Festus Claudius McKay was born in Clarendon, Jamaica on September 15th, 1889 to Thomas Francis and Hannah Ann Elizabeth Edwards McKay. He lived in Jamaica until 1912, three years after the death of his mother. Then, in 1912 he moved to the United States to pursue the writing and employment opportunities available there, as they were scarce in Jamaica at the time. Until 1914, McKay lived in several parts of the States working various jobs, finally however he settled in Harlem, New York working as a fulltime writer. Claude McKay’s life was busy. His autobiography entitled A Long Way From Home , gives an in depth personal account of his life as a writer. Two themes McKay emphasizes in his autobiography are his role in the Harlem Renaissance and his strong opinions on politics, which developed as World War I and II progressed.
McKay’s describes his role in the Harlem Renaissance as a very complicated one. Simply put, McKay’s association with the Harlem Renaissance is indirect due to his frequent travels around the world. Despite his extensive travels, McKay contributed enough to be considered an important figure of the Harlem Renaissance. McKay’s rise to prominence as an important leader of the Harlem Renaissance began with his penning of the poem “If We Must Die”, which described the bloodshed and violence that occurred against African Americans in Washington D.C. during the Summer of 1919. The editors of the Liberator, Crystal and Max Eastman, were the first to ask McKay for his permission to publish his poem.
“[If We Must Die] appeared first in the Liberator, then in countless black periodicals and international venues. Soon, many appropriated the poem, including Winston Churchill, who referred to the poem in a speech encouraging British troops during World War II.” (McKay)
With this poem, McKay garnered a strong fan base consisting of Caucasian and African Americans followers. McKay used his newfound fame as platform to express and influence the public with his radical ideas. One of his main radical was as a prominent figure of the New Negro Movement of the Harlem Renaissance. Black Gotham: A History of African Americans in Nineteenth Century New York City defines the New Negro as one who,
“[R]ejected any narrow and parochial definition of themselves [as Black American]…many of them had a cosmopolitan sensibility. Reading, study, work, and travel abroad gave them an opening onto a new world of culture, taste, and aesthetic appreciation that extended far beyond their racial group, their city, and even their nation…[they were] determined…to expand their identity beyond that of ‘colored American’ to ‘include citizen of the world.’” (Peterson 130)
As a leader of the New Negro movement, McKay urged African Americans to increase their knowledge and seek out the world around them through education as a step forward in ending the intense racism (segregation) existing at the time. McKay and other New Negroes of the time period were part of the emerging black aristocracy, who enjoyed increased leisure and devoted more time to worldly concerns.
The second theme McKay emphasized were the troubles he faced in New York as a result of his strong political views. In 1919, McKay became a Communist. McKay unlike other leaders of the Harlem Renaissance had extreme political views. The racial injustices occurring in America at the time greatly influenced McKay’s decision to embrace communism. In particular, while he was working as a waiter for the Pennsylvania Railroad Company in 1917, on one of his pit stops in Philadelphia, a cop falsely arrested him. Resulting in him spending 2 days in jail and almost getting fired form his job. In court, the cop justified his arrest of McKay to supposedly deviant behavior. In other words, McKay was a victim of racial profiling. For McKay communism offered a new beginning, a chance to level the playing field and equalize everyone in all aspects of life. On several occasions, McKay was arrested for being a politically outspoken extremist. In fact, in London in 1919 when Sylvia Pankhurst, a fellow communist was arrested, McKay’s room was also searched for evidence that would incriminate him as an enemy of the British state. The search was inconclusive. McKay attended conferences in Russia held by Leon Trotsky during the Bolshevik Revolution. In November to December of 1922, he attended the Fourth Congress of Communist International. Also, he was a member of the Communist- supported Negro’s Writers’ Guild. In Russia he had many responsibilities such as,
“Sometimes I had to participate in three different meetings in one day: factory meetings, meetings of soviets, youth meetings, educational conferences in colleges and schools, the meetings of poets and writers, and theatrical performances. I was introduced to interesting sections of the new social and cultural life of Moscow and Petrograd.” (McKay 136)
Claude McKay lived an eventful life. McKay is one of the most successful black writers in history; he produced 10 books and published many articles and poems in various publications. His work is widely read around the world and has won numerous awards. Furthermore, as a person of black ethnicity he was fortunate to have traveled to many countries of Europe, to serve as an editor of the Liberator, and to be a major contributor to the Harlem Renaissance. Sadly, all good things must come to an end. For McKay the end was 1949, he died at the age of 59 of dropsy.
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