The Harlem He Knew

Beinecke Library, Yale University/Van Vechten Trust
Claude McKay, July 1941; photograph by Carl Van Vechten

Claude McKay has one of the most interesting life stories of the Harlem Renaissance writers, starting with how he got away from Jamaica, where he was born in 1889. McKay’s first two published volumes were of dialect poems, work encouraged by Walter Jekyll, the British folklore collector of Jamaica’s Blue Mountains. Jekyll’s sister was Gertrude Jekyll, the pioneer of the English cottage garden. Their grandfather was Joseph Jekyll, author of The Life of Ignatius Sancho, which served as the preface to The Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African, the correspondence of an eighteenth-century black musician in London whose friends included Laurence Sterne. Walter Jekyll was willing to pay for McKay’s education at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, expecting the dark, handsome young man to return to play a part in the agricultural life of the island.

But McKay never went back. From the racial terror of Alabama, he quickly made his way to the openness of Kansas. In 1914, McKay got to New York, where he was briefly married, survived by struggling with pots in kitchens, met black socialists and Communists uptown and white Communists and socialists downtown. By the end of World War I, his poetry in standard English, so called, had been published in Pearson’s Magazine by Frank Harris, friend of Oscar’s. However, McKay’s future lay with the radical journal The Liberator.

In 1919, race riots—whites attacking blacks—broke out in several American cities, the bloodiest one in Chicago. At the same time, the newly empowered FBI was deporting radicals such as Emma Goldman. In protest against the violence of the Red Summer and the Red Scare, McKay’s sonnet of defiance “If We Must Die” was published in The Liberator and widely reprinted in the black press. Suddenly, he was invited to London, where he spent a year working on the suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst’s magazine, Workers’ Dreadnought. In 1922, he was off again, to the Soviet Union. He could not imagine his writing life subject to Comintern discipline and by 1923 he was once more on the move, from Moscow to Berlin, from Paris to Toulon, from Brest to Nice, from Marseilles to Rabat, from Barcelona to Tangier.

McKay was the vagabond poet, remembered back in the US for Harlem Shadows (1922), a collection provocative in racial content but conventional in its choices of poetic forms. He kept up his restless life even after the success of his first two novels, Home to Harlem (1928) and Banjo (1929). A collection of short stories, Gingertown (1932), and another novel, Banana Bottom (1933), followed. They didn’t sell. McKay had been living in Morocco when in 1934 economic and political uncertainty pushed him back to the US.

A number of the writers who had emerged during the Harlem Renaissance died, fell silent,…

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