Claude McKay was an early twentieth-century author of poetry, essays, novels, and short stories. Part of the movement called the Harlem Renaissance, some critics consider that he started the movement with his poem, “If We Must Die”, which first appeared in 1919 in the Liberator and which captured the spirit of the Red Summer of 1919.
Born Festus Claudius McKay on September 15, 1889 in Sunny Ville, Jamaica, McKay was one of eleven children. His parents were prominent farmers in Jamaica. His elder brother, Uriah Theophilus, was a teacher, from whom Claude received much of his education as a youth. In 1912, after winning a local award for his poetry, McKay moved to the U.S. to study agriculture at Tuskegee Institute with a plan to work in his family’s farming business. Unhappy with the racial climate at Tuskegee, McKay transferred to Kansas State College, but abandoned his studies in agriculture after a year to move to New York. In 1914, he briefly married Eulalie Imelda Lewars, with whom he had a daughter. After his marriage ended, McKay stayed in New York and worked a series of menial jobs while concentrating on writing poetry.
Recognition of McKay’s contribution to the Harlem Renaissance movement has proven problematic for a number of reasons. For one thing, McKay spent much of the decade of the Harlem Renaissance not actually in Harlem. From 1919-1921, McKay was in London, writing for the Marxist publication, Worker’s Dreadnaught. From 1923 to 1934, McKay travelled through Europe, Russia, and northern Africa while concentrating on his fiction writing. By not being physically in Harlem for so much of the Harlem Renaissance, McKay’s contribution to the movement has been minimized until fairly recently.
His outsider status as a Jamaican also kept him on the fringes of the Harlem Renaissance. Although he eventually became an American citizen, for most of his writing career, McKay was a British subject because he was born in Jamaica. His experience of racism was different from the other members of the Harlem Renaissance because his formative years were spent in Jamaica. McKay certainly experienced racism in Jamaica, but it was not the institutionalized racism of the United States in the early twentieth century.
For a time, McKay identified with and participated in the Communist Party. McKay’s Communist beliefs were another factor that prevented his full recognition as an integral part of the Harlem Renaissance. According to the editor of his autobiography, Gene Andrew Jarrett, McKay believed that the Harlem Renaissance lacked class consciousness, effective political mobilization, and black leadership (xviii). McKay believed that the Harlem Renaissance was not politically active enough. His frustration with the rest of the movement’s political activity kept McKay from being as integrated in the Harlem Renaissance as the other writers and artists of the movement.
For the later period of his life, McKay lived in Chicago. He converted to Catholicism in 1942. Claude McKay died May 22, 1948 in Chicago of heart failure. After his funeral that was held in Harlem, McKay was buried in New York.
“CLAUDE M’KAY, AUTHOR AND POET.” New York Times (1923-Current file): 19. May 24 1948. ProQuest. Web. 6 Oct. 2015.
McKay, Claude. Long Way from Home. Ed. Gene Andrew Jarrett. New Brunswick, NJ, USA: Rutgers University Press, 2007. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 5 October 2015.
McLeod, Alan L. “Festus Claudius McKay.” Twentieth-Century Caribbean and Black African Writers: First Series. Ed. Bernth Lindfors and Reinhard Sander. Detroit: Gale, 1992. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 117. Literature Resource Center. Web. 6 Oct. 2015.