“If a man is not faithful to his own individuality, he cannot be loyal to anything.”
― Claude McKay
Claude McKay, born September 15, 1890 in Jamaica, where his parents were farmers. When he was nine he was sent to live with an older brother, a teacher, to be educated. It was there he was introduced to British literature and poetry, and began writing poetry of his own at the age of 10.
His first book, Songs of Jamaica, was published in 1912, and was the first book published in Jamaican dialect. The same year he also published Constab Ballads, and left Jamaica for the US to study at Tuskegee Institute. Upon arriving in Charleston, S.C. he was shocked at the extreme racism he encountered. After briefly studying at Tuskegee he transferred to Kansas State Agricultural College, where he encountered W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk which had a major impact on him.
In 1914 he left school and moved to New York. He married his childhood sweetheart Eulalie Imelda Edwards on July 30, 1914 in New York, but after six months of marriage his pregnant wife returns to Jamaica and had their daughter, Ruth, who McKay would never meet. During this time McKay worked various jobs as a restaurant manager and waiter. He continued to work on his poetry and published two poems in a small magazine in 1917, then met Frank Harris, editor of Pearson’s Magazine, who featured four of McKay’s poems and a short prose piece on him in the September 1918 issue of the magazine. In 1919 he met Max Eastman, publisher of the monthly socialist magazine The Liberator, and McKay served as co-executive editor of the magazine until 1922. In 1919, as racism and white supremacy tore through the United States during the “Red Summer,” McKay published his famous poem “If We Must Die.”
In 1919 Mckay traveled to London and became more involved in socialist and literary circles. In 1922 he was invited to Russia in what he described as his “Magic Pilgrimage.” He financed his trip by repackaging and selling Harlem Shadows, his collection of poetry first published in 1922, with a signed photograph to members of a NAACP donor list.
While living in Paris in the 1920s McKay was involved in the artists community, and also worked as an artists model. Through his own writing he pushed back against what he saw first hand in the portrayal of black sexuality through art and society, and its ties to colonialism and racism.
He traveled Northern Africa and Europe for 11 years, publishing 3 novels during this time, including his successful Home to Harlem (1928), and Banana Bottom (1933). Home to Harlem was celebrated for its realistic depiction of Harlem street life in the 1920s, although some intellectuals, namely W.E.B. DuBois whose personal agenda was racial uplift, criticized the depiction of the lower classes. In Banana Bottom the main character Bita Plant, who is adopted and sent to England from Jamaica by white missionaries, illustrates the individual struggle for black culture within the predominance of white society.
Banjo: A Story without a Plot, published in 1929, depicts the lives of dock workers and drifters on the port of Marseilles, illustrating their pleasure-seeking lives and conversations about race and politics in France and abroad. In both Banjo and Home to Harlem McKay’s includes the character of Ray, and intellectual who is compelled, like McKay himself, to support himself within the limited confines of a racist society despite his capabilities.
McKay also authored a collection of short stories, Gingertown (1932), two autobiographical books, A Long Way from Home (1937) and My Green Hills of Jamaica (published posthumously in 1979)
In 1940 he became an American citizen, and in 1944 converted to Catholicism. Suffering from ill health, he moved to Albuquerque then San Francisco in 1946 searching for a better climate before returning to Chicago in 1947.
Claude McKay died on heart failure in Chicago 1948.
Claude McKay’s poem “If We Must Die” was recited in the film August 28: A Day in the Life of a People, which debuted at the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2016.
Lesson from McKay
McKay lived during a time when intellectual freedom was not considered a right for all, and an artist’s choice of cultural representation was highly scrutinized. Yet, his works are considered touchstones of the Harlem Renaissance and American literature today, because he was true to his own path and art.