Claude McKay was an important poet and novelist identified with the revival of Black literature, art and music in the United States known as the Harlem Renaissance. Though he spent all his adult life abroad, he was born, and grew up in Jamaica and he never forgot his native island, as many of his poems show.
McKay was born in Claredon, Jamaica, the son of poor peasants of pure African descent. He came to the States in 1912 and entered the Agricultural College of Kansas, intending to study scientific farming and return to Jamaica to give practical help to his people.
He studied there for two years, thinking less and less about agriculture and more and more about literature. As early as 1912 he had published his first volume of verse, Songs of Jamaica, which had been widely praised and had won a medal for poetry. Gradually he abandoned the idea of returning home. He left college in 1914 and decided to be a poet, supporting himself in a variety of menial jobs typical of the Black in the Northern cities of America at that time. At different periods he worked as wheelright, porter, dishwasher, waiter, longshoreman. McKay didn’t take his jobs very seriously -
McKay was acutely interested in politics and like so many thinkers and artists in this period he became a socialist. He was associate editor of The Liberator, a socialist U.S. journal of art and literature. In 1923-
McKay’s best legacy is his poetry. He was a leader of the Black literary revolt of the l920s and 1930s, an authentic voice of the American and West Indian Black. He was also a fine lyric poet: most of his poems are short and lyrical, often sonnets.
Many of his poems express the longing of the exile in the Northern city for his island home. Thinking of Jamaican fruits, he writes: “A wave of longing through my body swept/And, hungry for the old, familiar ways/I turned aside and bowed my head and wept.”
‘I shall return’ he says.
I shall return to hear the fiddle and fife.
Of village dances, dear delicious tunes.
That stir the hidden depths of native life,
Stray melodies of dim -
I shall return. I shall return again
To ease my mind of long, long years of pain.
(I shall return)
His attitude to America, the land of his exile, is ambivalent. He hates her as a land of oppression, and yet...
Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hall that tests my youth.
Her vigour flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate.
The poem which first brought him fame in the U.S. was Harlem Shadows, a deeply compassionate lyric about black prostitutes in Harlem.
Most of McKay’s finest poems are pervaded with the sense of being a black in a white man’s world. They express hatred, pride, defiance -
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, O 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 honour us though dead!
Like men we’ll face the murderous cowardly pack
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back.
But probably a finer and deeper poem is Baptism, which expresses the Black man’s ability to endure anguish and grow stronger:
Into the furnace let me go alone: Stay you without in terror of the heat.
Desire destroys, consumes my mortal fears,
Transforming me into a shape of flame.
I will come out, back to your world of tears,
A stronger soul within a finer frame.
"Caribbean Emancipators “, a publication
of the G.B.U. Public Relations
Division, Office of the Prime
Minister, Trinidad and Tobago, 1976.