Claude McKay was born Festus Claudius McKay in Sunny Ville, Jamaica, on September 15, 1889. His parents, Thomas Francis and Hannah Ann Elizabeth (née Edwards), were poor farmers. McKay was educated by his older brother, Uriah Theodore “U’Theo” McKay, who was a teacher and possessed a library of English novels, poetry, and scientific texts. The clergyman, planter, and translator, Walter Jekyll, who mentored McKay, encouraged him to write verse in dialect. McKay left Sunny Ville for Brown’s Town when he was seventeen. There, he found work as a woodworker’s apprentice. McKay then moved to Kingston to work as a constable but returned to Sunny Ville due to experiencing rampant bigotry in Jamaica’s capital.
In 1912, McKay published his first book of verse in Kingston, titled Songs of Jamaica (A. W. Gardner & Co.), which recorded his impressions of Black life in Jamaica in dialect. His publication of the work earned him a grant from the Jamaican Institute of Arts and Sciences. McKay traveled to the United States and arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, in the late summer of 1912. He then enrolled at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. His second book, Constab Ballads (Watts & Co.), was published in London in the same year. McKay remained at Tuskegee for only a few months, leaving to study agriculture at Kansas State College (now, Kansas State University) from 1912 to 1914, but he never graduated. Instead, McKay moved to New York City and worked various jobs while trying to publish his work in literary journals, including Pearson’s Magazine and the Socialist magazine, The Liberator.
In 1917, he published two sonnets, “The Harlem Dancer” and “Invocation,” and later used the form to write about social and political concerns from his perspective as a Black man in the United States. In 1922, he published his third collection, Harlem Shadows (Harcourt, Brace, 1922). Several poetry collections were posthumously published: Complete Poems (University of Illinois Press, 2004), edited by William J. Maxwell; The Passion of Claude McKay: Selected Poetry and Prose (Schocken Books, 1973); and The Dialectic Poetry of Claude McKay (Books for Libraries Press, 1972). He also published numerous works of prose, including Home to Harlem (Harper & Brothers, 1928), his first novel, and My Green Hills of Jamaica (University of Exeter Press, 1922), a short story collection. Two of McKay’s recently discovered novels were published in the early twenty-first century: Romance in Marseille (Penguin Books, 2020), coedited by William J. Maxwell, and Amiable with Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem (Penguin Books, 2017), edited by Jean-Christophe Cloutier and Brent Hayes Edwards.
During the twenties, McKay developed interests in Communism and social justice. He aligned himself with Marcus Garvey and the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). From that decade to the early 1930s, McKay traveled to the Soviet Union and then throughout Europe and North Africa. During his journeys, he met Edna St. Vincent Millay and Sinclair Lewis. McKay was also an acquaintance of Leon Trotsky. 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, eventually converting to Catholicism. By the 1940s, McKay had developed both health issues and financial problems. Midway through the decade, he suffered from dropsy and moved briefly to Albuquerque at a doctor’s recommendation. McKay then left for Chicago in September 1946, where he remained until the end of his life.
Claude McKay died in Chicago on May 22, 1948.