The Poems of Claude McKay
by Claude McKayNew York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922
Edited for the Web by Nelson Miller, 1999
- Contents -
The Editor wishes to espress his appreciation to Ms. Mary Mears for her generosity in providing her copy of Harlem Shadows for transcription, which made this edition possible. --NM
Introductionby Nelson Miller
Festus Claudius McKay was born September 15, 1889, in Clarendon Parish, Jamaica. Interested in poetry from his childhood, he published two volumes, Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads, in 1912. Both volumes were largely in Jamaican dialect and celebrated the lives of the poor. In the same year, he left for the United States to study agronomy.
After two years he left college and traveled to New York, first to start a restaurant (which soon failed), then to hold a series of odd jobs. During this time, he continued to write poetry, but moved from the use of dialect to standard English. From 1917 to 1919 a large number of his poems were published, particularly in the left-wing journal Liberator.
In late 1919, he traveled to England where he stayed for a year. While there, he produced a small volume of poetry, Spring in New Hampshire published in 1920. Returning to the United States early in 1921, he joined the editorial staff of the Liberator. In early 1922, Harlem Shadows, which incorporated most of the poetry from Spring in New Hampshire, was published; it is his most significant volume of poetry.
After disputes with the new editor of Liberator, McKay resigned in mid-1922. Later that year he left the United States and spent the next twelve years abroad, first in Russia, then various places in Europe, and finally in Morocco. During this period, he wrote and published his three novels (Home to Harlem, 1928; Banjo, 1929; and Banana Bottom, 1933) along with a collection of short stories (Gingertown, 1932). He returned to the United States in early 1934.
The rest of his life was spent largely in poverty and ill health. He published his autobiography A Long Way from Home in 1937, became a U.S. citizen in 1940, and joined the Catholic Church in 1944. He edited his Selected Poems which was posthumously published in 1953. He died in Chicago on May 22, 1948.
II: Harlem Shadows
When Harlem Shadows was published in 1922, it was recognized for introducing a new attitude in African-American writing: an angry and defiant attitude towards racial prejudice in America. McKay's arrival in America had brought him for the first time into contact with the violent, aggressive racism which characterized America at the time.
Unaccustomed to this kind of prejudice, McKay was shocked and outraged at what he saw and experienced, and embodied his feelings in the best-known of his poems, "If We Must Die," as well as several others: "America," "The White City," "In Bondage," "Enslaved," "Outcast," and "The Lynching," among others. But, for all its importance, this attitude characterizes only a few of the poems in this collection. Equally important and also new to poetry of the period is McKay's attitude of sympathy, compassion, and respect for the lives of the African-American underclass; just as his two Jamaican volumes had treated the lives of the poor with dignity and respect, so too do such poems as "Alfonso, Dressing to Wait at Table," "Spring in New Hampshire," "On the Road," "The Harlem Dancer," "The Tired Worker," and the title poem "Harlem Shadows."
Of the seventy four poems in the volume, twenty-three deal directly or by implication with the issue of race. The remaining two-thirds of Harlem Shadows covers subjects common to most other poets: nature ("Morning Joy," "After the Winter"); childhood memories ("Flame-Heart," "Homing Swallows"); loneliness("On Broadway"); homesickness ("The Tropics in New York"); life in the city ("Subway Wind, "The Night Fire"); love ("A Red Flower," "A Memory of June"); and poetry ("Poetry," "To a Poet").
His breadth of subject matter is also new in African-American poetry of the period, for McKay writes as a man experiencing much that life has to offer, and as a poet who wants to share those experiences. His poetry served a political and social purpose, but also explored the broad range of human life. Harlem Shadows embodies the best of McKay's explorations.
--Nelson Miller, Macon GA, May 1999
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