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 Tropics of New York

Claude McKay, 1889 - 1948
Bananas ripe and green, and ginger root
     Cocoa in pods and alligator pears,
And tangerines and mangoes and grape fruit,
     Fit for the highest prize at parish fairs,

Sat in the window, bringing memories
     of fruit-trees laden by low-singing rills,
And dewy dawns, and mystical skies
     In benediction over nun-like hills.

My eyes grow dim, and I could no more gaze;
     A wave of longing through my body swept,
And, hungry for the old, familiar ways
     I turned aside and bowed my head and wept.

Used by permission of The Archives of Claude McKay, Carl Cowl, Administrator.

Used by permission of The Archives of Claude McKay, Carl Cowl, Administrator.

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
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
I hear the halting footsteps of a lass
     In Negro Harlem when the night lets fall
Its veil. I see the shapes of girls who pass
     To bend and barter at desire's call.
Ah, little dark girls who in slippered feet
Go prowling through the night from street to street!

Through the long night until the silver
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