Claude McKay

Claude McKay

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Claude McKay

Claude McKay was one of the most influential figures in twentieth-century African American literature. He was known world wide from the West Indies to the United States to Africa all the way to his birth place Jamaica. When mentioning controversial writers, Claude McKay comes to mind. He was first of many African American writers who would become known for speaking their minds through literature during the early 1900's. He also used his gift of creativity with words to express his feelings on various issues such as politics, human rights, and racism. (African American Writers, 305)
Claude McKay who's real name is Festus Claudius McKay was born September 15th in the year of 1890. He was born on his family farm in Sunny Ville located in the mountainous center of upper Clarendon Parish in Jamaica. Of the eleven children Thomas Francis McKay (father) and Hannah Ann Elizabeth Edwards (mother) conceived, Claude was the youngest. Thomas and Hannah managed to successfully home school all of there children including Claude up until the age of seven when he was sent to stay with his older brother U'Theo. "U'Theo became a planter, businessman, and civic leader well known throughout Jamaica." (African American Writers, 307) U'Theo was just beginning his career as a school teacher when a young Claude began his stay with him. Claude received an education from his older brother until the age of fourteen. This was to the benefit of Claude due to the fact that his brother was a graduate from Mico Teachers College in Kingston. Claude began to read a lot and by the age of ten he began writing poetry. He then entered a trade school in 1906 but was forced to return home when the school he had attended was destroyed by an earthquake. (
Shortly after returning from trade school Claude served on the island constabulary where he heard many complaints from the islands black peasants about earning a living in and around Kingston.

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Hearing these complaints inspired McKay to write such poems as "A Midnight Woman to the Bobby" and "The Apple-Woman's Complaint." These poems were collected and published in Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads.(African American Writers, 308)
After his dialect poems were published in 1912 McKay was convinced by Walter Jekyll that being a poet would not provide enough money for a living so he returned home to Jamaica. Shortly after returning home McKay left for the United States and enrolled himself into Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute located in Alabama. McKay's education in the United States was funded mostly by Walter Jekyll. McKay had intentions on studying agronomy at Tuskegee but his stay was cut short due to the harsh realities of racism and segregation that he head not been accustomed to and in addition he didn't take kindly to the discipline and rules of the college. In just a few short weeks McKay felt that the curriculum fell short of his academic expectations and therefore he transferred to Kansas State University for two years. (
After living in Kansas for two years McKay migrated to New York City where he married his childhood sweetheart Eulalie Emelda Lewars. With finances from Jekyll, McKay opened a west Indies restaurant. Due to the distractions of the city he was unable to keep up with the restaurant or his marriage which led to bankruptcy and separation. Eulalie felt that her husband wasn't paying her enough attention so she up and left while pregnant with their daughter and went back to Jamaica. His daughter was born and he never saw her, although money was sent for her. McKay's sexual preference also played a role in his marriage going down hill. He believed in free love, he was bisexual, and he had affairs with whomever attracted him, man or woman. (African American Writers, 309)
After being freed from the responsibility of marriage and business McKay began to further pursue his career in writing as he shied away from dialect poetry and began to write short, rhymed lyrics, many of which were in sonnet form, about his Jamaican childhood, love, and aspects of the racial conflict in America. (African American Writers, 309) McKay became first of many writers who voiced the opinion of the suppressed black people through literature, and in 1917 his first New York publication was in The Seven Arts magazine which published "The Harlem Dancer" and "Invocation". After these poems were published many were to follow. In 1918 Pearson's Magazine published four of McKay's poems- "The Conqueror," "Harlem Shadows," "Is it Worthwhile," and "To the White Friends." One of his most known poems is "If We Must Die" which was published in Max Eastman's Liberator in 1919. In this militant and angry sonnet McKay addresses the issue of blacks being attacked and beaten by white mobs during this time, and urges blacks to fight against injustice. Through this poem McKay expresses black America's mood of desperation and defiance. Here are a few lines from the text: If we must die, let it not be like hogs Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot, . . . Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack, Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back! (African American Literature textbook)
It was by writing poems such as "If We Must Die" that brought McKay good reviews from fellow writers such as James Weldon Johnson and Walter White. One nationalist critic "George Kent found McKay's work important because it prepared the way for a self-consciously independent black literature." (African American Writers, 306) Although most blacks agreed with the words of McKay, W.E.B. Du Boise felt that he was writing to please a white persons perception of how blacks lived and acted. (African American Writers)
In 1937 McKay published his autobiography, A Long Way from Home. It was the culmination of his life as a political activist, novelist, essayist and poet. McKay died a few years later at the age of 58. He influenced several Harlem Renaissancers such as Langston Hughes, and he is considered one of the main stimulators of the Negritude Movement--another literary movement whose proponents tried to classify a black -based, African-based aesthetic founded on what the writers and poets of the Harlem Renaissance created.

Works Cited

Internet Sources: McKay, retrieved June 6, 2006, retrieved May 5, 2006
African American Writers
African American Writers (textbook)
Modern Black Writers- volume 1
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