McKay was attracted to communism in his early life, but he was never a member of the Communist Party.
Claude McKay was born Festus Claudius McKay in Nairne Castle near James Hill, Clarendon, Jamaica. He was the youngest child of Thomas Francis McKay and Hannah Ann Elizabeth Edwards, well-to-do farmers who had enough property to qualify to vote. Thomas McKay's father was of Ashanti descent, and Claude recounted that his father would share stories of Ashanti customs with him. Claude's mother was of Malagasy ancestry.
At four years old, McKay started basic school at the church that he attended. At age seven, he was sent to live with his oldest brother, a school teacher, to be given the best education available. While living with his oldest brother, Uriah Theodore, McKay became an avid reader of classical and British literature, as well as philosophy, science and theology. He started writing poetry at the age of 10.
In 1906, McKay became an apprentice to a carriage and cabinet maker known as Old Brenga. He stayed in his apprenticeship for about two years. During that time, in 1907, McKay met a man named Walter Jekyll who became a mentor and an inspiration for him. He encouraged McKay to concentrate on his writing. Jekyll convinced McKay to write in his native dialect and even later set some of McKay's verses to music. Jekyll helped McKay publish his first book of poems, Songs of Jamaica, in 1912. These were the first poems published in Jamaican Patois (dialect of mainly English words and African structure). McKay's next volume, Constab Ballads, came out in the same year and was based on his experience as a police officer in Jamaica.
McKay left for the U.S. in 1912 to attend Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute, but did not become an American citizen until 1940. McKay was shocked by the intense racism he encountered when he arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, where many public facilities were segregated, which inspired him to write more poetry. At Tuskegee, he disliked the "semi-military, machinelike existence there" and quickly left to study at Kansas State University. At Kansas State, he read W. E. B. Du Bois' Souls of Black Folk, which had a major impact on him and stirred his political involvement. But despite superior academic performance, in 1914 McKay decided he did not want to be an agronomist and moved to New York, where he married his childhood sweetheart Eulalie Lewars.
McKay published two poems in 1917 in Seven Arts under the Alias Eli Edwards while working as a waiter on the railways. In 1919 he met Crystal and Max Eastman, who produced The Liberator (where McKay would serve as Co-Executive Editor until 1922). It was here that he published one of his most famous poems, "If We Must Die", during the "Red Summer", a period of intense racial violence against black people in Anglo-American societies. This was among a page of his poetry which signaled the commencement of his life as a professional writer.
McKay became involved with a group of black radicals who were unhappy both with Marcus Garvey's nationalism and the middle class reformist NAACP. These included other Caribbean writers such as Cyril Briggs, Richard B. Moore and Wilfrid Domingo. They fought for black self-determination within the context of socialist revolution. Together they founded the semi-secret revolutionary organization, the African Blood Brotherhood. Hubert Harrison had asked McKay to write for Garvey's Negro World, but only a few copies of the paper have survived from this period, none of which contain any articles by McKay. McKay soon left for London, England.
McKay arrived in London in autumn 1919. He used to frequent a soldier's club in Drury Lane and the International Socialist Club in Shoreditch. A militant atheist, he also joined the Rationalist Press Association. It was during this period that McKay's commitment to socialism deepened and he read Marx assiduously. At the International Socialist Club, McKay met Shapurji Saklatvala, A. J. Cook, Guy Aldred, Jack Tanner, Arthur McManus, William Gallacher, Sylvia Pankhurst and George Lansbury. He was soon invited to write for the Workers' Dreadnought.
In 1920, the Daily Herald, a socialist paper published by George Lansbury, included a racist article written by E. D. Morel. Entitled "Black Scourge in Europe: Sexual Horror Let Loose by France on the Rhine", it insinuated gross hypersexuality on black people in general, but Lansbury refused to print McKay's response. This response then appeared in Workers' Dreadnought. This started his regular involvement with Workers' Dreadnought and the Workers' Socialist Federation, a Council Communist group active in the East End and which had a majority of women involved in it at all levels of the organization. He became a paid journalist for the paper; some people claim he was the first black journalist in Britain. He attended the Communist Unity Conference which established the Communist Party of Great Britain. At this time he also had some of his poetry published in the Cambridge Magazine, edited by C. K. Ogden.
When Sylvia Pankhurst was arrested under the Defence of the Realm Act for publishing articles "calculated and likely to cause sedition amongst His Majesty's forces, in the Navy, and among the civilian population," McKay had his rooms searched. He is likely to have been the author of "The Yellow peril and the Dockers" attributed to Leon Lopez, which was one of the articles cited by the government in its case against the Workers' Dreadnought.
