McKay was attracted to communism in his early life, but he always asserted that he never became an official member of the Communist Party. However, some scholars dispute the claim that he was not a communist at that time, noting his close ties to active members, his attendance at communist-led events, and his months-long stay in the Soviet Union in 1922-1923, which he wrote about very favorably.  He gradually became disillusioned with communism, however, and by the mid-1930s, he had begun to write negatively about it. 
Early lifeClaude McKay was born in Nairne Castle near James Hill, Clarendon, Jamaica. He was the youngest child of Thomas Francis McKay and Hannah Ann Elizabeth Edwards, well-to-do farmers who had enough property to qualify to vote. Thomas McKay's father was of Ashanti descent, and Claude recounted that his father would share stories of Ashanti customs with him. Claude's mother was of Malagasy ancestry.
At four years old, McKay started basic school at the church that he attended. At the age of seven, he was sent to live with his oldest brother, Uriah Theodore, a teacher, to be given the best education available. While living with this brother, McKay became an avid reader of classical and British literature, as well as philosophy, science and theology. He started writing poetry at the age of 10.
In 1906, McKay became apprenticed to a carriage and cabinet maker known as Old Brenga, staying in his apprenticeship for about two years. During that time, in 1907, McKay met a man named Walter Jekyll, who became a mentor and an inspiration for him and encouraged him to concentrate on his writing. Jekyll convinced McKay to write in his native dialect and even later set some of McKay's verses to music. Jekyll helped McKay publish his first book of poems, Songs of Jamaica, in 1912. These were the first poems published in Jamaican Patois (dialect of mainly English words and African structure). McKay's next volume, Constab Ballads (1912), was based on his experiences of joining the constabulary for a brief period in 1911.
Career in the United StatesMcKay left for the U.S. in 1912 to attend Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute. McKay was shocked by the intense racism he encountered when he arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, where many public facilities were segregated, which inspired him to write more poetry. At Tuskegee, he disliked the "semi-military, machine-like existence there" and quickly left to study at Kansas State University. At Kansas State, he read W. E. B. Du Bois' Souls of Black Folk, which had a major impact on him and stirred his political involvement. But despite superior academic performance, in 1914 McKay decided he did not want to be an agronomist and moved to New York, where he married his childhood sweetheart Eulalie Lewars.
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McKay became involved with a group of black radicals who were unhappy both with Marcus Garvey's nationalism and the middle-class reformist NAACP. These included other Caribbean writers such as Cyril Briggs, Richard B. Moore and Wilfrid Domingo. They fought for black self-determination within the context of socialist revolution. Together they founded the semi-secret revolutionary organization, the African Blood Brotherhood. Hubert Harrison had asked McKay to write for Garvey's Negro World, but only a few copies of the paper have survived from this period, none of which contain any articles by McKay. McKay soon left for London, England.
In LondonMcKay arrived in London in autumn 1919. He used to frequent a soldier's club in Drury Lane and the International Socialist Club in Shoreditch. A militant atheist, he also joined the Rationalist Press Association. It was during this period that McKay's commitment to socialism deepened and he read Marx assiduously. At the International Socialist Club, McKay met Shapurji Saklatvala, A. J. Cook, Guy Aldred, Jack Tanner, Arthur McManus, William Gallacher, Sylvia Pankhurst and George Lansbury. He was soon invited to write for Workers' Dreadnought.
In 1920, the Daily Herald, a socialist paper published by George Lansbury, included a racist article written by E. D. Morel. Entitled "Black Scourge in Europe: Sexual Horror Let Loose by France on the Rhine", it insinuated gross hypersexuality on black people in general, but Lansbury refused to print McKay's response. This response then appeared in Workers' Dreadnought. This started his regular involvement with Workers' Dreadnought and the Workers' Socialist Federation, a Council Communist group active in the East End and which had a majority of women involved in it at all levels of the organization. He became a paid journalist for the paper; some people claim he was the first black journalist in Britain. He attended the Communist Unity Conference that established the Communist Party of Great Britain. At this time he also had some of his poetry published in the Cambridge Magazine, edited by C. K. Ogden.
When Sylvia Pankhurst was arrested under the Defence of the Realm Act for publishing articles "calculated and likely to cause sedition amongst His Majesty's forces, in the Navy, and among the civilian population," McKay had his rooms searched. He is likely to have been the author of "The Yellow Peril and the Dockers" attributed to "Leon Lopez", which was one of the articles cited by the government in its case against Workers' Dreadnought.
In RussiaFrom November 1922 to June 1923, he visited the Soviet Union and attended the fourth congress of the Communist International in Moscow. There, he met many leading Bolsheviks including Leon Trotsky, Nikolai Bukharin and Karl Radek. McKay wrote the manuscripts for a book of essays called Negroes in America and three stories published as Lynching in America, both of which appeared first in Russian and were re-translated into English; McKay's original English manuscripts have been lost. When Russia was under the rule of communists led by Lenin he was invited to Russia while being reconstruction of the country, out of the experience of going from one end of the country to the other he wrote one of his most famous poems: "If We Must Die." It was revolutionary and it appealed and gave courage to the minorities' fight against great odds.
Home to Harlem and other worksIn 1928, McKay published his most famous novel, Home to Harlem, which won the Harmon Gold Award for Literature. The novel, which depicted street life in Harlem, would have a major impact on black intellectuals in the Caribbean, West Africa, and Europe.
McKay's novel gained a substantial readership, especially with people who wanted to know more about the intense, and sometimes shocking, details of Harlem nightlife. His novel was an attempt to capture the energetic and intense spirit of the "uprooted black vagabonds." Home to Harlem was a work in which McKay looked among the common people for a distinctive black identity.
