Claude McKay
Claude McKay; drawing by David Levine


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.
(“Hard Times”)

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.

Blacks, Du Bois argued, had “no true self-consciousness” and were condemned to see themselves through the received ideas of white society. This led to a “double consciousness,” to “measuring one’s soul by the tape of an alien world.” Blacks felt a “twoness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled stirrings: two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” Du Bois’s appeal to reason and to conscience had nothing of the folk about it. He not only spoke for the “Talented Tenth,” he spoke to it, of “the island within,” and in a style educated blacks of the grim post-Reconstruction era craved as the most telling demonstration of equality. Du Bois’s words gave to McKay a way to introduce defiant racial content into the poetic forms he revered.

The Souls of Black Folk attacked Booker T. Washington’s “dangerous half-truths” about the black condition and was a herald of profound changes in the struggle for equal rights. When McKay decided to quit his studies and leave Kansas in 1914, blacks stood at what Nathan Hare called “the crossroads” between “conservative assimilation and militant pluralism.” Washington’s fantasy of the races cooperating like the fingers of a hand would lose its influence over blacks to the aggressive legalistic approach of the NAACP. Harlem was to be the center of new intellectual and political activity. McKay, “gripped by the lust to wander and to wonder,” joined the mass migration of blacks who were out to shed the rural past in favor of the urban future.

Cooper speculates that money from Jekyll may have helped to raise McKay’s expectations about the immigrant’s tidy life that he tried to make for himself in New York in 1914. He married a Jamaican sweetheart and opened a restaurant in a tough part of Brooklyn, but he “remained unfulfilled” by the treadmill of Monday to Monday. Both ventures failed, owing to “high living” and “bad business.” The respectability McKay was called upon by birth to pursue he was driven by temperament to escape. His wife returned to Jamaica, he consoled himself with partners of both sexes, and rather than go home a nobody, he resolved to “graduate” from life as a poet: “I waded through the muck and the scum with the one objective dominating my mind,” McKay wrote in his autobiography, A Long Way from Home (1937). In his work he abandoned dialect altogether and in poems like “My Werther Days” he “reverted,” as Cooper describes it, “to a stilted imitation of German and English romantic models he first read in Jamaica.” He submitted his work to William Stanley Braithwaite, the closet Negro of the Boston Evening Transcript. Braithwaite was in 1916 the only black editor at a major newspaper, and McKay’s complaint that editors were only interested in his poetry on racial subjects was calculated to win the conservative Braithwaite’s approval. Braithwaite turned his poems down.

To support his ambition, he found steady employment as a dining-car waiter with the Pennsylvania Railroad. The job enabled him to observe closely the people and customs of the black belts of the Northeast, from which came the material for the best fiction he was to write.

It was not until I was forced down among the rough body of the great serving class of Negroes that I got to know my Aframerica. I was perhaps then at the most impressionable adult age and the warm contact with my workmates…their spontaneous ways of acting on and living for the moment,…the loose freedom in contrast to the definite peasant patterns by which I had been raised—all served to feed the riotous sentiments smoldering in me and cut me finally from the fixed moorings my mind had been led to respect, but to which my heart never held.

However, McKay’s idea of where he would find his literary peers led him to look beyond the black belt. He was more interested in what was going on downtown than uptown. Though in 1919 he joined a largely West Indian semisecret revolutionary organization, the African Blood Brotherhood for African Liberation and Redemption, which, because of the anti-imperialism of Bolshevism, served in the early Twenties as a source of black recruits to the Communist party, he did not publish in the black socialist magazines. Cooper notes, “McKay from the first sought acceptance in national publications whose readers were predominantly white.” His earliest appearances in print in America were in Seven Arts in 1917 and Frank Harris’s Pearson’s Magazine in 1918, and included poems that had been rejected by The Crisis.

McKay was particularly attracted to the “impertinent,” pro-Wobbly Masses, which had been banned for its antiwar stand, and then revived as the Liberator, edited by Max Eastman and his sister. Crystal, whose upper-class manners McKay liked as much as their political beliefs. As Cooper writes, “Eastman took the place that Jekyll had occupied on McKay’s life: patron, friend, confidant, and sympathetic critic.” Eastman, given the barrenness of the surrounding landscape, sincerely believed that “he had discovered in McKay the greatest lyric poet the race had ever produced.”

