Claude McKay’s Life
Jamaican poet and novelist Claude McKay was born on September 15, 1889 in Nairne Castle near James Hill, Clarendon, Jamaica. He was the youngest child of his parents. His parents, Hannah Ann Elizabeth Edwards and Thomas Francis McKay, were relatively rich farmers who had enough property to qualify to vote. His grandfather was of Ashanti descent, and Claude’s father would share traditional Ashanti stories and tales with him. His mother was of Malagasy descent.
McKay started his primary school education at church at the age of four. When he was seven years old, McKay went to stay with his elder brother, Uriah Theodore, who was working as an educator. While living with Uriah, McKay became an ardent reader of British and classical literature, as well as science, theology, and philosophy. When he turned ten, McKay started writing poetry.
In 1906, McKay became an apprentice to a cabinet and carriage maker known as Old Brenga, and stayed in his service for almost for two years. During that apprenticeship, McKay encountered a man named Walter Jekyll who became a mentor and a source of inspiration for him. Jekyll motivated McKay to focus on his writing. Jekyll persuaded McKay to write in Jamaican Patois, the native dialect of the island, and, following this, set a few verses of McKay’s to music. In 1912, Jekyll helped McKay publish his first poetry book, called “Songs of Jamaica.” The next volume of McKay’s poems was “Constab Ballads,” which focused on his brief experience at the constabulary in 1911.
McKay left Jamaica for the United States to attend Tuskegee Institute, established by Booker T. Washington. However, he was shaken by the extreme bigotry he faced in Charleston, South Carolina. He therefore quickly left Tuskegee Institute and instead transferred to Kansas State University for further education. These circumstances inspired McKay to write more poems. Despite his high academic performance at Kansas State University, McKay decided to leave the university for New York in 1914.
Due in part to his origins in the Jamaican community, McKay, along with other Caribbean writers, joined black radical groups. These groups were not satisfied with the NAACP, which they considered to be a middle-class reformist group, or with Marcus Garvey’s nationalism. Subsequently, McKay went to London and joined the Rationalist Press Association in 1919. MacKay also visited Russia during the early twenties, and met with leading Bolsheviks. However, he became disillusioned with communism, and eventually embraced the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. He got American citizenship in 1940. MacKay died of a heart attack at the age of fifty-nine in Chicago on May 22, 1948.
Claude McKay’s Works
McKay published his very popular novel “Home to Harlem” in 1928, which received the Harmon Gold Award for Literature.His also write two short novels “Banjo” and “Banana Bottom.” A number of his famous short stories including “Ginger Town” were published in 1932. McKay published two autobiographical books; the first, “A Long Way from Home,” was published in 1937, and the second, about his Jamaican experience, was published in 1979 long after he was dead. He published his non-fiction and socio-historical essay entitled “Harlem: Negro Metropolis” in 1940.
Claude McKay’s Style and Popular Poems
MacKay’s selection of sonorous and melodious works is worthy of praise. He became a popular poet due to his diction and setting of his work. His unexpected and wonderful sonnet endings have always amazed his literary readers. Moreover, he had full command over rhyme along with astounding control over his expression, which is the reason that even modern readers find his poetry understandable and enjoyable despite its richness of local colors and native tunes. The popular poems of MacKay include “America,” “After the Winter,” “Harlem Shadows,” “A Red Flower,” “Birds of Prey,” “Courage,” “My Mother,” “O Love! I love to Sing,” “Romance,” “Song of Moon,” “Jasmines,” “The Tired Worker,” “Poetry,” “Morning Joy,” “Flirtation,” “Adolescence,” “Africa,” “If We Must Die,” “Rest in Peace,” ” White Houses,” and “The White City.”
More about Him
The government of Jamaica named Claude McKay as its national poet in 1977 and granted him the award of “Order of Jamaica” for his contribution to art and literature. He received the Harmon Foundation Award for his distinguished literary success in 1929 for writing about the Harlem Renaissance.