A Jamaican poet who came to the USA to be educated, McKay was horrified by the racism prevalent in the United States. He became one of the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920’s and his work is passionately pro-negro, anti-racist and yet a man of contradictions.
Early in his life he embraced atheism and communism, possibly courted by the potential for the equality of his race in the new order sweeping the world. Ultimately he became disillusioned with communism and became a critic. In his later years he became a Roman Catholic.
He was also appalled by the presentation of negroes as a hypersexual threat in Europe. He denounced racist articles in the British Press in 1920. European avant-garde art at the time had a fascination with African primitive art and representations of fertility and sexuality. Picasso famously incorporated African masks in Les Demoiselles D’Avignon in 1907. McKay himself posed for André Lhote and later wrote about the experience in terms of the relationship of the European white supremacist and the oppressed Afro-Caribbean. Yet when he wrote of the Harlem Renaissance he was criticized by his contemporaries for reinforcing racial stereotypes by depicting the culture of drugs, alcohol, sexuality and prostitution in the dark underbelly of the movement.
What is clear from his body of work is that he was a passionate and motivated campaigner for the rights of black people. He promoted “Black Lives Matter” long before most black people were socially or politically aware.
In 1977 the Jamaican Government named McKay as the national poet.
Enslaved: by Claude McKay
Oh when I think of my long-suffering race,
For weary centuries despised, oppressed,
Enslaved and lynched, denied a human place
In the great life line of the Christian West;
And in the Black Land disinherited,
Robbed in the ancient country of its birth,
My heart grows sick with hate, becomes as lead,
For this my race that has no home on earth.
Then from the dark depths of my soul I cry
To the avenging angel to consume
The white man’s world of wonders utterly:
Let it be swallowed up in earth’s vast womb,
Or upward roll as sacrificial smoke
To liberate my people from its yoke!