Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance
Claude McKay, “the enfant terrible of the Negro Renaissance,” was born into a religious family of ambitious, small landholders in Jamaica in 1890. Though he published two short volumes of dialect verse in his early youth, invoked the idyll of his rural childhood in some of his later, conventional poetry, and drew from his experiences among the colonial peasantry for much of his fiction, the volatile McKay lived a life of utter deracination. He left the hill country of his native land in 1912 and never went back.
Vagabond, rebel, truant—his words—McKay suffered from a restlessness that took him from Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to the rostrum of the Fourth Congress of the International in Moscow in 1922. Along the way he gave up agricultural studies in Kansas, a marriage, menial jobs around Harlem, and editorial work on Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers’ Dreadnought in London and Max Eastman’s Liberator in the Village. He wrote his best books—Home to Harlem (1928), Banjo (1929), and Gingertown (1932)—while living in France and Morocco, and therefore belongs as much to the Lost Generation as he does to the Negro Awakening. McKay was destined to live on the rails, so to speak, and he did so as a moody fellow traveler, ambivalent about every move he made, including his last one, into the Catholic Church. He died in Chicago in 1948, indigent and largely forgotten as a writer.
McKay’s anarchic life is more gripping to us now than are the high-minded lessons of his work, particularly the poetry, limited in range as it is to either schematic protests or sentimental lyrics. Wayne Cooper’s achievement is to have lifted McKay’s mask of rhetoric to uncover a pioneer who made out of the social and political storms of his time a valiant if unhappy career as a militant critic of racism, polemicist against left-wing obtuseness, scourge of the black intelligentsia, and portraitist of ordinary black folk. Cooper, who edited an important volume of McKay’s essays, letters, poetry, and fiction, has resisted the impulse to clean up his subject’s act, a tendency in biographies of blacks that has made many cultural figures seem wooden models of advocacy and good intentions. McKay’s reputation may have declined in his lifetime, but the worth he found in the culture of the black masses had an immediate influence on a generation of Harlem writers, as well as on the young leaders of the Négritude movement in France, and few black writers have so dramatically embodied the problem of identity, the matter of standing between two worlds, removed and distant from one, yet not completely belonging and then compelled to not want to belong to the other.
McKay’s description of his early years in his memoir, My Green Hills of Jamaica, written in the Thirties, is too rapturous to be trusted. The youngest of eight, he remembered a comfortable, secure childhood in which he was pampered …