| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Of the many gifted writers who contributed to the
rich literary legacy of the Harlem Renaissance, Claude McKay, a Jamaican
immigrant, was clearly the most militant. McKay’s most famous poem, “If We Must
Die,” an eloquent and provocative sonnet, was inspired by the violent race
riots that erupted in Chicago and other cities in 1919. In other deeply moving,
carefully crafted poems, McKay voices his outrage at the treatment of blacks in
a racist society. The poem “The Lynching,” for example, is a chilling
indictment against the hatred and vigilantism which cost many black Americans
their lives in the 1920s and 1930s. However, the social protest verse upon
which McKay’s reputation as a poet ultimately rests represents only a small
portion of his approximately two hundred published poems.
in the Clarendon Hills of Jamaica, McKay began writing poetry in childhood. He
published two books of dialect verse in 1912. In recognition of this
achievement, the Jamaican Institute of Arts and Sciences awarded McKay a medal
and a stipend that allowed him to study agriculture briefly at Tuskegee
Institute and later at Kansas State University (1912–14). McKay left Kansas
State in 1914 to pursue a writing career in New York City, where he became
involved with the socialist movement and wrote for radical journals like Max
Eastman’s Liberator, for which he served as an editor. As the Harlem
Renaissance began to flower, McKay published Harlem Shadows (1922), a landmark
collection of poems. McKay also published three novels, including the popular
and controversial Home to Harlem (1928), as well as other books and essays. The
majority of McKay’s fiction was written between 1923 and 1934, when he was an
expatriate, living variously in France, Great Britain, and North Africa, and
his work reflects the broad range of black experience in what is now termed the
Diaspora. He died in Chicago in 1948. His Selected Poems appeared posthumously
his fellow Renaissance friend and poet Countee Cullen, McKay preferred
the traditional verse forms of the British masters, particularly the
sonnet and short lyric. Thematically, McKay’s poetry includes nostalgic lyrics
about rural Jamaica, and poems celebrating nature, love, and Christian faith,
in addition to the powerful protest verses. McKay’s best poetry sparkles
with sharp, fresh images and resonates with an indomitable passion for life.
Southwest Texas State University
In the Heath Anthology
The Harlem Dancer
If We Must Die
I Shall Return
A Red Flower
Flower of Love
Songs of Jamaica
Spring in New Hampshire
Home to Harlem
Harlem: Negro Metropolis
There are no Cultural Objects for this author.
you like to add another Cultural Object?
There are no pedagogical assignments or approaches for this author.
Academy of American Poets
Chronology, biography, criticism, McKay's poems, links, and more.
A biographical sketch and two photographs.
Wayne Cooper, The Passion of Claude McKay, 1973
Wayne Cooper, Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance, 1996
Addison Gayle, Jr., Claude McKay: The Black Poet at War, 1972
Heather Hathaway, Caribbean Waves: Relocating Claude McKay and Paule Marshall, 1999
Tyrone Tillery, Claude McKay: A Black Poet's Struggle for Identity, 1994