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 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...
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