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Claude McKay: Proletariat Poet

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Overview:

Writer and social activist James Weldon Johnson once said "Claude McKay's poetry was one of the great forces in bringing about what is often called the 'Negro Literary Renaissance.” As one of the most prolific writers of the Harlem Renaissance , Claude McKay incorporated themes such as African-American pride, alienation and desire for assimilation in his works of fiction, poetry and nonfiction.

Key Details:

  • Birthname: Festus Claudius McKay
  • Birthday: September 15, 1890
  • Place: Clarendon, Jamaica
  • Death: Chicago; May 22, 1948

Career:

Exposed to British literature at an early age by an older sibling, McKay became a zealous reader and writer of poetry by the age of ten.

By 1912, McKay published two collections of poetry-- Songs of Jamaica a collection illuminating Jamaican life and Constab Ballads, based on his experiences as a police officer. That same year, McKay migrated to the United States to attend college. However, after attending Tuskegee Institute and Kansas State University, McKay found himself uninterested in studying agriculture and settled in New York City where he began writing for the socialist newspaper, The Liberator and published sonnets such as “The Harlem Dancer” and “Invocation.”

However, it was two years later that McKay would express his frustration with American racism in the poem, “If We Must Die.” Inspired by the race riots that were later called the Red Summer of 1919, the poem documented McKay’s strong reaction to the oppression that African-Americans faced. Poems such as “If We Must Die” along with “America,” and “Harlem Shadows” were all exposing the angst of working class African-Americans struggling with issues such as alienation, rage and oppression. Max Eastman, editor of the Liberator later praised McKay's work by saying, "will live in history as the first great lyric genius that his race produced."

Although McKay is known as one of the most inspirational voices of the Harlem Renaissance, he did not live in Harlem when many of his books were published. Between 1919 and 1934, McKay traveled, lived and worked throughout Europe, writing for socialist publications such as the Workers’ Dreadnought. During this time, McKay studied communism because he wanted to know if this form of government was the best way to end racism in society. In addition to studying communism, he wrote and published the following works:

  • Spring in New Hampshire, published in 1920, was a collection of poems.
  • Harlem Shadows, published in 1922 was also collection of poetry and continued McKay's style of writing "racially concious" poems.
  • Home to Harlem, a novel was published in 1928. The novel explored life in Harlem from the point of view of the everyday man. Home to Harlem was the first novel by a writer of the Harlem Renaissance to make the bestseller's list.
  • Banjo, a novel, was published in 1929.
  • Gingertown, a novel, published in 1932.
  • Banana Bottom, a novel, published in 1933.

Returning to the United States in 1934, McKay realized that there was no solution for the problem of racism in America. Dismayed and angry, McKay worked for the Federal Writer's Project, interviewing Americans about their lives during the Great Depression.

McKay also published his autobiography, A Long Way From Home in 1937 and Harlem: A Negro Metropolis in 1940.

Awards:

In addition to receiving praise from other writers and editors, McKay received the following awards during his career:

  • 1912: Jamaican Institute of Arts and Sciences, for Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads
  • 1929: Harmon Foundation Award for Distinguished Literary Achievement, NAACP, for Harlem Shadows and Home to Harlem
  • 1937: James Weldon Johnson Literary Guild Award
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