Author Claude McKay is best known for his novels Home to Harlem, and Banjo, a bestseller that won the Harmon-Gold Award for Literature in 1929. But like many an author who made a name for himself in Harlem, he had to come a long way to achieve that success.
Born on September 15, 1889 in Clarendon Parish, Jamaica, Festus Claudius “Claude” McKay was a writer and poet prominent during the Harlem Renaissance in the early 20th century. Filled with enthusiasm, he settled into New York City during World War I, invested in a restaurant and married his childhood sweetheart Eulalie Imelda Lewars.
But both the restaurant and the marriage were doomed to failure, which freed him up to spend more time writing.
Like many of the other Renaissance writers, artists, and activists of his time, McKay moved to the Harlem YMCA located at 180 West 135th Street between Lenox Avenue and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard.
In 1920, he joined the African Blood Brotherhood which was a U.S Black Liberation organization established in the year before in New York City. Some of the group’s meetings were held at 2299 Seventh Avenue, which is now home to a corner store and an apartment building.
Ironically, in spite of his formidable influence over the Harlem Renaissance, he was absent from the United States for almost the entire period, having left in the fall of 1919 to spend a year in London, where he was employed as a British socialist journalist.
Over the course of what would eventually become a 12 year sojourn through Europe McKay wrote journalistic essays, poetry and more. Spending time in both the Soviet Union and Africa, he is said to have helped introduce the region’s communist citizens to the struggle of African Americans, especially in New York City.
Upon his return to the United States in 1921, McKay spent time in Greenwich Village where he identified with radical bohemians, a group of people known for living unconventional lives in pursuit of musical, spiritual, artistic, and literary achievements.
It wasn’t until 1928, that McKay published his most famous novel, Home to Harlem, set largely on 7th Avenue between 135th and 145th streets. An excerpt from chapter 19, called Spring in Harlem:
Children, lightly clad, skipped on the pavement. Light open coats prevailed and the smooth bare throats of brown girls were a token as charming as the first pussy-willows. Far and high over all, the sky was a grand blue benediction, and beneath it the wonderful air of New York tasted like fine dry champagne. Jake loitered along Seventh Avenue. Crossing to Lenox, he lazied northward and over the One Hundred and Forty-ninth Street bridge into the near neighborhood of the Bronx. Here, just a step from compactly-built, teeming Harlem, were frame houses and open lots and people digging. A colored couple dawdled by, their arms fondly caressing each other’s hips.
The book was critically acclaimed, according to The Encyclopedia of The Harlem Renaissance especially by black critics, including some young writers such as Langston Hughes, who gave McKay high praise. But not everyone liked his work, and a number of his fellow Harlem Renaissance writers including W.E.B Du Bois — whom McKay considered a close colleague — gave the book negative reviews.
McKay’s latest novel, Amiable with Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem, was discovered and published in 2012. The novel is also set in Harlem during the Great Depression, and is mostly a satire of the Second Italo-Ethiopian War.
In spite of McKay’s success, his wealth dwindled at the end of his life, by when he had moved to Chicago. After spending years identifying as an agnostic, in 1944 he controversially converted to Catholicism, either as a result of his declining health or as one critic put it or in a “misguided attempt to align himself with a strong political ally in the fight against Communism,” as another said.
He died from heart failure on May 22, 1948 in a Chicago hospital.