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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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3. Utopian Promise   

10. Rhythms
in Poetry

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- HD (Hilda Doolittle)
- T. S. Eliot
- Robert Frost
- Langston Hughes
- Claude McKay
- Ezra Pound
- Carl Sandburg
- Genevieve Taggard
- Jean Toomer
- William Carlos Williams
- Suggested
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: Claude McKay (1889-1948)

Famous New York African American Soldiers Return Home
[3939] Underwood and Underwood, Famous New York African American Soldiers Return Home (1917), courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Claude McKay Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
Born in Jamaica, Claude McKay came to America to study agriculture at Tuskegee Institute, a historically black university founded by Booker T. Washington. After two years, he transferred to Kansas State College, but soon realized that his talents were better suited to writing than farming. In 1917, McKay arrived in Greenwich Village, where he sought out the company of artists and activists, both white and black. In fact, his ability to straddle both worlds easily became a source of envy and respect among his contemporaries. In those opening years of the Harlem Renaissance, McKay's poetry helped attract attention to the city and to the struggle for a new African American literary voice. While the earlier poetry that he had written in Jamaica used dialect, his writing in America relied on traditional poetic forms. His electrifying sonnet "If We Must Die" made him famous; it also worked as a call to arms for African Americans living through the Red Summer of 1919. In the poem, McKay urges African Americans to "face the murderous, cowardly pack" and to "nobly die" while "fighting back." These images of blacks rising up against their white oppressors gave voice to the frustration and rage of the African American people at a time when racism seemed to be spiraling out of control. Although McKay is often credited with helping to spark the Harlem Renaissance, he took great pains to distance himself, both physically and philosophically, from the movement in its heyday.

McKay left America for London in 1919, where he read Marx and Lenin and worked for a communist newspaper. Although he did return to America to oversee the publication of his first volumes of poetry, Spring in New Hampshire (1920) and Harlem Shadows (1922), McKay became disillusioned with African American leadership and the disappointing state of race relations in the United States. He felt that the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance, particularly Alain Locke and W. E. B. Du Bois, were discouraging artists from portraying black experience honestly. Refusing to enter the 1926 Opportunity prize contest, he wrote: "I must write what I feel what I know what I think what I have seen what is true and your Afro-American intelligentsia won't like it." McKay also felt that black editors, particularly of small magazines popular during the Harlem Renaissance, worried more about the reactions of white benefactors and audiences than they did about the integrity or political efficacy of the art. With sharp criticism for the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance, which he voiced throughout his career, McKay left America for Russia in 1922. While abroad, he wrote his bestseller Home to Harlem (1928) and Banjo (1929). His status as an exile, first as a Jamaican in America, and then as an American in Russia, colored his writing throughout his life. Poems like "Tropics in New York" represent this struggle with a double-consciousness. McKay returned to America, but not until 1934, by which time the Harlem Renaissance had ended, its writers dispersed and the fire of the movement dimmed.

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