Despite this, the book drew fire from one of McKay's heroes, W. E. B. Du Bois. To Du Bois, the novel's frank depictions of sexuality and the nightlife in Harlem only appealed to the "prurient demand[s]" of white readers and publishers looking for portrayals of black "licentiousness." As Du Bois said, "Home to Harlem ... for the most part nauseates me, and after the dirtier parts of its filth I feel distinctly like taking a bath." Modern critics now dismiss this criticism from Du Bois, who was more concerned with using art as propaganda in the struggle for African-American political liberation than in the value of art to showcase the truth about the lives of black people.
McKay's other novels were Banjo (1929), and Banana Bottom (1933). Banjo was noted in part for its portrayal of how the French treated people from its sub-Saharan African colonies, as the novel centers on black seamen in Marseilles. Aimé Césaire stated that in Banjo, blacks were described truthfully and without "inhibition or prejudice". Banana Bottom was McKay's third novel. The book is said to follow a principal theme of a black individual in search of establishing a cultural identity in a white society. The book discusses underlying racial and cultural tensions.
McKay also authored a collection of short stories, Gingertown (1932), two autobiographical books, A Long Way from Home (1937) and My Green Hills of Jamaica (published posthumously in 1979), and a non-fiction, socio-historical treatise entitled Harlem: Negro Metropolis (1940). His collection Selected Poems (1953) was published posthumously and included a Foreword by John Dewey.
McKay became an American citizen in 1940.
Becoming disillusioned with communism, McKay embraced the social teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, to which he converted in 1944. He died from a heart attack in Chicago at the age of 59.
LegacyIn 1977, the government of Jamaica named Claude McKay the national poet and posthumously awarded him the Order of Jamaica for his contribution to literature.
In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Claude McKay on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans. He is regarded as the "foremost left-wing black intellectual of his age" and his work heavily influenced a generation of black authors including James Baldwin and Richard Wright.
- Jamaican Institute of Arts and Sciences, Musgrave Medal, 1912, for two volumes of poetry, Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads.
- Harmon Foundation Award for distinguished literary achievement, NAACP, 1929, for Harlem Shadows and Home to Harlem.
- James Weldon Johnson Literary Guild Award, 1937.
- Order of Jamaica, 1977.
Claude McKay, (born Sept. 15, 1890, Jamaica, British West Indies—died May 22, 1948, Chicago), Jamaican-born poet and novelist whose Home to Harlem (1928) was the most popular novel written by an American black to that time. Before going to the U.S. in 1912, he wrote two volumes of Jamaican dialect verse, Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads (1912).
After attending Tuskegee Institute (1912) and Kansas State Teachers College (1912–14), McKay went to New York in 1914, where he contributed regularly to The Liberator, then a leading journal of avant-garde politics and art. The shock of American racism turned him from the conservatism of his youth. With the publication of two volumes of poetry, Spring in New Hampshire (1920) and Harlem Shadows (1922), McKay emerged as the first and most militant voice of the Harlem Renaissance. After 1922 McKay lived successively in the Soviet Union, France, Spain, and Morocco. In both Home to Harlem and Banjo (1929), he attempted to capture the vitality and essential health of the uprooted black vagabonds of urban America and Europe. There followed a collection of short stories, Gingertown (1932), and another novel, Banana Bottom (1933). In all these works McKay searched among the common folk for a distinctive black identity.
After returning to America in 1934, McKay was attacked by the Communists for repudiating their dogmas and by liberal whites and blacks for his criticism of integrationist-oriented civil rights groups. McKay advocated full civil liberties and racial solidarity. In 1940 he became a U.S. citizen; in 1942 he was converted to Roman Catholicism and worked with a Catholic youth organization until his death. He wrote for various magazines and newspapers, including the New Leader and the New York Amsterdam News. He also wrote an autobiography, A Long Way from Home (1937), and a study, Harlem: Negro Metropolis (1940). His Selected Poems (1953) was issued posthumously.
Claude McKay was born in Jamaica, West Indies, in 1889. He was educated by his older brother, who possessed a library of English novels, poetry, and scientific texts.
At the age of twenty, McKay published a book of verse called Songs of Jamaica, recording his impressions of black life in Jamaica in dialect. In 1912, he travelled to the United States to attend Tuskegee Institute. He remained there only a few months, leaving to study agriculture at Kansas State University.
In 1917, he published two sonnets, "The Harlem Dancer" and "Invocation," and later used the form in writing about social and political concerns from his perspective as a black man in the United States. McKay also wrote on a variety of subjects, from his Jamaican homeland to romantic love, with a use of passionate language.
During the twenties, McKay developed an interest in Communism and travelled to Russia and then to France where he met Edna St. Vincent Millay and Lewis Sinclair. In 1934, McKay moved back to the United States and lived in Harlem, New York. Losing faith in Communism, he turned his attention to the teachings of various spiritual and political leaders in Harlem, eventually converting to Catholicism.
McKay's viewpoints and poetic achievements in the earlier part of the twentieth century set the tone for the Harlem Renaissance and gained the deep respect of younger black poets of the time, including Langston Hughes. He died in 1948.
A Selected Bibliography Poetry Constab Ballads (1912)
Harlem Shadows (1922)
Selected Poems (1953)
Songs of Jamaica (1912)
The Dialect Poetry of Claude McKay (1972)
The Passion of Claude McKay (1973)
Prose A Long Way from Home (1937)
Harlem: Negro Metropolis (1940)
The Negroes in America (1979)
Letters Banana Bottom (1933)
Banjo: A Story Without a Plot (1929)
Home to Harlem (1928)
My Green Hills of Jamaica (1979)
Trial By Lynching (1977)