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McKay, Claude (1889-1948)  
 
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Jamaican-born bisexual African-American poet, novelist, and essayist Claude McKay made compelling contributions to the development of the Harlem Renaissance. In his works, he put forward a revolutionary agenda of racial, class, and sexual liberation.

McKay was born in Clarendon Parish, Jamaica, on September 15, 1889 to a peasant family with middle-class aspirations. He was the youngest child of Thomas Francis McKay and Hannah Ann Elizabeth Edwards McKay. In order to assure that their son get the best available education, the parents sent him at age seven to live with his oldest brother, Uriah Theodore, who was a school teacher.

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Under his brother's mentorship, he read widely in classical and British literature, as well as philosophy and science. He began writing poetry at age ten.

In 1906, McKay was apprenticed to a carriage and cabinet maker with the expectation that he would pursue a skilled trade. However, in 1907, he met a man, Walter Jekyll, an expatriate Briton, who recognized his talent as a writer and encouraged him to write in his native dialect.

Jekyll helped McKay publish his first book of poems, Songs of Jamaica, in 1912. These were the first poems published in Jamaican patois. In the same year, McKay published his second volume, Constab Ballad, based on his brief service as a police constable in 1911.

These books celebrate Jamaican folk traditions and the resilience of Jamaican peasant and working-class blacks in their struggle against capitalist and colonialist exploitation. They made McKay the first black recipient of the medal of the Jamaican Institute of Arts and Sciences and are now considered crucial contributions to the founding of modern Jamaican literature.

With the money from this prize, the young author moved to the United States in order to further his education. He enrolled in an agronomy program at Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, but disliked the semi-military regimentation he found there and soon left to study at Kansas State University. At Kansas State, he discovered W. E. B. Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk (1903), which was to influence him greatly.

Despite excellent academic performance at Kansas State, by 1914 McKay decided that he did not want to become an agronomist. He soon abandoned formal education in order to "graduate as a poet."

He left Manhattan, Kansas for New York City. He soon married his childhood friend Eulalie Lewars and settled down in Harlem, which, in those years, was beginning to emerge as the home of the growing New Negro Movement and the most important center for African-American culture in the United States.

McKay began publishing poems under a pseudonym and supported himself by working as a waiter on the railways.

He also came into contact with Communism. From 1919 until 1922, he served as the editor of The Liberator, a Marxist literary magazine. During his years with The Liberator, he began to have affairs with men, allegedly including novelist and critic Waldo Frank and poet Edwin Arlington Robinson.

McKay's poetry of this period became increasingly revolutionary and radical, expressing his militant opposition to racial segregation and the exploitation of the working class. Among his most famous poems from this era is "If We Must Die," which was composed as a response to the race riots of 1919. Some critics consider "If We Must Die" the first work of the Harlem Renaissance.

His most important collection of poetry, Harlem Shadows, was published in 1922 and is regarded as a seminal product of the Harlem Renaissance. The poems of Harlem Shadows include both protest poems and poems of exile, such as "Flame Heart" and "The Tropics in New York," in which McKay nostalgically evokes a lost community.

McKay became part of a group of black radicals who rejected both the black nationalism of Marcus Garvey and the middle-class reformers of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. This group, known as the African Blood Brotherhood, espoused black self-determination and socialist revolution.

Fearful that he was under surveillance by the FBI, McKay felt that he had to flee the United States. He arrived in London in the fall of 1919. He lived abroad for most of the 1920s and early 1930s, including stints in the Soviet Union and Africa, as well as various European capitals. In these years, he became involved in the European Communist movement.

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Claude McKay. Photograph by Carl Van Vechten.
  
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