Claude McKay: A Black Poet's Struggle for Identity

By Tyrone Tillery | Go to book overview
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3
The Problems of a Black Radical: 1919-1923

MCKAY'S RESISTANCE to becoming "racially grooved" in his choice of literary subject matter was part of a personal struggle to earn recognition, without consideration of race, for his gifts as a writer. In his writing he tried to appeal to a wider audience, seeking to place art and intellect above color. Likewise, in the post--World War I period he applied this same philosophy to politics, economics, and personal relationships. This was best reflected in McKay's efforts to initiate a fruitful relationship with white bohemian radicals in the years after the war. McKay tended to be intellectually more iconoclastic and rebellious than most African Americans, and white bohemia seemed to offer him a milieu more compatible with his own temperament.

McKay immediately confronted two powerful dilemmas. Involvement in the world of radical journalism, both in America and Great Britain, forced him to examine his relationship with the white bohemian radicals he so emulated. At the same time, his experience on the staff of the radical American magazine the Liberator raised questions about the relationship between race and class in analyzing the depressed status of blacks. Bitter personal humiliations increasingly pushed McKay in the direction of stressing the importance of race within the context of the workingclass radical movement. Ultimately, his insistence on a sharply defined racial perspective alienated him from his radical colleagues.

McKay began to read many of the radical and bohemian literary magazines soon after he moved to New York. "Because of my eclectic approach to literature and my unorthodox ideas of life," he recalled, "I developed a preference for the less conservative literary organs. The Masses was one of the magazines which attracted me when I came from out West to New York in 1914." According to McKay, "there was a freshness in its sympathetic and iconoclastic items about the Negro."1

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