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Life story of black Jamaican poet and world traveler Claude McKay (1889 - 1948)

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"It is hell to belong to a suppressed minority and outcast group"

  • Jan 30, 2011

Well built (Bernard Shaw thought he should be a boxer), good looking and black, Claude McKay (1889 - 1948) was ten years old and living at home in Jamaica when he began to write poetry. He especially loved sonnets and when he came to the USA in 1914 at age 21 to attend college, he had already had his first book of verses published.

In 1919 during the Red Summer of lynchings and racial riots in the USA, McKay dashed off a black man's sonnet "If we must die" which instantly propelled him to hero status among American negroes. It concludes

"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!"

Always poor, McKay worked as a common laborer, a photographer's model, a stoker on Atlantic steamships, as an assistant editor of a radical Manhattan newspaper run by white people. Although McKay is now regarded as a "New Negro" and a pioneer of "The Harlem Renaissance," the middle class and intellectual blacks of Harlem, tended to regard him as an Uncle Tom for working in downtown Manhattan and for so often preferring the company of white people both in the US and in his travels abroad to England, France, Germany, the USSR and latterly Spain and North Africa. He interacted face to face with such celebrities as Isadora Duncan, Paul Robeson, Leon Trotsky and Bernard Shaw -- and many, many more.

All these stories Claude McKay tells in a charming, straightforward, simple way in his 1937 autobiography A LONG WAY FROM HOME. There may be as may as twenty of his poems scattered through that text. He writes chronologically but pauses often to cast a glance at the passing parade and especially at the cruelty of white people to black people. Only in the USSR, in polyglot Marseilles and in multi-racial North Africa, did McKay feel that his being black was not an impediment to interacting with white people. Here is how Claude McKay summed up his feelings on this point: "It is hell to belong to a suppressed minority and outcast group" (Ch. 29).

Over the years, as an early journalistic mentor had recommended, McKay turned to prose writing, about his life, about Harlem and elsewhere. Many American Negroes thought that he painted an unfair portrait of the underside of black Harlem. McKay, however, fought all his life for blacks to pull together, to unite, to fight their way to social equality with dominant whites through sheer organization and weight of numbers. He was always the consummate loner. He joined almost nothing, including the Communist Party which wooed him.

Late in life McKay returned to the Christianity of his Jamaican boyhood -- after having been a "free thinker" since age 14. He converted to Roman Catholicism and was teaching at a Catholic school in Chicago at his death. His health took severe blows during his year in the USSR in the early 1920s. It never recovered.

Most of this and much more is in A LONG WAY FROM HOME: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY.


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About the reviewer
(Thomas) Patrick Killough ()
Ranked #94
I am a retired American diplomat. Married for 47 years. My wife Mary (PhD in German and Linguistics) and I have two sons, six grandsons and two granddaughters. Our home is Highland Farms Retirement Community … more
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