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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Claude McKay

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.

Born 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 in 1953.

Like 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.

Elvin Holt
Southwest Texas State University

In the Heath Anthology
The Harlem Dancer (1917)
If We Must Die (1919)
Harlem Shadows (1920)
I Shall Return (1920)
In Bondage (1920)
The Lynching (1920)
America (1921)
Flame-Heart (1922)
A Red Flower (1953)
Flower of Love (1953)

Other Works
Songs of Jamaica (1912)
Spring in New Hampshire (1920)
Home to Harlem (1928)
Harlem: Negro Metropolis (1940)
Selected Poems (1953)

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Academy of American Poets
Chronology, biography, criticism, McKay's poems, links, and more.

Claude McKay
A biographical sketch and two photographs.

Secondary Sources

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