Claude McKay: Jamaica's Poet Laureate 1890 - 1948
we must die, let it not be like hogs
SO QUOTED Winston Churchill in a speech before Parliament in the 1940s in which he issued a rallying cry for Britain to go to war against Hitler's Nazi Germany. An anthem of resistance, the sonnet belongs to Jamaican-born poet Claude McKay who wrote these words in 1919 during what was known as the Red Summer a period of particular racial violence against American blacks.
Yet, although McKay continued to write, he was not yet ready to devote his life to writing. Unsure of his true calling but knowing it was not cabinetmaking he left his apprenticeship in 1911 to join the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF). This experience was difficult and short-lived as he decided to migrate to America in 1912. McKay had a hard time adjusting to urban life in Kingston and many themes found in his later work the opposition of urban and rural life, class differences and the concept of exile - first appeared in "The Constab Ballads," a work inspired by his time with the JCF. In America he enrolled in Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to study agronomy. Instead, he encountered the harsh reality of racism in the American south an experience that would inspire much of his subsequent poetry. At the time of his migration he had already published two volumes of dialect verse "Songs of Jamaica" (1912) and "Constab Ballads" (1912). Indeed his early dialect poetry is today seen as critical to the development of a national Jamaican literature.
McKay eventually became an editor at Eastman's The Liberator. A staunch socialist who would increasingly embrace the tenets of communism, regarding it as an alternative to racism and colonialism, he also wrote articles for a number of left-wing publications. His protest poetry of the early 1920s was seen to exemplify the New Negro spirit. In addition to "If We Must Die" other notable pieces, all sonnets, include "Baptism," "The White House," and "The Lynching." Their strength lies in McKay's choice of the working class as his focus and his direct way of dealing with racial issues as shown in the following excerpt from the "White House:"
door is shut against my face,
It is not surprising that other Harlem Renaissance poets such as Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson and Countée Cullen, cited McKay as a leading inspirational force.
IN ENGLAND, RUSSIA AND AFRICA
Although known today more for his poetry, particularly his early sonnets,
than his novels, his 1928 novel, Home to Harlem, received wide
critical acclaim and was the most popular novel by a black American
author at the time. It stirred up a great deal of controversy due to
its depiction of the underside of Harlem life.
Although McKay remained a socialist throughout his life he did distance himself from communism in the 1930s and began to be involved in anti-communism movements. He produced the non-fiction work, Harlem: Negro Metropolis, which did not gain much attention despite its heavy anti-communist stance.
His book, On Becoming a Catholic was published in 1945. His second autobiography, My Green Hills of Jamaica, was published posthumously in 1979.
Assessments of McKay's influence vary. While recent years have seen increased interest in his novels and autobiographies, modern critics still tend to agree that McKay's greatest literary contributions are to be found among his early sonnets. McKay ended one of his sonnets, A Long Way from Home, with this apt self-assessment, which in itself could have been a fitting epitaph: "I have nothing to give but my singing. All my life I have been a troubadour wanderer, nourishing myself mainly on the poetry of existence. And all I offer here is the distilled poetry ofmy experience."
The Harlem Renaissance From 1920 until about 1930 an unprecedented
outburst of creative activity among African-Americans occurred in all
fields of art. Beginning as a series of literary discussions in the
lower Manhattan (Greenwich Village) and upper Manhattan (Harlem) sections
of New York City, this African-American cultural movement became known
as "The New Negro Movement" and later as the Harlem Renaissance. More
than a literary movement and more than a social revolt against racism,
the Harlem Renaissance exalted the unique culture of African-Americans
and redefined African-American expression. African-Americans were encouraged
to celebrate their heritage and to become "The New Negro," a term coined
in 1925 by sociologist and critic Alain LeRoy Locke. One of the factors
contributing to the rise of the Harlem Renaissance was the great migration
of African-Americans to northern cities (such as New York City, Chicago,
and Washington, D.C.) between 1919
Sources: http://www.nku.edu/ ~diesmanj/harlem_intro.html http://www.anb.org/articles/16/16-01105.html; Burnett, P. (1986). Editor. The Pennguin Book of Caribbean Verse. London, Penguin Group, http://www. nku. edu/ ~diesmanj/ harlem_intro.html
A Jamaica Gleaner Feature originally posted December 30, 2002
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