What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
(If We Must Die, 12-14)
Claude McKay, born in Sunny Ville, Jamaica on September 15, 1889, came to America in 1912, the year his two books of Jamaican dialect verse came out, Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads. He studied agriculture for two years, first at Tuskegee in Alabama, and then at Kansas State University, but he left school for good to go to New York in 1914, where he worked at menial jobs, including (as Max Eastman remembers) dining-car service on the Pennsylvania railroad. He also had a short career as a restaurant owner, and a brief marriage to Eulalie Imelda Edwards, that same year, but lost both and never was to see his daughter Ruth Hope because his wife had returned to Jamaica. Recognized as a leading writer of the Harlem Renaissance, McKay published his only two American volumes of poetry in 1920 (Spring in New Hampshire and Other Poems) and 1922 (Harlem Shadows), about the time he became associate editor of a socialist magazine, The Liberator. He and Eastman, his co-editor, went to Moscow in 1923, where McKay was treated as a hero. A year later, disillusioned with communism, he left for France and spent several years in Morocco. His three novels Home to Harlem (1928), Banjo (1929), and Banana Bottom (1933), and his book of short stories, Gingertown (1932), were published while he was abroad. He returned to the United States in 1934 and earned a living as a journalist, publishing his memoirs, A Long Way from Home (1937), and a book of essays, Harlem, Negro Metropolis (1940). He died destitute in Chicago on May 2, 1948, working for a Catholic Youth Organization. He is buried in Queens, New York. His Selected Poems appeared posthumously in 1953.
Given name: Claude
Family name: McKay
Birth date: 15 September 1889
Death date: 22 May 1948
Cause of death: Heart disease
Buried at: Queens, N.Y.