Claude McKay

United States and Europe, and is best known for his volume Harlem Shadows. The book is one of the foundation texts of the Harlem Renaissance, and has also been seen as one of the inspirations for the 1960s Black Arts movement. He was the most militant of the Harlem Renaissance writers.

McKay's first two books of poems were published while he still lived in Jamaica. Both Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads appeared in 1912. The poems in both are written in dialect, and include local folklore and, in the case of the latter, material from McKay's brief service as a policeman. These books brought him some local recognition and the resources to journey to the United States. He studied farming briefly at Tuskegee Institute, and then at Kansas State College from 1912 to 1914, following which he moved to Harlem. Supporting himself by odd jobs, he became interested in socialist causes and gradually his poems began to be published regularly in the US and England. By 1920 he had been living in England for a year when he published the poems of Spring in New Hampshire in London. He returned to Harlem the following year, and in 1922 published Harlem Shadows.

Like another founding figure of the Harlem Renaissance, Countee Cullen, McKay wrote his poems of the black experience in traditional verse forms, usually sonnets or short lyrics in the English Romantic mode. Thus their importance comes from their content rather than, as with Langston Hughes, any formal innovation. Not all of the poems concern the Harlem scene; some are nostalgic recollections of and yearning for a homeland left behind, while others conventionally extol nature or love. But those on Harlem combine a concreteness of description and a militancy that were liberating for some young black writers. His "The Harlem Dancer" brings out the distance and alienation felt by the young performer behind the seductive pleasures offered by her dance, and enjoyed and then questioned by the poem's observer. The well-known "If We Must Die" is a response to the anti-black race riots in Chicago and other cities in 1919 and calls for "fighting back!" and not passively accepting the violence. "The Lynching" concerns, as well as the violence of the murder, the indoctrination of race hatred into the next generation; "America" articulates a response both fascinated and appalled at the "cultured hell" that surrounds him, while "The Negro's Tragedy" insists that "Only a thorn-crowned Negro and no white / Can penetrate into the Negro's ken. . . . / There is no white man who could write my book."

McKay's interests led him to work on the left-wing magazines The Liberator and New Masses, and he also traveled to Moscow in 1922 as a representative of the American Workers' Party at the Third Internationale, where he met Lenin and Trotsky. Following this trip he remained in Europe for the next

12 years, mainly in France and North Africa. His interests turned to writing prose and he published a number of novels and two autobiographical works in these years, the most notable being the novels Home to Harlem (1928), Banjo (1929), and Banana Bottom (1933).

In his last years McKay wrote less, and he repudiated his earlier interest in communism. He became a US citizen in 1940, converted to Catholicism in the early 1940s, and taught for Catholic organizations in Chicago until his death. The late sonnets "Look Within" and "Tiger" illustrate McKay's continuing commitment to revealing the injustices of race. His Selected Poems were published posthumously in 1953.

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