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.1 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 by his mother, but furtive with his father. Thomas Francis McKay acquired with cutlass and pickax enough property in lush, mountainous Clarendon Parish to qualify as a voter. This measure of hard-won prosperity was not all that set the McKays apart. McKay’s “top-lofty” father was the product of a missionary education that made him hostile to the “relaxed morality” of his neighbors, and he disapproved, as a senior deacon of his small community’s Baptist church, of the widespread practice of obeah, the “evil magic” of African origin.
Responsibility for McKay’s education fell to his eldest brother, U’Theo, a school-teacher in a little town near Montego Bay who, McKay recalled with provincial pride, was “the first in the country to stage the ‘Hallelujah Chorus.’ ” McKay, then age seven, in shoes for the first time, enjoyed his status as the teacher’s brother. The debate between Darwinism and Christianity had no trouble penetrating the back-country parishes, and during his adolescence McKay was fed on Victorian classics from his brother’s library, on a steady stream of British journals, and on popular titles like East Lynne. McKay never got over the mystique of these high and low influences. He wrote, later, that “the direction of our schooling was of course English, and was so successful that we really believed we were little black Britons.”
McKay returned home to Sunny Ville, where his father’s demands for obedience proved oppressive. He entered a trade school in Kingston in 1907, but an earthquake, the worst since 1696, leveled the school before the term began, and his longing for urban living ended in disappointment. The fledgling romantic invited his soul to loaf under the pimento trees and he found a mentor in Walter Jekyll, an English iconoclast who had settled in the Blue Mountains northeast of Kingston. A polyglot and self-styled rationalist, Jekyll tutored McKay over the next five years in the great works of European civilization, which, McKay later confessed, were sometimes more interesting to hear about than to read.
“One can only guess,” Cooper writes, “at the exact nature of the relationship” between Jekyll and the dark, muscular, coy McKay, who “thirsted for the reassurance and approval of an older, authoritative voice. It was a pattern McKay would repeat with older men in various places to the very end of his life.” Jekyll was the first to open up to McKay the possibility of making a life as a writer. Their intimacy also brought McKay into contact with the island’s elite, and placed him “on the edge of native life.” The refined Jekyll, however, was what McKay never could be, a gentleman of means, and perhaps McKay’s lifelong impatience with the reformist goals of the American black leadership had its beginnings in Jekyll’s aristocratic disdain for the material values of the middle class.
Jekyll shared with his sister Gertrude a love of Surrey country folk and a nostalgia for preindustrial worlds. He collected and published native Jamaican songs and stories and urged dialect on McKay as “the real thing.” McKay hesitated at first because, he explained, dialect was “a vulgar tongue…the language of the peasants. All cultivated people spoke English, straight English.” Indeed, before his first collections, Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads, both published in 1912, no black West Indian, Cooper points out, “had ever before attempted to use local island dialect as his primary poetic medium.”
Many of the poems in these books deal with the expected subjects of love, loss of faith, and the trials of the poet’s calling. Jekyll may have introduced McKay to the poetry of Robert Burns, but there is more of Kipling, Browning, and W.E. Henley in these collections than there is of the “heaven-taught plowman.” The liveliest poems are the dramatic monologues that employ the language and perspective of the peasants, that speak about the marginal lives of the poor:
De peas won’t pop, de corn can’t grow, Poor people face look sad;
Dat Gahd would cuss de lan’ I’d know For black naygur too bad.
During a desultory period in the Kingston constabulary in 1911 (“I didn’t want to tell Mr. Jekyll that I had run away from home to be near him”), McKay witnessed injustice in Spanish Town and came to believe that there was a moral ambiguity in his position as a black man in a white man’s uniform. Constab Ballads was written out of “a most improper sympathy for the wrongdoer.” McKay understood the displaced who had fled the poverty of the countryside for the hazards of the city. In one poem a streetwalker’s invective against a young black policeman shows that she knows all about where she came from and what his pretensions amount to:
No palm me up, you dutty brute,
You’ jam mout’ mash like ripe bread- fruit;
You fas’n now, but wait lee ya,
I’ll see you grunt under de law….
An when de pinch o’ time you feel
An ‘pur you a you’ chigger heel,
You lef’ you’ district, big an’ coarse
An’ came join buccra Police Force.
(“A Midnight Woman to the Bobby”)
In another poem, a street peddler confronts harassment from the police:
Black nigger wukin’ laka cow
An’ wipin’ sweat-drops from him brow,
Dough him is dyin’ sake o’ need,
P’lice an’ dem headman boun’ fe feed….
Ah son-son! dough you’re bastard yah,
An’ dere’s no one you can call pa,
Jes’ try to ha’ you mudder’s min’
An’ Police Force you’ll neber jine.
(“The Apple-Woman’s Complaint”)
None of the early dialect poems was included in his Selected Poems (1953), and as one tallies up the monotonous heroic couplets in that volume, one suspects that McKay was not altogether convinced by Jekyll’s belief in the honor of dialect. His last novel, Banana Bottom (1933), may contain a clue to his ambivalence: the villagers laugh at one of their musicians because “greatness could not exist in the backwoods. Nor anywhere in the colony. To them and to all islanders greatness was a foreign thing.”
McKay, at twenty-two, had won recognition as a local poet, but Jamaica in 1912 was too small for his ambition. He would later make use of his memory of the yellow byroads and sweet-voiced streams, the dainty Spanish needle and the pea doves in the wild fig trees, but his solace in the commonplaces of home involved selective recall. The choices open to ambitious young men from the peasantry were limited to the pulpit, the schoolroom, a trade, government service, or farming. Clawing upward did not appeal to the willful, rebellious McKay. One might say that literature was the way out, which may have been the reason he took such offense when, on his first visit to London, Shaw suggested that he might have been happier as a boxer.
Meanwhile, McKay had to work with what he had. When some of Booker T. Washington’s associates toured Jamaica in 1912, they persuaded McKay that the Tuskegee Institute represented the best hope for blacks. Jekyll was dismayed, but he believed enough in his dream that McKay would one day come back as an agricultural instructor to pay a large part of the cost. McKay for his part was lured not by the chance to study agronomy, but by rumors of a land of magical opportunity. “Going to America was the greatest event in the history of our hills.”
Nothing in McKay’s upbringing prepared him for the shock of segregation in the American South. Jamaica had a class system, but no code of laws governed every aspect of a black’s social existence, from whom a black could not marry down to which public toilet a black could use. Tuskegee, too, was a disappointment. McKay was awed by Washington’s “paternal grace,” but he disliked the “semi-military, machinelike” regimen at Tuskegee. Dedicated to the production of hard-working blacks who would adapt to the harshness of Jim Crow, Tuskegee provided few intellectual challenges for McKay. He quickly transferred to another school. Kansas State College had a more progressive atmosphere and a small group of white students initiated McKay into socialist politics. He also learned there about The Souls of Black Folk (1903), Du Bois’s landmark exploration of, among other things, the trauma of the inner life that blacks had to overcome.
The Passion of Claude McKay: Selected Prose and Poetry 1912–1948 (Schocken Books, 1973).↩
The Passion of Claude McKay: Selected Prose and Poetry 1912–1948 (Schocken Books, 1973).↩