Claude McKay, whose poetry is said to have ushered in the Harlem Renaissance (see no. 36), was born to farmers in Claren¬ don Hills, Jamaica. Leaving at the age of six to study in Montego Bay, while living with his brother who was a teacher and a minis¬ ter, McKay developed a distinctive poetic style and a passion for activism.
In 1912, at the age of 25, McKay saw his first two volumes of poetry published. Songs ofJamaica and Constab Ballads were precursors to the protest poems that made McKay famous amongst the Renaissance artists. In the same year, he came to the United States to study agriculture at Tuskegee Institute under the esteemed George Washington Carver (see no. 29).
He left the program within a year and took up agricultural studies at Kansas State College. He quit that program after two years and committed himself entirely to the act of writing poetry and fiction.
It was in 1919 that McKay’s poetry came to stand for the sentiments of a whole new generation eager to fight continually for equality. “If We Must Die,” published in The Liberator, punctuated the bloody sum¬ mer of 1919:
Ifwe must die—let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,…
Though far outnumbered, let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
The volatile decade that followed brought an explosion of powerful literature, music and visual arts. The wild life of Harlem, envied by many white Americans and writ¬ten about by James Weldon Johnson (see no. 36) and Langston Hughes (see no. 64), also fed the artistic life of McKay.
In 1920, Spring in New Hampshire, his next volume, was published, soon followed by Harlem Shadows (1922). His first novel, Home to Harlem, was released in 1928, fol¬ lowed by Banjo: A Story Without a Plot (1929), and Banana Bottom (1933).
A great critic of Marcus Garvey’s Back- to-Africa movement (see no. 46), McKay not only used his talent to inspire and enter¬ tain, but to publicly oppose what he consid¬ ered a threat to African-Americans:
“The most puzzling thing about the ‘Back-to-Africa’ propaganda is the leader’s repudiation of all the fundamentals of the black worker’s economic struggle…. All those who think broadly on social condi¬ tions are amazed at Garvey’s ignorance and his intolerance to modem social ideas….”
McKay traveled extensively though Europe before returning in 1934 to become a US citizen, and to write his autobiogra¬ phy, A Long Way From Home (1940). In 1944, he converted to Roman Catholicism and worked among the poor in Chicago until his death in 1948.