Sunday, April 09, 2006

Bio: Claude McKay {1889-1948}

Claude McKay Biographical Information

Claude McKay was born in Jamaica, West Indies, in 1889. He was educated by his older brother, who possessed a library of English novels, poetry, and scientific texts. At the age of twenty, McKay published a book of verse called Songs of Jamaica, recording his impressions of black life in Jamaica in dialect. McKay had already completed two volumes of poetry before coming to the United States in 1912 at the age of twenty-three (the two volumes earned him awards, which paid his way) to attend The Tuskegee Institute. He remained there only a few months, leaving to study agriculture at Kansas State University. The racism he encountered as a black immigrant brought a militant tone to his writing. He published two sonnets, "Harlem Dancer" and "Invocation," in 1917, and would later use the same poetic form to record his reactionary views on the injustices of black life in America. In addition to social and political concerns, McKay wrote on a variety of subjects, from his Jamaican homeland to romantic love, with a use of passionate language. His popular poem "If We Must Die" (1919) helped to initiate the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Between 1922 and 1934 he lived in Great Britain, Russia, Germany, France, Spain, and Morocco.

During the twenties, McKay developed an interest in Communism and travelled to Russia and then to France where he met Edna St. Vincent Millay and Sinclair Lewis. In 1934, McKay moved back to the United States and lived in Harlem, New York. Losing faith in Communism, he turned his attention to the teachings of various spiritual and political leaders in Harlem, eventually converting to Catholicism. His conversion to Roman Catholicism in the 1940s struck his audience as an ideological retreat. McKay wrote in a letter to a friend: "[T]o have a religion is very much like falling in love with a woman. You love her for her ... beauty, which cannot be defined."

McKay's viewpoints and poetic achievements in the earlier part of the twentieth century set the tone for the Harlem Renaissance and gained the deep respect of younger black poets of the time, including Langston Hughes.

His writings include four volumes of poems, many essays, an autobiography (A Long Way from Home [1937]), a novel (Home to Harlem [1928]), and a sociologial study of Harlem. He died in 1948.


"If We Must Die"
If we must die--let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die--oh, let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
Oh, Kinsmen! We must meet the common foe;
Though far outnumbered, let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
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!

Used by permission of The Archives of Claude McKay, Carl Cowl, Administrator.

"The Tropics of New York"
Bananas ripe and green, and ginger root
Cocoa in pods and alligator pears,
And tangerines and mangoes and grape fruit,
Fit for the highest prize at parish fairs,

Sat in the window, bringing memories
of fruit-trees laden by low-singing rills,
And dewy dawns, and mystical skies
In benediction over nun-like hills.

Used by permission of The Archives of Claude McKay, Carl Cowl, Administrator.


"The White House"
Your door is shut against my tightened face,
And I am sharp as steel with discontent;
But I possess the courage and the grace
To bear my anger proudly and unbent.
The pavement slabs burn loose beneath my feet,
A chafing savage, down the decent street;
And passion rends my vitals as I pass,
Where boldly shines your shuttered door of glass.
Oh, I must search for wisdom every hour,
Deep in my wrathful bosom sore and raw,
And find in it the superhuman power
To hold me to the letter of your law!
Oh, I must keep my heart inviolate
Against the potent poison of your hate.

Used by permission of The Archives of Claude McKay, Carl Cowl, Administrator.

Bibliography of Publications by McKay ~~~
The Passion of Claude McKay; Selected Poetry and Prose, 1912-1948. Ed. Wayne F. Cooper. New York: Schocken Books, 1973.
Selected Poems of Claude McKay. New York: Bookman Associates, 1953.
Banana Bottom. Chatham, N.J.: Chatham Bookseller, 1970.
A Long Way Home. New York: Arno Press and the New York Times, 1969.
Home to Harlem. Chatham, N. J.: Chatham Bookseller, 1973.
Banjo: A Story Without Plot. San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1957.
Gingertown. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1932.
Harlem Negro Metropolis. New York: E.P.Dutton & Company, Inc., 1940.
Negroes in America. Port Washinton, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1979.


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