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Claude McKay

A Biographical Note on Claude McKay


Claude McKay, taken from Wikimedia Commons

Claude McKay, by George Dance, 15 Jun. 2013, Wikimedia Commons


Born on September 5, 1890, in Clarendon Hills, Jamaica, Claude McKay was the son of respected leaders in the black peasant community (Tillery 3-4). As McKay did not get along well with his father, he was sent to live with his older brother, Uriah Theophilious, who lived in the northern part of the island (Tillery 5). Uriah introduced him to classical English literature, shaping much of his brother’s intellectual development (Tillery 6). McKay also met Walter Jekyll, an English planter living in Jamaica, who admired McKay’s talent and quickly became his patron (Tillery 10-11). With Jekyll’s support, McKay published his works, including two volumes of poetry published in 1912, Songs of Jamaica and Constabulary Ballads (“Claude McKay”).

In 1912, McKay moved to the United States to study at the Tuskegee Institute, after which he transferred to Kansas State Teachers College (“Claude McKay”). In 1914, he moved to New York and married Eulalie Imelda Edwards, his Jamaican childhood sweetheart. Unable to adjust to the city, Eulalie left him, and McKay admitted that he was rarely successful with interpersonal relationships (Tillery 27). Considered the “first major poet of the Harlem Renaissance,” McKay made himself a leading voice in the movement with his poems “Spring in New Hampshire” (1920) and “Harlem Shadows” (1922) (“Claude McKay”). As a Harlem poet, he sought to express a distinct black identity through his works. The poems he wrote in the United States used standard English and traditional forms such as the sonnet (“Poetry”). As a radical socialist, he wrote political criticism and works about love, exile, and nostalgia for his homeland. In 1942, he converted to Roman Catholicism, a drastic change from the “uprooted modernity” of black culture of which he had been an integral advocate (Deshmukh 165). His conversion may have been an attempt at seeking stability and identity while living in an unstable, fragmented world (Deshmukh 165). On May 22, 1948, McKay died from heart failure in Chicago (Tillery 182).

The birthplace of McKay: Clarendon Parish, Jamaica, image taken from Wikimedia Commons

The birthplace of McKay: Clarendon Parish, by TUBS, 4 Nov. 2011, Wikimedia Commons

Works Cited

“African American literature.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 18 Apr. 2014.

“Claude McKay.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 17 Apr. 2014.

Deshmukh, Madhuri H. “Claude McKay’s Road to Catholicism.” Callaloo 37.1 (2014): 148-168. Web. 2 Apr. 2014.

Tillery, Tyrone. Claude McKay: A Black Poet’s Struggle for Identity. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992. Print.

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