Faces of the Harlem Renaissance

Claude McKay

1889-1948 / Poet, novelist

Claude McKay moved from his native Jamaica to the United States to study agriculture but wound up cultivating a passion for poetry. Two collections of his poems came out in just two years: Songs of Jamaica appeared in 1911, followed by Constab Ballads in 1912.

Upon moving to New York in 1917, McKay fell in with a circle of politically active artists. In 1920 he began attending meetings for socialist Max Eastman's avant-garde magazine, The Liberator, a year later he was the publication's coeditor.

McKay's fiction was praised by some critics and panned by others. His novel Home to Harlem (1928), for example, told the story of a black soldier's homecoming after World War I. Although it depicted the underside of Harlem life, the book was embraced by the public and became the first novel by a black writer to hit the best-seller lists. W. E. B. Du Bois and other standard bearers of the Talented Tenth, however, vilified its seamy portrayal of the black urban existence.

Widespread lynchings of African Americans in the 1920s moved McKay to pen a series of political poems. His "If We Must Die" riveted the black community, but scholar Alain Locke considered the poem too inflammatory to include in his New Negro anthology.

McKay eventually became disillusioned with Harlem’s literary and political scene. His early work had been strongly shaped by the ideas of W. E. B. Du Bois, yet McKay was disappointed by the man's cold demeanor when he met him in person. He was also frustrated by black editors, who he believed toned down his more incendiary poems and altered too many lines.

Angered and fed up with segregation—and unable to secure a guarantee that The Liberator would publish a minimum amount of work by black writers—McKay decamped for the Soviet Union in 1922. He came home to Harlem in 1934 and published two works based on his life and career.