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literature

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McKay, Claude (1889-1948)  
 
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Particularly important for the development of his Marxist thought was his sojourn in the USSR in 1923. He became a literary celebrity in post-revolutionary Moscow's intellectual circles. There he completed his collection of historical and sociological essays, The Negroes in America, as well as three stories published as Lynching in America.

While living in Europe, mostly in France, McKay wrote three novels: Home to Harlem (1928), its sequel Banjo (1929), and Banana Bottom (1933), as well as a collection of short-stories, Gingertown (1932).

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Home to Harlem won the Harmon Gold Award for Literature and appealed to a wide audience. It is the first novel by an African American to become a best-seller. The story of an African-American soldier returning home after World War I, the novel depicts street life in Harlem, revealing sometimes shocking details of "uprooted black vagabonds." Although it was criticized by Du Bois as appealing to the prurient interests of white readers, the work is now regarded as a major contribution to African-American literature.

McKay's other two novels concern the difficulties of black individuals in establishing cultural identities in predominantly white societies. Banjo, which is set in Marseilles, examines the treatment of black colonists by the French; while Banana Bottom, which is set in Jamaica, tells the story of a young woman who returns to her homeland after having lived most of her life abroad.

In 1934, McKay returned to the United States where he not only distanced himself from Communism but became an anti-Communist. He criticized other black intellectuals for having been deceived by the Communist Party. He became an American citizen in 1940.

In spite of the critical acclaim received by his memoir A Long Way From Home (1937), in which he denounced Communism, and the commercial success of Home to Harlem, he was not able to support himself solely through his writing and took on a number of jobs, many of which involved physical labor.

During the last phase of his career, McKay became increasingly alienated from other black writers and intellectuals. In 1944, he joined the Roman Catholic Church.

In his last years, McKay focused on a second autobiography, mostly concerned with his mother country, My Green Hills of Jamaica, which was posthumously published in 1979.

A stroke suffered while working on a shipbuilding yard in 1943 left McKay in ill health, which plagued him until his death on May 22, 1948 in Chicago due to congestive heart failure.

McKay's , like his radical ideas, are often erased from his biography. In addition, critics have generally minimized the significance of McKay's homosexuality for his works, notwithstanding the fact that, at a very basic level, it seems obvious that his repeated protests against oppression may well be motivated as much by his sexual orientation as by his race and class.

Biographer Wayne F. Cooper cites the poet's homosexuality as the reason for the failure of his marriage and reveals that he enjoyed New York's "clandestine" gay scene and had a "love life that included partners of both sexes." Yet Cooper hastens to insist that McKay "rarely discussed homosexuality in his writings" except in a few poems such as "Rest in Peace" and in the unpublished novel "Romance in Marseilles."

For Cooper, McKay's coyness in treating homosexuality as a theme means that he never seriously challenged the general censorship that discouraged literary representations of homosexuality. Cooper contends that even if social norms against homosexuality had been more relaxed, the African-American poet and novelist may still have chosen not to identify as a homosexual.

However, given the harsh stereotyping and discrimination to which McKay was already subjected as a black man and a leftist, it is not that surprising that he did not explicitly address sexual difference in the majority of his works. But Cooper ignores some instances of McKay's depictions of homosexuality, including the novel Home to Harlem, which has an openly gay character, Billy Baise, and detailed descriptions of the gay and lesbian scene in 1920s Harlem, including drag and gender bending.

As is the case with other gay and lesbian authors of the 1920s and 1930s, McKay scattered oblique references to queerness throughout his works to avoid censorship. The pioneering critical work of Gary E. Holcomb has shown that McKay's queerness and political radicalism were mutually-supporting forces in the writer's thought.

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