McKay’s association with the Liberator came at a time of widespread labor and racial unrest. The Red Scare in the spring of 1919 led to mob violence against radicals, mass arrests, and deportations. The black expectations that had been raised by Du Bois’s call to “close ranks” behind the war effort were betrayed by the Wilson government. The Red Scare gave way to the Red Summer of 1919. Devastating riots by whites against blacks broke out across the nation. McKay remembered that

traveling from city to city and unable to gauge the attitude and temper of each one, we Negro railroad men were nervous. We were less lighthearted. We did not separate from one another gaily to spread ourselves in speakeasies and gambling joints. We stuck together, some of us armed, going from the railroad station to our quarters. We stayed in our quarters all through the dreary, ominous nights, for we never knew what was going to happen.

The Liberator published seven of McKay’s poems in “an explosive two-page spread,” among them “If We Must Die,” the poem that made him famous:

If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the com- mon foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

Frequently declaimed in churches and at mass meetings, “If We Must Die” was embraced as the creed of the New Negro. McKay had arrived, as if by spontaneous combustion.


The poems McKay wrote during this period “exploded” out of him, he later explained, once he followed Frank Harris’s advice not to conceal his true feelings about the treatment of blacks, but to rise and storm the heights “like Milton when he wrote ‘On the Late Massacre in Piedmont.’ ” A more probable model is the stoicism of Rupert Brooke’s contemporary sonnet, “The Soldier” (“If I should die, think only this of me…”). McKay’s protest poetry is surely of greater historical than literary interest, although McKay himself was inclined forever afterward to make sweeping statements about his work. “I have adhered to such of the older traditions as I find adequate for my most lawless and revolutionary passions and moods.”

Nathan Huggins, in Harlem Renaissance, offers a convincing analysis of McKay’s shortcomings as a poet. McKay’s poetry, Huggins says, represents “the idealization of the Negro against his oppression.” It was personal to the extent that the persona depended upon a projection of himself as “exemplary.” But he

was indifferent to as well as careless of image…. Form forced him into strange syntax. It did not make him spontaneous and free. Rather, it pushed him into impossible inversions…. Formal matters as well as personal attitudes inhibited McKay from transforming his bitterness and disillusionment…. What emerges is a tone of personal defiance…depending almost wholly on rhetorical and argumentative style.2

McKay was not, like Langston Hughes, a natural bohemian, nor was he, like Sterling Brown, a scholar; he did not have Jean Toomer’s lyrical gifts. All three had been able to create folk voices in their poetry. Perhaps a certain insecurity made it impossible for McKay to commit himself to the urban black experience, even as he used it. McKay was closer to the Keats-haunted Countee Cullen. There was, however, an important difference: McKay saw himself as an heir to the pastoral tradition, but in his sonnets he wrote about racial themes with what was considered, back then, uncompromising directness. One does not feel that in his admiration for “Byron, Shelley, Keats, Blake…and the rest” he wanted to write like whites and thereby harbored a secret desire to be white, as Hughes, in his famous manifesto, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” suggested of black poets like Countee Cullen.

The limitations of his ability and tastes, the blind spots of his sentimental and narrow education, were against him. The notion that the poet had no place in a utilitarian society was a comfort to an ambitious black. Rising above it all was preferable to being always at the bottom. McKay clung to the dignity of the poet, to his elaboration of romanticism, and believed in a mastery that eluded him because literary success meant nothing less than vindication. McKay once said that poetry chose him. There is something indescribably sad about the picture of McKay rushing to scribble verse on scrap paper in the washroom of a moving train or welcoming visitors to his room with a dictionary of rhyme in hand.

Funds from two admirers allowed McKay to get away from the racial tensions of America in 1919 to “de homeland England,” where he flourished as a journalist of the left, reporting on a variety of political events for Sylvia Pankhurst’s Worker’s Dreadnought. Socialist dogmatists put him in mind of orthodox theologians, and his experiences among them taught him more than he cared to know about the real and comic dangers of conspiracy. Disillusioned, McKay returned to New York and the Liberator in 1921. He endured the humiliation of trying to review plays from the buzzard’s roost and having the police break up a benefit because he was dancing with a white woman. Such incidents made him intransigent in his conviction that the Liberator should devote more of its pages to the problems of blacks. “This racial question may be eventually the monkey wrench thrown into the machinery of the American revolutionary struggle,” he wrote. It was probably around this time that McKay became a member of the underground Communist Party of America, though he was hardly a disciplined participant and would later deny that he had ever carried a card.

The Liberator strongly supported the Soviet Union, but it was not a Party magazine. Party programs never inhibited his writing, as they did that of, say, C.L.R. James. Nor did McKay join the protest tradition of the NAACP or Garvey’s grass-roots Back to Africa movement, and his differences with them were not only ideological. McKay’s family was dark-skinned and he grew up to resent light-skinned blacks. He never trusted the NAACP’s light-skinned leadership. Black Americans could also resent West Indians—“monkey chasers.” Marcus Garvey, for example, also a dark-skinned Jamaican, was sued for libel for his remarks about his light-skinned opponents.

