A Long Way from Home

A Long Way from Home

A Long Way from Home

A Long Way from Home

Synopsis

Claude McKay (1889–1948) was one of the most prolific and sophisticated African American writers of the early twentieth century. A Jamaican-born author of poetry, short stories, novels, and nonfiction, McKay has often been associated with the “New Negro” or Harlem Renaissance, a movement of African American art, culture, and intellectualism between World War I and the Great Depression. But his relationship to the movement was complex. Literally absent from Harlem during that period, he devoted most of his time to traveling through Europe, Russia, and Africa during the 1920s and 1930s. His active participation in Communist groups and the radical Left also encouraged certain opinions on race and class that strained his relationship to the Harlem Renaissance and its black intelligentsia. In his 1937 autobiography, A Long Way from Home, McKay explains what it means to be a black “rebel sojourner” and presents one of the first unflattering, yet informative, exposés of the Harlem Renaissance. Reprinted here with a critical introduction by Gene Andrew Jarrett, this book will challenge readers to rethink McKay’s articulation of identity, art, race, and politics and situate these topics in terms of his oeuvre and his literary contemporaries between the world wars.

Gene Andrew Jarrett is an assistant professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park, and the author of Deans and Truants: Race and Realism in African American Literature.

Excerpt

Claude McKay (1889–1948) was one of the most prolific and sophisticated black writers of the first half of the twentieth century. In the July 1919 issue of the Liberator, the publication of McKay's now most celebrated poem, “If We Must Die,” catapulted him to fame within the African American community. Then, the critical praise of his 1922 volume of poetry, Harlem Shadows, anointed him the greatest living black poet since Paul Laurence Dunbar. Soon thereafter, Alain Locke, the socalled dean of the Harlem Renaissance, characterized McKay as a promising “youth” of New Negro modernism. Alongside black writers such as Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes, McKay starred in the groundbreaking collections of 1925 edited by Locke: the “Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro” issue of The Survey Graphic, published in March, and The New Negro: An Interpretation, the ever-canonical expanded version released later that year in book form. It is no surprise, then, that we tend to associate the Jamaican-born author of poetry, short stories, novels, and nonfiction with the “New Negro” or Harlem Renaissance, a movement of black art, culture, and intellectualism that spanned the period from World War I to the Great Depression.

Certain facts complicate McKay's association with the Harlem Renaissance, however. First, he was literally absent from Harlem proper during the movement. From 1919 to 1921 he toured London, and from 1923 to 1934 he traveled to parts of Soviet Russia, Berlin, Paris, Marseilles, Barcelona, Tangier, and Morocco. Second, McKay's iconoclastic approach to literature and culture alienated him from the Harlem Renaissance. Third, unlike the more apolitical members of the Harlem Renaissance, he became a Marxist-informed radical. In the United States, he read and contributed to political magazines. He did the same abroad and also attended conferences on the Bolshevik Revolution and Communism. He well deserves the label “rebel sojourner” of the Harlem Renaissance.

McKay's 1937 autobiography, A Long Way from Home, illustrates the complexity of his relationship to the Harlem Renaissance. Published in his late forties, it was the first of several books he wrote in the last . . .

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