From November 1922 to June 1923, he visited the Soviet Union and attended the fourth congress of the Communist International in Moscow. There, he met many leading Bolsheviks including Leon Trotsky, Nikolai Bukharin and Karl Radek. He wrote the manuscripts for a book of essays called Negroes in America and three stories published as Lynching in America, both of which appeared first in Russian and were re-translated into English. McKay's original English manuscripts have been lost.
In 1928, McKay published his most famous novel, Home to Harlem, which won the Harmon Gold Award for Literature. The novel, which depicted street life in Harlem, would have a major impact on black intellectuals in the Caribbean, West Africa, and Europe.
McKay's novel gained a substantial readership, especially with people who wanted to know more about the intense, and sometimes shocking, details of Harlem nightlife. His novel was an attempt to capture the energetic and intense spirit of the "uprooted black vagabonds." Home to Harlem was a work in which McKay looked among the common people for a distinctive black identity.
Despite this, the book drew fire from one of McKay's heroes, W. E. B. Du Bois. To Du Bois, the novel's frank depictions of sexuality and the nightlife in Harlem only appealed to the "prurient demand[s]" of white readers and publishers looking for portrayals of black "licentiousness." As Du Bois said, "Home to Harlem ... for the most part nauseates me, and after the dirtier parts of its filth I feel distinctly like taking a bath." Modern critics now dismiss this criticism from Du Bois, who was more concerned with using art as propaganda in the struggle for African American political liberation than in the value of art to showcase the truth about the lives of black people.
McKay's other novels were Banjo (1930), and Banana Bottom (1933). Banjo was noted in part for its portrayal of how the French treated people from its sub-Saharan African colonies, as the novel centers on black seamen in Marseilles. Césaire stated that in Banjo, blacks were described truthfully and without "inhibition or prejudice". Banana Bottom was McKay's third novel. The book is said to follow a principal theme of a black individual in search of establishing a cultural identity in a white society. The book discusses underlying racial and cultural tensions.
McKay also authored a collection of short stories, Gingertown (1932), and two autobiographical books, A Long Way from Home (1937) and Harlem: Negro Metropolis (1940). His book of collected poems, Selected Poems (1953), and his second autobiography, My Green Hills of Jamaica (1979), were published posthumously.
Becoming disillusioned with communism, McKay embraced the social teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, to which he converted in 1944. He died from a heart attack in Chicago at the age of 59.
In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Claude McKay on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans. He is regarded as the "foremost left-wing black intellectual of his age" and his work heavily influenced a generation of black authors including James Baldwin and Richard Wright.
Burial: Calvary Cemetery, Woodside, Queens County, New York, USA. Plot: Second Calvary, Section 42, Range 14, Plot R, Grave 5
As cultural historians such as Eric Garber, David Levering Lewis, Amitai Avi-ram, and Alden Reimonenq have begun to show, many of the leading male poets and novelists of the Renaissance were gay-identified or sexually active with men as well as women, including Countee Cullen, Wallace Thurman, Bruce Nugent, Claude McKay, and possibly Langston Hughes. They regularly socialized with each other in gay settings and discussed the affairs they were having with other men. A gay artist from France who was immediately drawn into their circle when he visited New York in the late 1920s recalled that “there was a whole small crowd of rather nice gay blacks around Countee Cullen. They used to meet practically every evening at Caska Bonds’ and sit by the hour playing cards there.” They were also involved in broader gay social circles, attending the gay parties thrown by Bonds, Clinton Moore, Eddie Manchester, and other black gay men, and the extravagant “mixed” parties thrown by the millionaire heiress A’Leila Walker and Van Vechten. --Chauncey, George (1995-05-18). Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (Kindle Locations 5202-5209). BASIC. Kindle Edition.Further Readings:
Claude Mckay: The Literary Identity from Jamaica to Harlem And Beyond by Kotti Sree Ramesh and Kandula Nirupa Rani
Paperback: 216 pages
Publisher: McFarland & Company (July 19, 2006)
Amazon: Claude Mckay: The Literary Identity from Jamaica to Harlem And Beyond
The gifted and rebellious writer Claude McKay grew up in the British West Indies and then moved to the United States. As he traveled from Jamaica to Harlem and then to Europe and Africa, he embraced various causes and political ideologies that made their way into his writings. Brought up as a colonial in the British West Indies, he found racial oppression as an immigrant in the United States. His struggle for self-definition and self-determination was manifest in his writings and laid the foundation for the Harlem Renaissance and negritude movements. African American scholarship in the United States tends to focus on McKay’s American productions, such as his poetry and novels like Home to Harlem, while critics in the Caribbean focus on his works there: novels like Banana Bottom and dialect poetry. This study has undertaken to explore comprehensively the life and works of Claude McKay, framed within colonial and cross-cultural experiences. While dealing with pertinent issues like identity, race, exile, ethnicity, and sexuality, the work examines all the facets of this influential 20th century author, a man trying to solve the problem of his own identity in a world determined to marginalize him.