McKay has been criticized for standing apart, for not fitting in, for drawing his inspiration from Harlem and yet remaining an outside observer. Harold Cruse maintains that McKay’s neutrality was self-serving, that “wary of whole-hearted commitment to anything but his own art,” he was “blandly attempting to ‘play ball’ with white radicals, the NAACP, the Harlem Renaissance literati, and all the rich white patrons he could locate.”3 But McKay was some ten years older than most of the black writers generally associated with the Harlem Renaissance. When he first moved to New York, Harlem was then just becoming the “capital of the Negro world.” There were no Urban League banquets to put young black writers on display, the Crisis and Opportunity had yet to promote black writers as “New Negroes,” and when one thinks of the melee of white patrons who lavished themselves on black writers in the Twenties, McKay seems almost self-made.

What McKay found downtown with the Liberator that he could not find uptown was work, and, with Charlie Chaplin and E.E. Cummings dropping by, a spirited place to belong. In Love and Revolution Eastman remembered McKay as the aristocrat in the crowd who, underneath the protective urbanity, was “a complex knot of tangled impulses out of which fits of unaccountably spiteful behavior would at times burst. But most of the time he was merely mischievous and altogether lovable.” McKay was free to reinvent himself in the atmosphere of Greenwich Village, but there was an invisible line that he could not cross, and that his friends were unaware of. “What, then, was my main psychological problem? It was the problem of color. Color consciousness was the fundamental of my restlessness.” Eastman turned over the editorship of the Liberator to both McKay and Michael Gold, but McKay resigned eight months later, exhausted by Gold’s proletarian pretensions.

Harlem Shadows, McKay’s most important volume of poetry, appeared in 1922. It included his militant poems and lyrics that describe Jamaica as a lost Eden in a conventional and genteel style. (“My Mother”: “The dawn departs, the morning is begun, / The Trades come whispering from off the seas, /…Over the earth where mortals sow and reap—/ Beneath its breast my mother lies asleep.”) However, McKay was not satisfied by his success and his elevation as a “pace-setter” among black poets. He longed to escape from the “pit of poverty and sex,” from “self-pity” and the “hot syncopated fascination of Harlem, from the suffocating ghetto of color consciousness.” He was stirred by the idea of Russia. “If I were a Negro…/ I would learn Russian / just because / Lenin spoke it,” Mayakovsky said.

The Fourth Party Congress in 1922 was McKay’s apotheosis as an international Communist, but even as he was cheered from Petrograd to Kronstadt, borne aloft as an omen of good luck, “a black ikon,” on the shoulders of soldiers and sailors along Tverskaya Boulevard, he began to doubt that racial justice could be attained through world revolution.4 “I had mobilized my African features and won the masses of the people. The Bolshevik leaders…were using me for entertainment,” he later wrote. Aware that his celebrity amounted to an elevated form of tokenism, McKay nevertheless took advantage of the platform that his visibility offered to describe conditions in America realistically. (“Leavenworth is not Siberia.”) In his speeches and articles, McKay bitterly assessed the relationship of blacks to communism and what had to be done beyond slogans of solidarity to implement the Third International’s policies. “In America, it is much less dangerous to be a Communist than to be a Negro.”

McKay’s “magic pilgrimage” to the Soviet Union was a personal triumph, but he remained deeply skeptical of the Revolution. He was not afraid of being branded a defeatist for his criticisms, or a “bourgeois sentimentalist” for his concern over the Soviet treatment of intellectuals. He was unwilling to turn himself into one of the black functionaries at the Far Eastern University in Moscow studying cures for racism. McKay would later dismiss blacks who were “hypnotized” by the Popular Front, and at a time when Paul Robeson defended the purge trials and Alain Locke applauded feeble measures like the cultural minorities arts program. McKay, who could hold a grudge better than he could a thesis, nevertheless immediately grasped the intellectual barbarism of Stalinism, unlike, say, Langston Hughes, who insisted on the beauty of the desegregated trolleys in Tashkent. Later McKay castigated black intellectuals who ignored “the blood purges and wholesale uprooting of peasant populations” in the USSR out of a mistaken belief that the revolution was the resurrection. He lost his faith in both America and the Soviet Union, which left him no place to go except inward. The duality that Du Bois first articulated McKay carried like a chronic illness. He transformed that duality into an asset in his fiction.


