Claude McKay: A Black Poet's Struggle for Identity

By Tyrone Tillery | Go to book overview

7
I Have Come to Lead the Renaissance

THE ECONOMIC catastrophe of the 1930s and the outlook and program of the New Deal stimulated changes in the orientation of black thinking. Concern with economic problems became the order of the day. Younger black radicals, such as Ralph Bunche and Abram Harris, attacked the NAACP's gradualist approach and its lack of attention to economic problems, preferring a general reconstruction of American society through an alliance of black and white workers. Hitler's rise to power in Germany also had an effect on the black community. Prompted by fear of Hitler, the Soviet Union changed its international policy in 1935. Instead of its previous practice of denouncing black intellectuals and the black middle class, it courted them with its popular front strategy. Although initially remaining in the background, the Communists exploited the trend toward more radical economic and class activity advocated by a significant number of black intellectuals. But while other black intellectuals were stressing economic conflict, McKay stressed racial chauvinism. McKay had been a Communist in the early twenties, but in the thirties he became a strong anti-Communist. Once again McKay was out of step with many of his fellow black intellectuals.

Upon his departure from Greycourt, McKay noticed that a number of the younger artists seemed to be at loose ends. Many he felt were bitter against "patrons" of Negro art, who had taken them up for a brief while and then dropped them abruptly. He thought such bitterness was especially evident in Langston Hughes's work. The situation, he suggested, was not peculiar to blacks since "faddists" treated artists that way the world over. As he told James W. Johnson, the so-called Negro Renaissance had been a wonderful break. It had helped black writers realize that there was no easy conquest in creative work and that a little success and a chorus of admiration should never produce complacency.1 He himself hoped that he could yet succeed in redeeming his literary reputation.

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