poem index

sign up to receive a new poem-a-day in your inbox

About this poet

Claude McKay was born in Jamaica, on September 15, 1889. He was educated by his older brother, who possessed a library of English novels, poetry, and scientific texts.

At the age of twenty, McKay published a book of verse called Songs of Jamaica, recording his impressions of black life in Jamaica in dialect. In 1912, he travelled to the United States to attend Tuskegee Institute. He remained there only a few months, leaving to study agriculture at Kansas State University.

In 1917, he published two sonnets, "The Harlem Dancer" and "Invocation," and later used the form in writing about social and political concerns from his perspective as a black man in the United States. McKay also wrote on a variety of subjects, from his Jamaican homeland to romantic love, with a use of passionate language.

During the twenties, McKay developed an interest in Communism and travelled to Russia and then to France where he met Edna St. Vincent Millay and Lewis Sinclair. In 1934, McKay moved back to the United States and lived in Harlem, New York. Losing faith in Communism, he turned his attention to the teachings of various spiritual and political leaders in Harlem, eventually converting to Catholicism.

McKay's viewpoints and poetic achievements in the earlier part of the twentieth century set the tone for the Harlem Renaissance and gained the deep respect of younger black poets of the time, including Langston Hughes. He died on May 22, 1948.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry

Constab Ballads (1912)
Harlem Shadows (1922)
Selected Poems (1953)
Songs of Jamaica (1912)
The Dialect Poetry of Claude McKay (1972)
The Passion of Claude McKay (1973)

Prose

A Long Way from Home (1937)
Harlem: Negro Metropolis (1940)
The Negroes in America (1979)

Letters

Banana Bottom (1933)
Banjo: A Story Without a Plot (1929)
Gingertown (1932)
Home to Harlem (1928)
My Green Hills of Jamaica (1979)
Trial By Lynching (1977)

The Barrier

Claude McKay, 1889 - 1948
I must not gaze at them although 
  Your eyes are dawning day; 
I must not watch you as you go 
  Your sun-illumined way; 

I hear but I must never heed 
  The fascinating note, 
Which, fluting like a river reed, 
  Comes from your trembing throat; 

I must not see upon your face 
  Love's softly glowing spark; 
For there's the barrier of race, 
  You're fair and I am dark.

Published in 1922. This poem is in the public domain.

Published in 1922. This poem is in the public domain.

Claude McKay

Claude McKay

Claude McKay, who was born in Jamaica in 1889, wrote about social and political concerns from his perspective as a black man in the United States, as well as a variety of subjects ranging from his Jamaican homeland to romantic love.

by this poet

poem
Too green the springing April grass, 
Too blue the silver-speckled sky, 
For me to linger here, alas, 
While happy winds go laughing by, 
Wasting the golden hours indoors, 
Washing windows and scrubbing floors. 

Too wonderful the April night, 
Too faintly sweet the first May flowers, 
The stars too gloriously
poem
If we must die—let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die—oh, let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor
poem
Your door is shut against my tightened face,
And I am sharp as steel with discontent;
But I possess the courage and the grace
To bear my anger proudly and unbent.
The pavement slabs burn loose beneath my feet,
And passion rends my vitals as I pass,
A chafing savage, down the decent street;
Where boldly shines