Major Black American Writers through the Harlem Renaissance

By Harold Bloom | Go to book overview

Claude McKay
1890-1948

CLAUDE MCKAY was born in Sunny Ville, Jamaica, on September 15, 1890. After being apprenticed to a wheelwright in Kingston, he emigrated to the U.S. in 1912 and studied agriculture at the Tuskegee Institute and at Kansas State University. He abandoned his studies in 1914 and moved to Harlem, where he became a leading radical poet. Before coming to America, McKay had published a collection of poetry entitled Songs of Jamaica (1912). While in Harlem he frequently wrote under the pseudonym Eli Edwards, a name derived from that of his wife, Eulalie Imelda Edwards. This marriage ended in 1914 after only six months; McKay's wife gave birth to a daughter whom he never saw.

"If We Must Die," perhaps McKay's best-known poem, was published in Max Eastman's magazine, the Liberator, in 1919. This stirring call to arms was written after the race riots that followed the end of World War I. McKay lived in London from 1919 to 1921; during this time he first read Karl Marx and worked for the Marxist periodical Worker's Dreadnought. In 1922—the year he published his celebrated poetry collection Harlem Shadows—he made a "magic pilgrimage" to the USSR where he was warmly welcomed by the Communist leaders and addressed the Third Communist International. He wrote two works that were translated into Russian by P. Okhrimenko in 1923: Sudom Lincha, a collection of three stories, and the treatise Negry v Amerike. These works were translated into English by Robert Winter, the first (as Trial by Lynching: Stories about Negro Life in America) in 1977, the second (as The Negroes in America) in 1979. McKay's interest in Marx seems to have been based on his perception of its calls for a return to agrarian values and for racial equality. However, McKay never joined the Communist party and by the 1930s he had completely renounced all association with communism.

From 1923 to 1934 McKay lived overseas, having left the United States as a result of his alienation from the black American intelligentsia and from the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance. In Paris he came to feel that racial

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