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Life Sketch of Claude McKay

Life sketches of poets and other writers afford readers a glimpse into the writing process, backgrounding the creativity of each artist.

Claude McKay

Claude McKay

Early Life

Born in Jamaica on September 15, 1889, to Thomas Francis McKay and Hannah Edwards, Festus Claudius Mckay (later shortened to Claude McKay) received a home-school education in the English master writers through his older brother, Uriah Theophilus McKay, who was a teacher. Claude was the youngest of eleven children. His parents were wealthy Baptist farmers, who owned the required number of acres that allowed them to vote.

McKay’s father Thomas descended from the Ashanti and his mother Hannah from the Malagasy. His father was a devoutly religious man with a serious nature which contrasted with his mother’s outgoing warmth. Claude learned many of the Ashanti customs from his father’s retelling of narratives from that culture. Both parents remained well-respected, active members of their church.

Claude McKay speaking at the Communist International in 1922 in Russia

Claude McKay speaking at the Communist International in 1922 in Russia

Claude McKay and Communism

After relocating to the U.S.A. from Jamaica, Claude McKay became disillusioned by the racism that at the time held America in its grip. Like many other young black poets, including Langston Hughes, McKay developed a fascination with communism, thinking that under that governmental form, racism would be eliminated.

Five years after the Russian Revolution of 1917, McKay traveled to Russia in 1922; in the Throne Room of the Kremlin, he delivered an address to the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, proposing the establishment of a communist organization primarily for black people. McKay reasoned that because the Revolution had spoken out against the Czarist anti-Semitism, it would be more accommodating in racial issues.

While McKay flirted with the notion that communism could solve race problems, he became disillusioned by the reality of the enforcement of that type of government. According to Owen Walsh, McKay’s style of communism was prompted by his desire for "rural simplicity," which rebelled against traditional civilization.

Furthermore, Owen Walsh confesses that that brand of communism is antithetical to Marxism because Marxist ideology contends that there is a necessity to develop the forces of production to its highest levels, but it must do so under "collective ownership" and "democratic control" by "the people" rather than the prevailing system under capitalism.

Communist propaganda had influenced the American black literati to believe that the Soviet Union remained a welcoming place for African descendants. However, according to Zakiyyah Job,

Soviet Russia, however, was far from a paragon of minority rights. The USSR had an infamous reputation for exterminating and repatriating ethnic minority groups, deporting millions of starving working class farmers throughout the 1930s as “enemies of the people”. Indeed, it would eventually be revealed that the Soviet Union had its own form of slavery.

With Joseph Stalin’s counter-revolution and installation as dictator of the USSR from 1929 to 1953, McKay and many of his contemporaries became disillusioned with communism, but they still engaged in activism for civil rights in America. Their efforts were invaluable in bringing about the atmosphere in which the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would end systemic racism in the USA.

After his trip to Russia, McKay then traveled to France, where he became acquainted with novelist and social activist, Lewis Sinclair, and American poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay.

After McKay lost his enthusiasm for communism and returned to the U.S.A., he settled in Harlem and while retaining his interests in politics, he also developed an interest in religion and spirituality and converted to Catholicism.

McKay's influence in politics and spiritual teachings helped him achieve a poetic style that attracted the younger writers of the Harlem Renaissance, including Langston Hughes, who became one of the leading voices of that literary movement.

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Claude McKay and Publishing

Claude McKay had began publishing poetry in 1912 with his Songs of Jamaica, in which he wrote about Jamaican life in a Jamaican dialect. By 1912, the poet had relocated to the USA, where he attended Tuskegee Institute briefly, before transferring to Kansas State University, where he studied agriculture.

In 1917, Mckay's next publishing adventure included two tightly structured sonnets: "The Harlem Dancer," an English (or Shakespearean) sonnet, and "Invocation," an Italian (or Petrarchan) sonnet. He continued to experiment with the sonnet form as he drifted into political interests and social activism.

His poetry collections include Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads (1912), Spring in New Hampshire (1920), Harlem Shadows (1922), Selected Poems (1953), The Dialectic Poetry of Claude McKay (1972), and The Passion of Claude McKay: Selected Poetry and Prose (1973).

One of the poet’s most noted poems is the following, which first appeared in the magazine, Liberator, edited by communist sympathizer, Max Eastman:

If We Must Die

If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!

O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

Reading of "If We Must Die"

Demonstrating the universality of the message in "If We Must Die," Jean Wagner, in Black Poets of the United States, has remarked that the poem reveals the "will of oppressed people of every age who, whatever their race and wherever their region, are fighting with their backs against the wall to win their freedom."

In addition to poetry, McKay added several novels to the Western literary canon. His first Home to Harlem, published in 1928, featured a black soldier named Jake, who leaves behind his military duties to return "home to Harlem." The novel also portrays the squalor of life in the ghetto, but despite its sordid scenes, it became wildly popular, garnering McKay’s recognition as the first black writer to boast a commercially successful novel.

In 1929, McKay published his second novel, Banjo, based on his sojourn in France. The novel portrays dockworkers in Marseilles, as it records the experience of "beach boys" who discuss race issues in France and in other countries. The work is considered semi-autobiographical with an emphasis on a lifestyle that sought out pleasure and decadence. While his second novel helped to cement McKay’s reputation as a genuine artist, it failed to garner the financial success and acclaim that had been afforded Home to Harlem.

In 1933, McKay added a third novel to his resumé with Banana Bottom, which gained much critical acclaim as the poet’s most skillful treatment of a black individual’s predicament. The novel’s first reception was lukewarm, but as time progressed, its worth has been reevaluated and many critics now cite the work as McKay’s finest contribution to literature.

In his later life, the poet resided chiefly in Chicago. He completely renounced communism. In 1942, he had converted to Catholicism. After a number of years of deteriorating health and heart problems, he died at age 58 of heart failure on May 22, 1948, in Chicago. His funeral was held in Harlem, after which was buried in Calvary Cemetery in Woodside, Queens County, New York.


Tombstone of Claude Mckay with the  inscription: "PEACE, O MY REBEL HEART!"

Tombstone of Claude Mckay with the inscription: "PEACE, O MY REBEL HEART!"

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Linda Sue Grimes

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