The poems of Claude McKay were brutal and direct. His poems echoed the spirit of Harlem and the spirit of racial tension throughout the United States. The amazing thing is that this Harlem Renaissance poet was traveling Europe during Harlem’s most prolific and famed period.
Claude McKay lived in Jamaica until he was 23. The year he moved to America (1912) he published two volumes of poetry written in a style of Jamaican vernacular. His poem “If We Must Die” was written during the race riots of Chicago, and was considered to be too violent and radical by many people. The poem spoke sincerely and honetsly about the psychological need to break free from the social role given to African Americans by society.
Claude McKay spent time in the early 1920’s flirting with Communism and other leftwing politics, but ultimately gave it up to wander Europe. This was around the same time writers like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and T.S. Eliot were flocking to Europe in search of an escape from America. Claude McKay never felt at home with these authors, so he was never a member of their group. In the 1930’s he returned to America, married a Roman Catholic, and eventually became one himself. He died in Chicago of heart failure in 1948.
The poems of his early career were published in two volumes: “Songs of Jamaica”, and “Constab Ballads.” His work that is more representative of the genre he was associated with was released in “Home to Harlem” and “Banjo.” He also published an autobiography entitled “A Long Way From Home” in 1937, and there were various other works of fiction and sociology.