Claude McKay. Life and Literary Works

February 11, 2021 by Essay Writer

Claude McKay was born Festus Claudius McKay in Jamaica on 15th September, 1890 to Thomas McKay and Hannah McKay. He was the last of 11 children. At the age of 10 he began to compose poetry. In 1912 at the age of 22, he permanently migrated to the U.S. Just like Paul Laurence Dunbar, McKay wrote dialect poetry and under an Englishman named Walter Jekyll wrote verse – this circumstance explains McKay’s tendency to write in the classic Shakespearean sonnet form for the majority of his poems. At this same time, McKay published his first two volumes of dialect verse, Songs of Jamaica (1912) and Constab Ballads (1912). Two years later at the age of 24, McKay married his Jamaican childhood sweetheart, Eulalie Lewars. However, the marriage did not even last a year and upon the divorce, his wife returned to Jamaica and gave birth to their daughter. McKay never remarried.

Meanwhile in New York, McKay worked menial jobs waitering for a restaurant. McKay continued to write his poetic volumes and submitted his works Pearson’s magazine, and The Liberator, a socialist journal which fueled McKay’s fame and career. When the economic depression hit America in 1929, 1930, the Harlem Renaissance underwent serious decline / was given a deathly blow and many of the prime figures scattered. Some emigrated to Europe. McKay along with WEB Du Bois, Langston Hughes and other noteworthy laureates went to France where they met Léopold Sédar Senghor, Aimé Césaire, and other pioneers of the Negritude literary movement that impacted French African and the Caribbean. McKay continued to experience financial difficulties and became bitter about his failures. In 1940 McKay was awarded American citizenship however his life took a downward turn for he began to suffer from cardiac disease. Toward the end of his days he renounced atheism and agnosticism and embraced Catholicism. On 22 May 1948 at the age of 58, McKay dies of heart failure in Chicago.

Claude McKay, poet laureate is most known for his poem, “If We Must Die” which is a personal favourite of mine because of its nobility in valour, quest for honour, solidarity, and dignity in apparent defeat. The poem echoes the militant war cry of the oppressed Negroes during the era of the Harlem Renaissance. McKay mirrors this period in this poem by the call for the rise of the Negro, the assertion of Negro pride and self-respect, and the elegant sonnet verse emphasizes the fine literary art of not only Claude McKay, but the black intelligentsia who poured forth musical, poetic and authorial works rich in imagery, culture and Black identity. Although this poem does not explicitly allude to racism nor black and white race divisions, the historical context during the Red Summer of 1919 where there exploded many black riots retaliating and protesting against discrimination and race violence, it is strongly hinted. The social climate was such that McKay himself states that the “Negro newspapers were morbid, full of details of clashes between coloured and white, murderous shootings and hangings” (Modern American Poetry 1). The fame of this singular poem extended to such heights that “Winston Churchill used it as a rallying cry to call the British into sustained battle against the Nazis” (Modern American Poetry 2). Poet contemporaries of Claude McKay include Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Paul Laurence Dunbar and Arna Bontemps while other personages wielding great influence are Marcus Garvey, and W.E.B Du Bois

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