THE 1920s witnessed an extraordinary flowering of literary and artistic creativity among African Americans. Critics hailed the emergence of a "New Negro," who took pride in the black race and its African heritage, and whose writings exposed and attacked discrimination, explored black folk culture, and strove to create a unique African-American literature. Yet for all its vitality, the cultural movement best known as the Harlem Renaissance was fraught with tensions: between the ideal of Africa and the reality of America; between the lure of a romanticized rural past and the demands of an alien urban present; between the need to affirm the uniqueness of black culture and the desire to achieve acceptance by the majority white culture.
Perhaps more than any other Harlem Renaissance figure, Claude McKay embodied these contradictory impulses. A Jamaican immensely proud of his peasant heritage, he abandoned his homeland, immigrated to the United States, and embarked on a career as a writer. A political radical contemptuous of all things middle class, he embraced and later rejected communism, and eventually converted to Roman Catholicism. A poet whose verse breathed militance, anger, and alienation, he dreamed of transcending racial categories and developed his closest relationships with white intellectuals.
Not surprisingly, contemporary judgments of McKay reflected these paradoxes. He was derided as a "racial opportunist," a "black fascist," a propagandist, and a charlatan. Yet he was also widely regarded as a literary genius and became the first black writer to make the best-seller list.
This book is an interpretation of the life and work of Claude McKay. My aim is twofold: to offer a psychological portrait of a complex, deeply conflicted literary figure, and to use McKay's life as a vehicle for analyzing the larger problems of identity, vocation, and politics that confronted black intellectuals and artists during the interwar years. Drawing upon a wide range of archival