“I am a black man, born in Jamaica, B.W.I., and have been living in America for the last years. It was the first time I had ever come face to face with such manifest, implacable hate of my race, and my feelings were indescribable…Looking about me with bigger and clearer eyes I saw that this cruelty in different ways was going on all over the world. Whites were exploiting and oppressing whites even as they exploited and oppressed the yellows and blacks. And the oppressed, groaning under the leash, evinced the same despicable hate and harshness toward their weaker fellows. I ceased to think of people and things in the mass. [O]ne must seek for the noblest and best in the individual life only: each soul must save itself.” — Claude McKay
Claude McKay was born on this day in 1890 on the island of Jamaica. He grew up poor, but he was exposed to literature through an older brother. It got him going. He loved English literature, he loved all the Romantic poets. As a young man, McKay met Walter Jekyll, an Englishman who had come to Jamaica originally to be a planter. Unlike a lot of other imported-planter-types, Jekyll immersed himself in the local culture, becoming fascinated by the Afro-Caribbean world and its people, its folklore, its language. In 1906, Jekyll published a collection of the tales he had heard. Jekyll felt it was important to capture these stories, since they came from an oral tradition. The meeting of McKay and Jekyll was crucial, because Jekyll encouraged him to start writing in his own dialect, using his own language. There were examples from the past of those who had done this – those colonized by England, not just politically and socially, but linguistically. Someone like Robert Burns (my post about him here) rejected writing “in English,” instead he wrote like the people he knew, he wrote in dialect. McKay was very inspired by Robert Burns: he wanted to do for Jamaica what Burns did for Scotland.
McKay’s first book was called Songs of Jamaica, published in 1912. Walter Jekyll wrote the introduction.
That same year, McKay published another book called Constab Ballads, drawing on his experience as a police constable. McKay won a prize for these books, and moved to America that same year to study at the Tuskegee Institute. He then attended Kansas State College. He moved to Harlem in 1914. (He became an American citizen in 1940). In moving to Harlem when he did, he stepped into a seething vibrant literary culture.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of McKay’s life, however, is his almost restless and constant travel. Jamaica. Kansas. New York. He moved to England for a couple of years, right after WWI. He met important people who loved what he was doing. He wrote for Sylvia Pankhurst’s radical feminist newspaper. McKay’s “reach” widened exponentially. After his time in England, he went to Russia. The Russian Revolution fired him up with excitement and he wanted to see what was going on. This was 1922, the era when the Revolution – which had filled so many with so much hope – started coalescing into … well, the monstrosity it became. Nevertheless, McKay continued to “believe” in the ideals behind the revolution. (Socialist writer Max Eastman wrote the preface to McKay’s book Harlem Shadows.)
The wandering continued through the early 1920s: McKay moved to France. He lived in Morocco. Then he returned to America, and over the next decades he got the memo, in re: Communism, and he renounced his beliefs. Still caring about the plight of mankind, he devoted himself to Catholic causes. He was famous. His work was famous. He did not suffer in obscurity. For example, “If We Must Die” (printed below), was written in response to the 1919 race riots, or “race riots”, quotation marks necessary. Those riots were really part of a “Red Scare” – the first of many in America. “If We Must Die” may be McKay’s most famous poem. Henry Cabot Lodge read it into the Congressional Record at the time. If you watch The Man in the High Castle, you will recognize the poem.
McKay’s main innovation and gift was bringing the rhythms of Jamaican speech into American poetry. He was hugely influential on the Jamaican and Afro-Caribbean poets who came after.
Harlem Shadows was published in 1922, one of the most important years in 20th century literature – high modernism arrived with a vengeance, sweeping away the dead leaves of the past. Ulysses was published in 1922. As was T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time was appearing piece by piece. Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt. Anna Akhmatova’s final collection of poetry appeared in 1922, before the decades of suppression of her work began. Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room. Siddhartha. The Beautiful and the Damned. Harlem Shadows is a part of this literary revolution, not to mention being one of the opening bells of the Harlem Renaissance.
McKay often used “old” forms, i.e. traditional European forms, like the sonnet – and this juxtaposition between form and content created startling effects when combined with his vocabulary, language, and subject matter. For example, his devastating poem “The Lynching” is in the form of a Shakespearean sonnet.
His spirit is smoke ascended to high heaven.
His father, by the cruelest way of pain,
Had bidden him to his bosom once again;
The awful sin remained still unforgiven.
All night a bright and solitary star
(Perchance the one that ever guided him,
Yet gave him up at last to Fate’s wild whim)
Hung pitifully o’er the swinging char.
Day dawned, and soon the mixed crowds came to view
The ghastly body swaying in the sun:
The women thronged to look, but never a one
Showed sorrow in her eyes of steely blue;
And little lads, lynchers that were to be,
Danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee.
Breakthroughs like this extraordinary sonnet open doors for other artists, shine light where there was no light before. Not just in subject matter, but in form. McKay’s breakthrough signaled to others around him and to those who came after: The long tradition of English literature, created/written by white people, was not just “FOR” white people, and the beautiful perfect literary forms of the so-called white tradition were not barred to those who had been colonized by the countries from whence that tradition sprung. This was then and remains somewhat controversial, because indigenous forms were wiped out by colonization, and much of 20th century literature was a re-claiming of the indigenous forms. Anyone who came from a colonized culture understood that their natural tradition and language and customs had been wiped out or at least so co-opted as to have dissolved totally. (James Joyce was all about this. The Irish language had been stamped out. The clearest example of Joyce’s feelings on is the famous “tundish scene” in Portrait of the Artist).
