60. The Harlem Renaissance Series: Claude McKay

Posted: December 9, 2009 in African American, Black entertainment, Black History, Black Pride, Culture
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Claude McKay (September 15, 1890 – May 22, 1948)

Claude McKay was born Festus Claudius McKay in Sunny Ville, Clarendon Parish, Jamaica, the son of farmers. The youngest of eleven children, McKay was sent at an early age to live with his oldest brother, a schoolteacher, so that he could be given the best education available.

McKay was an avid reader who began to write poetry at the age of ten. In 1907, McKay came to the attention of Walter Jekyll, an English gentleman residing in Jamaica who became his mentor. Mr. Jekyll encouraged McKay to write dialect verse. Jekyll later set some of McKay’s verse to music. Two volumes of Jamaican dialect verse, Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads were published in 1912. By then he was just 22 years old.

Mc Kay immigrated to the U.S. to attend Tuskegee Institute after hearing about the work of Booker T. Washington. In no time, the shock of American racism turned him from the conservatism of his youth. Much of his writings are a reflection of that shock he felt about American racism. He also attended Kansas State Teachers College between 1912 and 1914. McKay moved to New York in 1914, where he contributed regularly to The Liberator, the leading journal of avant-garde politics and art at that time.

With the publication of two volumes of poetry, Spring in New Hampshire (1920) and Harlem Shadows (1922), McKay emerged as the first and most militant voice of the Harlem Renaissance. Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, identified McKay as a leading inspirational force, even though he did not write modern verse. His work was lyrically prosed and he also published sonnets. After 1922, McKay lived successively in the Soviet Union, France, Spain, and Morocco. While in the Soviet Union he compiled his journalistic essays into a book, The Negroes in America, which was not published in the United States until 1979.

McKay wanted readers to know about the vitality and essential health of the uprooted black vagabonds of urban America and Europe. Claude McKay wrote a novel called Home to Harlem (1928) that became the most popular novel written by an African American at that time. After returning to America in 1934, McKay was attacked by the Communists for repudiating their dogmas and by liberal whites and blacks for his criticism of integrationist-oriented civil rights groups. McKay advocated full civil liberties and racial solidarity.

He wrote for various magazines and newspapers, including the New Leader and the New York Amsterdam News. He also wrote an autobiography, A Long Way from Home (1937), and a study, Harlem: Negro Metropolis (1940). In 1944, he relocated to Chicago and died in 1948 due to congestice heart failure. His second autobiography, My Green Hills of Jamaica, was published after Mc Kay died, in 1979.

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