, and McKay’s third novel, Banana Bottom, was a critical and financial disaster. Financially ruined, McKay was forced to end his expatriate existence.
With the help of some American friends, McKay returned to New York in 1934. He hoped to be of service to the black community, but on his return, observes Wayne Cooper, “he found a wrecked economy, almost universal black poverty, and little sense of unity among those black writers and intellectuals he had hoped to work with in years ahead.” As for his literary ambitions, the Harlem Renaissance was finished; black writers were no longer in vogue. Not only could he not find a publisher, he also was unable to find any sort of a job, and wound up in Camp Greycourt, a government welfare camp outside New York City. Fortunately, Max Eastman was able to rescue him from the camp and help him get a job with the Federal Writers’ Project. In 1937, he was able to publish his autobiography, A Long Way from Home. Once again, he was publishing articles in magazines, but his views isolated him from the mainstream black leaders; he felt, again in Cooper’s words, that “their single-minded opposition to racial segregation was detrimental to any effective black community organization and to the development of a positive group spirit among blacks.” McKay’s thought at this time also shows a drift away from Communism, and a growing disillusionment with the fate of the “Grand Experiment” at the hands of the Soviets.
A Long Way from Home was neither a critical nor a financial success. Neither was his next and last book, Harlem: Negro Metropolis, a historical study published in 1940. By then, in spite of the steady work provided him by the Federal Writers’ Project, his literary reputation was declining steadily. Despite his final acceptance of American citizenship in 1940, he could still not bring himself to regard the United States as home. His exile from both the black leadership and the left-wing establishment was becoming more and more total; worse still, his health began to deteriorate rapidly. Once again, like Walter Jekyll and Max Eastman in earlier years, a friend offered a hand. Ellen Terry, a Catholic writer, rescued McKay from a Harlem rooming house, and McKay’s life took one last unexpected turn. As a young man he had rejected the fundamentalist Christianity of his father, and during his varied career had had little use for religion. Through his friendship with Terry, and later with the progressive Chicago bishop, Bernard Scheil, McKay experienced a change of mind and heart. In the spring of 1944, he moved to Chicago, and by fall of that year, he was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church.
At last he seemed to have found a refuge, though his letters reveal a lingering bitterness over his lot. With his newfound faith, however, came a satisfying involvement in Chicago’s Catholic Youth Organization and the opportunity to go on writing. His health continued to decline, and on May 22, 1948, McKay died of heart failure. He had recently finished preparing his Selected Poems of Claude McKay for publication. It is probably just as well that the volume appeared posthumously, as it took five years to find a publisher; at the time of his death, all his works were out of print. After a requiem mass in Chicago, McKay was brought back to Harlem for a memorial service. He was buried in Queens, “a long way from home.”