McKay writing a sonnet about lynching is such a daring innovation in form: He claimed that white tradition as his own. Now, there may be bars for entry in terms of such work being accepted – people may not like what you are doing, may not accept you “using” a “white” form to tell your story – but the people who reject you are stuck in the past while you are the present and the future. (Countee Cullen’s work – my post on him here – has similar qualities. He was a 20th century Black man, writing in the Romantic Keats-ian tradition. McKay and Cullen both loved the Romantic poets, and both revered the sonnet.) One of McKay’s primary inspirations was William Wordsworth (my post on him here). McKay used Wordworth’s rhythms and sensitivity to nature to plunge readers into Jamaica. McKay’s Caribbean atmosphere could not be further away from the landscape that inspired Wordsworth. But love of nature is love of nature, no matter where you are.
McKay was not the first poet to use Jamaican English in poetry, but he was the most successful, cracking open poetry to include new voices, different sounds and different prosody. His influence on future generations cannot be measured.
After his death, he was declared the national poet of Jamaica.
Here are a couple of his famous poems.
If We Must Die
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 accursèd 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 common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
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!
I hear the halting footsteps of a lass
In Negro Harlem when the night lets fall
Its veil. I see the shapes of girls who pass
To bend and barter at desire’s call.
Ah, little dark girls who in slippered feet
Go prowling through the night from street to street!
Through the long night until the silver break
Of day the little gray feet know no rest;
Through the lone night until the last snow-flake
Has dropped from heaven upon the earth’s white breast,
The dusky, half-clad girls of tired feet
Are trudging, thinly shod, from street to street.
Ah, stern harsh world, that in the wretched way
Of poverty, dishonor and disgrace,
Has pushed the timid little feet of clay,
The sacred brown feet of my fallen race!
Ah, heart of me, the weary, weary feet
In Harlem wandering from street to street.
Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth.
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate,
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet, as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.
James Weldon Johnson:
Claude McKay, although still quite a young man, has already demonstrated his power, breadth and skill as a poet. Mr. McKay’s breadth is as essential a part of his equipment as his power and skill. He demonstrates mastery of the three when as a Negro poet he pours out the bitterness and rebellion in his heart in those two sonnet-tragedies, “If We Must Die” and “To the White Fiends,” in a manner that strikes terror; and when as a cosmic poet he creates the atmosphere and mood of poetic beauty in the absolute, as he does in “Spring in New Hampshire” and “The Harlem Dancer.” Mr. McKay gives evidence that he has passed beyond the danger which threatens many of the new Negro poets–the danger of allowing the purely polemical phases of the race problem to choke their sense of artistry.
The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:
Along with southern blacks, Caribbean migrants were among those moving north, including Claude McKay, later declared the national poet of Jamaica. Arriving in the United States in 1912 and abandoning the Jamaican English of his early verse, McKay was politically the most militant if prosodically among the most conservative of the new African American writers. In Harlem Shadows (1922), he preferred the sonnet among European lyric forms, but if the genre was traditional, McKay’s use of it – dislocating its norms of intimacy to express racial fury and estrangement – was not. Living mostly in France and Morocco for eleven years after 1922, he inspired francophone poets such as Leopold Sedar Senghor–African and Caribbean poets of the Negritude movement, who beginning in the 1930s asserted black pride and resistance to colonial assimilation.
Arthur D. Drayton, “Claude McKay’s Human Pity”:
McKay does not seek to hide his bitterness. But having preserved his vision as poet and his status as a human being, he can transcend bitterness. In seeing … the significance of the Negro for mankind as a whole, he is at once protesting as a Negro and uttering a cry for the race of mankind as a member of that race. His human pity was the foundation that made all this possible.
These first two volumes [Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads] are already marked by a sharpness of vision, an inborn realism, and a freshness which provides a pleasing contrast with the conventionality which, at this time, prevails among the black poets of the United States.
The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:
The sonnets “America” and “The White City” compact intense ambivalence toward white society in muscular syntax and violent images. The tension between McKay’s strict form and molten subject parallels the intense racial alienation represented in some of his poems. “Outcast” registers the poet’s sense of permanent estrangement from African culture. The figure of “The Harlem Dancer,” though idolized and exoticized, reflects the poet’s alienation: “looking at her falsely-smiling face, / I knew her self was not in that strange place.”
Along with the will to resistance of black Americans that it expresses, [“If We Must Die”] voices also the will of oppressed people of every age who, whatever their race and wherever their region, are fighting with their backs against the wall to win their freedom.
Alan L. MacLeod:
That he was able to capture a universality of sentiment in ‘If We Must Die’ has been fully demonstrated; that he was able to show new directions for the black novel is now acknowledged; and that he is rightly regarded as one of the harbingers of (if not one of the participants in) the Harlem Renaissance is undisputed.
The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:
The year 1922 saw many important tendencies in modern writing put into motion. It was the year of The Waste Land, of James Joyce’s Ulysses (published in Paris), and, at the start of the Harlem Renaissance, of Claude McKay’s Harlem Shadows and James Weldon Johnson’s The Book of American Negro Poetry.
Robert A. Smith, “Claude McKay: An Essay in Criticism”:
Although he was frequently concerned with the race problem, his style is basically lucid. One feels disinclined to believe that the medium which he chose was too small, or too large for his message. He has been heard.