One of the most distinguished poets of our time Claude McKay was born in Sunny Ville, Jamaica, British West Indies in September 15, 1889, as the youngest of eleven children of his peasant parents in Jamaica, Thomas Francis and Ann Elizabeth (Edwards) McKay. McKay’s family was fairly well off having received land from the bride’s and the groom’s fathers.He. is mostly known by his much-quoted sonnet: “If we Must Die” which was popularized during World War II by British Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill.
Raised in Sunny Ville, in Clarendon Hills Parish by a compassionate mother and a stern father who passed on to his children much of the Ashanti customs and traditions of Ghana where he hailed from, his poetry demonstrates his undying attachment to his roots and a deep affection for Clarendon where he was born and raised. Such nostalgia for Jamaica was demonstrated even in his later poems when abroad.
His early dialect verse makes nostalgic references to the Clarendon Hills. His father, Thomas McKay, had always shared with his children the story of his own father’s enslavement seeking thus to instill in them a suspicion of whites that would become particularly evident in the writings of his son. McKay’s profound respect for the sense of community encountered among rural Jamaican farmers and a somewhat skeptical attitude toward religion encouraged by his older brother, an elementary school teacher, left an indelible mark on his literary work.
At seventeen, McKay through a government sponsorship became apprenticed to a cabinet-maker winston cigarettes in Brown’s Town. At nineteen, moving on to Kingston, the capital, he joined the Police Force where his gentle disposition received its first great jolt. For then West Indian Policemen were recruited more for their muscle than their brain, which they were expected to celebrate and honor every hour whilst on the beat.
The Police Force was therefore not the best place for one like McKay who was always upset by human suffering. Two collections of poetry that he published in 1912 emerged largely out of his experience as a constabulary which he found along with urban life in general to be alienating. He felt uncomfortably located between the Jamaican elite and the great mass of the urban poor. Many of the concerns that would occupy much of his later work such as the opposition of the city and the country, the problems of exile, and the relation of the black intellectuals to their common folks appear first in these poems.
His second volume of poems of dialect verse Constab Ballads accurately records such experiences. His first volume of poems Songs of Jamaica was written only to relieve his bitter feelings of guilt while in the force. He calmly keeps reprimanding those responsible for social injustices to his people. To relieve his feelings, he sought to write of redeeming features in the dark picture. His gentle nature led him to pity his people’s suffering and to protest against it. He thus got compelled to relieve himself by celebrating their cheerfulness and other positive qualities. Their interest and vitality as human beings is enriched by their cheerfulness and good humor which vibrates in spite of generally dispiriting conditions.
His sympathy for the criminals, whom he often considered the victims of an unjust colonial order, could not allow him to work as a police constable beyond a year. During the ensuing two years back at Clarendon Parish he was encouraged to write Jamaican Dialect Poetry by Walter Jekyll, an English collector of island folklore with whom McKay had forged a close relationship. Jekyll had introduced him to English poets such as Milton and Pope.
In 1912 McKay published two volumes of poetry Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads. Songs of Jamaica with an introduction and melodies by Jekyll to celebrate the unpretentious nature and the simplicity of the Jamaican peasants who are closely bonded to their native soil. Constab Ballads centres more on Kingston and the contempt and exploitation suffered there by dark-skinned blacks at the hands of whites and mulattos. These books made McKay the first black to receive the medal of the Jamaican Institute of Arts and Sciences with a substantial cash award which he was to use to fund his education at Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, the United States.
He seemed to have regretted later having been “an agent of colonial oppression in a most brutal manner.” In both works McKay made extensive use of the Jamaican language, a patois of English.
When in 1912 McKay left Jamaica for the U.S.A., it was inevitable that this should lead to an eruption of Negro verse from his pen. For here was a man with a proud sense of his race, who had seen his people suffering in Jamaica and had fled an evergreen land with its luxuriantly waving palms bending to the force of the persistent tropical winds in quest of more opportunities in a more open world.
And he goes to America to meet unimaginable Negro suffering. But rather than return to the less demanding life of Jamaica, he felt a compulsion to remain and join the struggle, for he was already bound with the American blacks in their bondage. And no wonder. For McKay’s early years in New York were a time of growing racial bitterness, with the stiffening of the South. Negro disillusionment with Booker T. Washington and a consequent adjustment of the Negro attitude; the increase in white hysteria and violence, which was to become even harsher after the war which had been fought by them as well as in defence of democracy and the rise of Garveyism and the hostility between Garvey and the N.A.A.C.P. and others – all such factors combined to bring about the Negro Renaissance, of which McKay became an integral part.
McKay however maintained for a long time a sober reaction to his new and disturbing environment. Determined to maintain the dignity of his poet’s calling, he refused to allow the quality of his reaction as a poet to be warped. He equally refused to allow his ambitions and status as a human being to be destroyed. His verses remained virile keeping with the prevailing atmosphere then, for those early years in America were really crucial years for the Black cause. But the virility of his verse is based on more than mere bitterness. It includes and depends on a certain resilience – or stubborn humanity traceable to McKay’s capacity to react to Negro suffering not just as a Negro, but as a human being. For as he maintains, the writer must always retain this capacity for a larger and more basic reaction as a human being to maintain his humanity.
In so doing he would avoid stunting his emotional growth and his stature as a human being. By identifying with his own race, a writer can proceed to that greater and more meaningful identification based on his humanity thus qualifying him to handle “racial” material.
“If We Must Die” immediately won popularity among Afroamericans, but the tone of the Negro critics was apologetic. To them a poem that voiced the deep-rooted instinct of self-preservation seemed merely a daring piece of impertinence. William S Braithwaite whom McKay described as the dean of Negro critics denounced him as a “violent and angry propagandist using his poetic gifts to clothe [arrogant] and defiant thoughts.” Whilst another disciple characterized him as “rebellious and vituperative.”
McKay goes on to point out the lapses and failings in respectable Negro opinion and criticism. This in turn brings in distortions and evasions in their representation and interpretation of the social realities informing the texts.
This brought about the apparent ambivalence in his love-hate relationship with America. Having had no illusions about America and the experience of its Negroes, he could at the same time pay her the tribute she deserved: one reflecting both its appeal as well as its bitter dejection. which he still endures as a necessary test of his resilience. In paying her this tribute he triumphs through his successful resistance to the threat of spiritual corrosion America’s ‘hate’ threatens to start within him. He could thus “stand within her walls with not a shred / Of terror, malice, not a word of fear.” Or as in “Through Agony,” he refuses to meet hate with hate. McKay thus continued his admiration for America despite the pain which she caused.
McKay sees not only the violence done to his own people, but that which the whites inflict on themselves as well. McKay is touched by misery: in “The Castaway” where, standing in a beautiful park, he is attracted not by the visible delights of nature but by “the castaways of earth,” the lonely and derelict, and turns away in misery. And it is mot clear and does not matter if they are black or white. In “Rest in Peace” his tender heart responds to the suffering of his people as he bids farewell to a departed friend.