Biography: Claude McKay, born Festus Claudius McKay, was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, a prominent literary movement of the 1920s. McKay was born in Sunny Ville, Jamaica, in 1889. The son of peasant farmers, he was infused with racial pride and a great sense of his African heritage. His early literary interests, though, were in English poetry. Six of the tales are devoted to Harlem life, and they reveal McKay’s preoccupation with black exploitation and humiliation. Critics agree that Banana Bottom is McKay’s most skillful delineation of the black individual’s predicament in white society. At age 17 McKay departed from Sunny Ville to apprentice as a woodworker in Brown’s Town. But he studied there only briefly before leaving to work as a constable in the Jamaican capital, Kingston. In Kingston he experienced and encountered extensive racism, probably for the first time in his life. His native Sunny Ville was predominantly populated by blacks, but in substantially white Kingston blacks were considered inferior and capable of only menial tasks. McKay quickly grew disgusted with the city’s bigoted society, and within one year he returned home to Sunny Ville.
How Life Affected His Poetry: In his early life he was sent to live with his older brother so he could have the best education possible. He became an avid reader of classical and British Literature. His brother inspired him to start writing poetry at the age of 10. In 1906, McKay became apprenticed to a carriage and cabinet maker known as Old Brenga, staying in his apprenticeship for about two years. During that time, in 1907, McKay met a man named Walter Jekyll, who became a mentor and an inspiration for him and encouraged him to concentrate on his writing. Jekyll convinced McKay to write in his native dialect and even later set some of McKay's verses to music. Jekyll helped McKay publish his first book of poems, Songs of Jamaica, in 1912.
Whats Going on In History? World War 1 begins and ends, “Chicago Poems” by Carl Sandburg appear, Influenza epidemic kills as many as 20 million people, American women are given the right to vote, T.S Eliot publishes “The Waste Land”, “The Great Gatsby” is published, Stock Market crashes and the Great Depression begins, Salvador Dali paints “The Persistence of Memory”, Spanish Civil war takes place, World War 2 begins and is ended with the dropping of a bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
How the History Affected their Poetry: During this time period racism and death/war were two major influences on almost everything in society. Some of the poems wrote show death and sadness, which can relate to the Influenza epidemic that killed as many as 20 million people. Another piece in history that can relate to some of the poems is, women's right to vote. In his poem If We Must Die, Claude expresses the right of African Americans to stand up for themselves. This could have been motivation for the women to stand up for their right to vote, or they could have been influenced by the race riots that encouraged Claude McKay to write this poem in the first place.
Common Theme: Claude McKay was a popular during the Harlem Renaissance. His poem, "If We Must Die," encourages African Americans to stand up for themselves, both literally (during the race riots of 1919) and figuratively (by lending their voices to the Harlem Renaissance). Another common theme is the fight for freedom and that there is always hope even when life is a struggle. This is show in Claude's poem "After the Winter."
1. NA. Claude McKay.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claude_McKay#Early_life. May 20, 2009. April 15, 2017.
2. NA. Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/claude-mckay. ND. April 15, 2017.
3. ND. After the Winter. https://englishlanguageartsiii.wikispaces.com/After+the+Winter. ND. April 15, 2017.