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 prominent in socialist activities....
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