The life and Writings of Claude McKay
Every literary period can be defined by a group of writers. For the Harlem Renaissance, which was an extraordinary eruption of creativity among Black Americans in all fields of art, Claude McKay was the leader. Claude McKay was a major asset to the Harlem Renaissance with his contributions of such great pieces of writings such as “If We Must Die” and “The Lynching.” McKay wrote in many different styles. His work which vary from “dialect verse celebrating peasant life in Jamaica, to militant poems challenging white authority in the United States, to philosophically ambitious novels about the effort of blacks to cope in western society” (“Claude McKay” 1375) displays the depth of this great writer. The main ideals of this poet were to raise social issues and to inspire his people. McKay used his writing as an outlet for his feelings of distrust toward those who he believed oppressed his people. In many ways McKay’s writing affected his life, but in even more ways McKay’s life affected his writing. The writings of Claude McKay were constantly changing throughout his life and caused him to be the most dynamic poet of the Harlem Renaissance.
Claude McKay was born in Sunny Ville Jamaica on September 15 in 1880 to Thomas Francis and Ann Elizabeth McKay (Ali 201). McKay grew up in a relatively prosperous family and had British schooling in the predominantly black small town of Sunny Ville. It was in his British schooling that McKay learned about traditional forms of writing such as sonnets. However, McKay learned an alternative education from his father who gave him his strong sense of African pride. Claude McKay’s father told him about his ancestry and Claude McKay’s grandfather’s life as a slave (Masiello 244). From these lessons and his strong black surroundings, McKay received African traditions as well as an “appreciation for the purity of black hood” (Ali 201). Also from McKay’s agnostic brother, who tutored him, McKay gained his freethinking attitude (“Claude McKay” 1375).
McKay soon gained a distrust of white people when he moved to Kingston, at the age of nineteen. In 1911, upon reaching Kingston, McKay experienced bigotry and racism unlike anything he had encountered in Sunny Ville. McKay got a job as a constable but soon grew tired of it due to his feeling that he was “oppressing his people by enforcing laws unjustly slanted against the black residents of the city.” The contrast of these two cities inspired McKay to write Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads (Masiello 244). These two pieces of writing were published by Walter Jekyll, a publisher who encouraged McKay to write poetry rooted in Jamaican folk culture and with Jamaican Dialect. These pieces of writing differed from the traditional form of writing he learned in his schooling, but gave McKay his first piece of recognition. These two pieces of writing were so successful that they allowed...