The Romantic Spirit of the Harlem Renaissance
Claude McKay (1890-1948) was born in Jamaica to “relatively prosperous peasants” (Hathaway 489). In his youth he “studied classical and British literary figures and philosophers as well as science and theology” (Hathaway 489). McKay’s earliest poetry was written in traditional English forms, but later he was encouraged by his mentor Walter Jekyll to write “dialect poetry rooted in the island’s folk culture” (Hathaway 489). His first two volumes of poetry, Songs of Jamaica (1912) and Constab Ballads (1912), are primarily written in dialect. McKay immigrated to the United States in the fall of 1912, and after studying agriculture at Tuskegee Institute and Kansas State College, he moved to New York City in 1914 (Hathaway 490).
In New York, McKay became “increasingly involved with political and literary radicals” (Hathaway 490). His third volume of poetry, Spring in New Hampshire (1920), reflects his changing political stance; his previous use of dialect is gone, and the poems are divided between commentary of race relations in America and nostalgic images of life in Jamaica (Hathaway 490). Dissatisfied with American leftist efforts to combat racism, McKay escaped to the Soviet Union in 1922 and spent six months traveling throughout the country, attending Communist symposiums and lecturing on art and politics (Hathaway 490). While in Russia, McKay “republished a series of articles he had written for the Soviet press” under the title Negroes in America (1923), which delivers a “Marxist interpretation of the history of African Americans” (Hathaway 490).
In 1928, when McKay was recuperating from illness in France, he published his first novel, Home to Harlem, which is his most widely read work. Even though the novel describes the lower class culture of Harlem, rather than middle class values, Home to Harlem is inherently propagandistic. The central theme of the novel is the internal conflict undergone by an educated, intelligent African American (Stoff 133). Ray, through his friendship with Jack, the ‘natural, instinctive man’, realizes he has “been robbed by his ‘white’ education of the ability to act freely and impulsively” (Stoff 133).
According to Stoff’s interpretation of McKay’s work, “only the instinctive primitive can survive happily in white civilization, its dehumanizing tendencies are irrelevant to his innately free existence” (Stoff 134). While McKay’s politics and philosophy are at odds with most of the Renaissance elders, he still uses his art for propaganda purposes, in this case to condemn the African American intellectuals who have traded their own culture for the middle class values of white America. In his last novel Banana Bottom (1933), McKay offers a Jamaican heroine whom is adopted by white missionaries (Stoff 142). Unlike Ray, Bita Plant, “who rejects the civilized value system but not her intellect, can move easily from one world to another without impairing either instinct or intellect” (Stoff 142).
Like the characters in his novels, McKay himself was “forever seeking fulfillment of his desires to escape color-consciousness and recapture lost innocence” (Stoff 146). McKay, in his later life, stated that “As a child, I was never interested in different kinds of races or tribes. People were just people to me” (Stoff 128). It was in America that he became aware of his race consciousness through bigotry and discrimination. McKay, for the rest of his life, strove to transcend racial boundaries, but ultimately failed. Many other Renaissance writers, such as Jessie Fauset, would also explore racial boundaries.
Hathaway, Heather. “Claude McKay.” The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Eds. William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. 489-90.
Stoff, Michael B. “Claude McKay and the Cult of Primitivism.” The Harlem Renaissance Remembered. Ed. Arna Bontemps. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1972. 126-146.