A Long Way From Home by Claude McKay
Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: Mariner Books (March 25, 1970)
Amazon: A Long Way From Home
McKay's account of his long odyssey from Jamaica to Harlem and then on to France, Britain, North Africa, Russia, and finally back to America. As well as depicting his own experiences, the author describes his encounters with such notable personalities as Charlie Chaplin, George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Leon Trotsky, W. E. B. Du Bois, Isadora Duncan, Paul Robeson, and Sinclair Lewis.
Claude McKay: A Black Poet's Struggle for Identity by Tyrone Tillery
Paperback: 248 pages
Publisher: Univ of Massachusetts Pr (May 1994)
Amazon: Claude McKay: A Black Poet's Struggle for Identity
Born in Clarendon Parish in Jamaica, poet and novelist Claude McKay (1890-1948) wrote in dialect and by 1912, when he left for the U.S., was known as "the Robert Burns of Jamaica." In his depiction of McKay's stern father and nurturing mother, Tillery, history professor at Wayne State University, demonstrates the contradictions that were to become a permanent part of McKay's life. The book chronicles McKay's move to New York City, the failure of his marriage and of a business venture, the growing radicalism that would culminate in his trip in 1922 to Russia, and his return to become part of the Harlem Renaissance. In 1928 he wrote Home to Harlem , a novel (the first by a black to become a bestseller) illustrating his own--and those of other black artist and radicals--class, race and artistic struggles. McKay's later renunciation of communism and his conversion to Catholicism, his battle with syphilis and his death in Chicago of heart failure are detailed with sensitivity in this comprehensive critical biography.
Claude McKay, Code Name Sasha: Queer Black Marxism and the Harlem Renaissance by Gary Edward Holcomb
Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: University Press of Florida (September 25, 2009)
Amazon: Claude McKay, Code Name Sasha: Queer Black Marxism and the Harlem Renaissance
"Sasha" was the code name adopted by Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay (1889-1948) to foil investigations of his life and work. Over a period of two decades, the FBI, U.S. State Department, British police and intelligence, and French law enforcement and colonial authorities took turns harassing McKay, an openly gay, Marxist, Jamaican expatriate who had left the United States and was living in Europe. In this study of four of McKay's texts--the first literary, cultural, and historical analysis to address the multilayered "queer black anarchism" in McKay's writings--Holcomb argues that McKay's "fringe" perspective not only targeted him for investigation but also contributed to a declining literary reputation. Perceived as mystifying and unacceptable because of his dedication to communism, McKay is perplexing and difficult to classify within the traditional constructs of the Harlem Renaissance. The problem that McKay's transnational, aesthetically itinerant writing inevitably has posed is where to locate him. In recent years, access into McKay's work has been transformed by new methods of interpreting the politics of literary texts, the growing significance of transnationality in literary and cultural analysis, and the impact of "queer theory." Holcomb analyzes three of the most important works in McKay's career--the Jazz Age bestseller Home to Harlem, the négritude manifesto Banjo, and the unpublished Romance in Marseille. Holcomb uncovers ways in which Home to Harlem assembles a homefront queer black anarchism, and treats Banjo as a novel that portrays Marxist internationalist sexual dissidence. Among the most notable contributions to black modernist study, Holcomb's scholarship is the first to assess the consequence of McKay's landmark Romance in Marseille, a text that is, despite its absence from broad public access for nearly 80 years, conceivably the most significant early black diaspora text. Finally, he examines McKay's extensive FBI file and his late-1930s autobiography, A Long Way from Home, in which McKay disguises his past as a means of eluding his harassers. The memoir is essential to understanding McKay's first three novels. Relying on queer theory and related language-oriented approaches, moreover, this study emphasizes that the key to McKay's queer black Marxism lies as much in confronting his textual absence as it does in rereading the author historically.
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