McKay wrote under conditions of financial stress and poor health for the rest of his life. He arrived in Paris, in 1923, broke and ill with syphilis. He was not above pestering editors like Mencken for assignments or bombarding contacts with “begging letters.” Unmoved by the bohemian milieu of Paris, he found the expatriate life of Provence more agreeable, though Fitzgerald once mistook him for a servant. There he wrote, after painful false starts, Home to Harlem, which became an instant scandal among the black literati in 1928.

Unlike other best sellers of the period, Carl Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven (1926), with its striving middle-class blacks and its use of Harlem as a metaphor of clandestine thrills, or Rudolph Fisher’s The Walls of Jericho (1928), with its satire of class distinctions in Harlem, Home to Harlem concentrates entirely on working-class blacks. The novel relates the story of Jake Brown, a casual deserter from wartime duty with a work crew in Brest, newly restored to Harlem, the theater of optimism. Jake, a sometime seaman, longshoreman, and railroad cook, is given to improvising his life, by way of the dives, buffet flats, poolrooms, and rent parties frequented by numbers runners, pimps, prostitutes, “grass widows” and their “sweetmen,” bad cops, fairies, addicts, and alcoholics.

While McKay declined to use a vernacular in his later poetry, the characters in Home to Harlem speak a language that shows he had not lost his ear for folk speech:

“I done have a mess of knowledge ’bout men tucked away heah.” Susy tapped her head of tight-rolled kinks knotted with scraps of ribbon of different colors. “I pays foh what I know and I’ve nevah been sorry, either. Yes, man, I done learned about mah own self fust. Had no allusions about mahself. I knowed that I was black and ugly and noclass and unejucated. And I knowed that I was bohn foh love…. Mah mammy did useter warn me about love. All what the white folks call white slavery theseadays. I dunno ef theah’s another name foh the nigger-an’-white side ovit down home in Dixie. Well, I soon found out it wasn’t womens alone in the business, sposing thimselves like vigitables foh sale in the market. No, man! I done sone I’arned that the mens was most buyable thimselves.

McKay contrasts Jake’s survival through the paths of least resistance with the troubled progress of Ray, a déclassé Haitian intellectual whom Jake befriends on the railroad. Ray views Jake as simplicity incarnate, innocent yet powerful, and envies Jake’s reduction of life to partying to the rhythm of the music. Through the character of Ray, McKay exposed his own self-doubts and tentative groping for identity among the uninhibited, intuitive black poor, free of the bondage of white culture. Home to Harlem was attacked for exploiting the “cult of primitivism” and for placing too much emphasis on the sleazy side of black life.5 Jake’s flesh does seem to “tingle” on every page and perhaps his “sweet blood,” the “flaming wave” of his desires, are what Du Bois had in mind when he said that the book nauseated him and made him feel like taking a bath.

But McKay’s intention was not to write a problem novel. His portrait of the Harlem scene is alive and vivid, but there is nothing vulgar in his rendering of its lowlife. McKay wrote as an insider, without condescension. His portrayal is unique in that he saw Harlem not as a self-conscious community but as a landscape for the rootless, a place of exiles. Harlem is a setting, not a subject. Jake today seems altogether natural and contemporary, not especially primitive. He is hardly an urban folk hero, a Natty Bumppo of 125th Street. He is self-assured and ignorant, and moves with an ease in his world that does not necessarily depend on his jungle instincts.

What most strikes us in the novel is Ray’s intense hopelessness. His obsession about his blackness and exclusion from the white world is similar to the despair of the rejected suitor, and his retreat to the isolation of railroad life like a renunciation, the withdrawal of the wounded lover. He is powerless over his obsession, and despises himself. But his beloved is neither the prostitute with whom he cannot let himself go nor the nice girl uptown whom he cannot marry because to do so would make him “one of the hogs in the pigpen of Harlem, getting ready to litter little black piggies.” The object of his ruinous passion is not a someone at all, but something, and complicated at that. What to call it?—culture perhaps. Ray is tormented by the eroticism of learning. “I don’t know what I’ll do with my little education. I wonder sometimes if I could get rid of it and go and lose myself in some savage culture in the jungles of Africa. I am a misfit.”

Ray’s—i.e., McKay’s—understanding of the source of learning, culture, education, is what makes his yearning for white society so masochistic. He knows full well through Jake that contentment in being one with his race is possible, but it is too late for him to shed his longings and he wouldn’t even if he could. “Life burned in Ray perhaps more intensely than in Jake. Ray felt more and his range was wider and he could not be satisfied with the easy, simple things that sufficed for Jake…. But he drank in more of life than he could distill into active animal living.” Home to Harlem has been read as a celebration of the strengths of black urban life, but it has more originality, a more revealing truth, when read as an exploration of the secret obsession of black intellectuals to escape to a paradise of a forgiving elite.

McKay again used the picaresque mode for his next novel, Banjo (1929). Set in the infamous vieux port, “the Ditch,” of Marseilles, where McKay lived off and on between 1926 and 1928, the novel follows the escapades of a band of black seamen. The main character, called Banjo, because of his ever-present instrument on which he bangs out the latest jazz tunes, is a less innocent version of Jake. The free spirit Banjo has mastered every petty hustle and con game in the port. In fact, Banjo, is not so much the primitive as he is rough trade.

Banjo, like Jake, chances to meet Ray, whose wanderings have hardened him against European civilization. Ray’s bitterness overwhelms the novel with much vehement editorializing about the hypocrisy and rottenness of French and English imperialism. Ray exhorts his besotted friends to study the Free Ireland movement and to read the great Russian novelists, and at the same time he criticizes the black American leadership as self-seeking and reflects upon the significance of black folk culture. The rejected suitor has been transformed in Banjo into the embittered and vengeful lover. However, the obsession cannot run its course, and in Ray’s hectoring he does not seem to be condemning the indifferent citadels of Western culture so much as demanding admission.

McKay was never able to resolve the contradictions of his own racial feelings; he was looking for a world that never existed. He kept on the move, from France to Spain to Tangiers. He made a further retreat to memory. Many of the stories collected in Gingertown (1932) have Jamaican settings. Stories like “The Agricultural Show” re-create “the naive fresh manner” with which mountain villagers went about arranging a fair. For him who had lived so long without family—or racial—loyalties, they became a central theme in Banana Bottom (1933).

The main character in Banana Bottom is a woman, Bita Plant, who has been educated abroad and returns to Jamaica to confront her past. She resists the well-meant but condescending efforts of her missionary patrons to dictate her future. Between two worlds, she chooses to marry her father’s drayman, who stands for the life of the black peasant, in the belief that “education and material progress should not preclude the possibility of simple living.” McKay could not create truly convincing women characters, and Bita arrives on the page already saved. He could not dramatize the conflict between education and folk roots. The interest of Banana Bottom is in the secondary characters who carry the plot on streams of gossip and engaging talk, and in the rituals of the villagers, the church meetings, black magic, tea dances, courtship rituals, and market days.

Whereas color in Home to Harlem suggested the sensuousness of the characters—the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice, the song went—and determined the unity of the seamen in Banjo, McKay in Banana Bottom uses skin color to assign class, and there is no mistaking the hierarchy among the parade of honey-colored civil service wives, cashew-nut-brown daughters of ebony parsons, upstanding matrons with faces like polished oak, rogues the color of banana bark, quadroon widows, virgins red as cocoons, and poor whites with cheeks pink like hams who had mistaken Jamaica for a “tiny Australia.” Bita is a soothing brown. Something of McKay’s cultural ambivalence comes through in spite of his effort to show how she remains faithful to both Chopin and the Jubilee Songs. Bita is most alive, less internal, when she is respectful in her memory of Squire Gensir, the character based on Jekyll, who had died in 1929. He was the first to enter into the simple life of the island Negroes and proclaim the significance and beauty in their transplanted African folk tales and in the words and music of their native dialect.

Before him it had generally been said the Negroes were inartistic. But he had found artistry where others saw nothing.

But Bita tells Squire Gensir that her fellow villagers possessed only the freedom of “plodding and digging and digging all day. And never going anywhere except to market. And never any fun but tea meetings. And you—you have had the run of the world. Even here, you can go anywhere from the governor’s house to the lowest peasant’s hut.”

Gingertown and Banana Bottom were commercial failures. Weary of the poverty of his European exile, McKay hit up Eastman for the passage and returned to the United States in 1934, where he was met by a changed market for book publishers and a Harlem hostile to his independence of it. He lived at the YMCA, considered going on relief, endured a stint in a labor camp that was little more than a sanitorium for casualties of the Depression. His autobiography, published in 1937, was also a failure and he managed to offend just about everyone mentioned in it.

McKay found his way by a process of repudiation. Throughout his life he discovered himself in the glow of bridges burned by his pride. McKay’s letters from the last period of his life exude bitterness and even paranoia that his former Communist allies were out to wreck his career. Alone and abandoned in a country he could never quite trust, McKay slid toward the Catholic groups in Harlem and later Chicago, where he found employment and medical assistance. After a lifetime of refusing to join any group, he gave in. His conversion entailed an element of self-delusion. He believed that the Church was getting a bargain, that having him on its side mattered, as if the archdiocese were another paternal organization, a movement ready to hoist up a gifted and useful black token. For every wound a scalpel, they say.

This Issue

December 17, 1987