Born in James Hill, Clarendon, Jamaica, McKay was the youngest in a large family. His father, Thomas McKay was a peasant, but had enough property to qualify to vote. Claude came to the attention of Walter Jekyll who helped him publish his first book of poems, Songs of Jamaica, in 1912. These were the first poems published in patois.
McKay's next volume, Constab Ballads came out the same year and were based on his experience as a police officer in Jamaica. He also left for the USA that year going to Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute. McKay was shocked by the intense racism he encountered in Charleston, South Carolina. Many public facilities were not available to Black people. Disliking the "semi-military, machinelike existence there", Claude quickly left to study at Kansas State University. His political involvement dates from these days. He also read W. E. B. Du Bois Souls of Black Folk which had a major impact on McKay.
Despite doing well in exams, in 1914 McKay decided he did not want to be an agronomist and went to New York where he married his childhood sweetheart Eulalie Lewars. However, she grew weary of life in New York and returned to Jamaica in six months.
It was several years before McKay had two poems published in 1917 in Seven Arts under the pseudonym Eli Edwards. However McKay continued to work as a waiter on the railways. In 1919 he met Crystal and Max Eastman who produced The Liberator (where McKay would serve as Co-Executive Editor until 1922). It was here that Claude published one of his most famous poems If We Must Die during the "Red Summer", a period of intense racial violence against Black people in Anglo-American societies. This was amongst a page of his poetry which signaled the commencement of his life as a professional writer.
McKay became involved with a group of Black radicals who were unhappy both with Marcus Garvey's nationalism and the middle class reformist NAACP. These included the African Caribbeans Cyril Briggs, Richard B. Moore and Wilfrid Domingo. They fought for Black self-determination within the context of socialist revolution. Together they founded the semi-secret revolutionary organization, the African Blood Brotherhood. However McKay soon left for London, England.
Hubert Harrison had asked McKay to write for Garvey's Negro World, but only a few copies of the paper have survived from this period, none of which contain any articles by McKay. McKay used to frequent a soldier's club in Drury Lane and the International Socialist Club in Shoreditch. It was during this period that McKay's commitment to socialism deepened and he read Marx assiduously. At the International Socialist Club McKay met Saklatvala, A. J. Cook, Guy Aldred, Jack Tanner, Arthur McManus, William Gallacher, Sylvia Pankhurst and George Lansbury. He was soon invited to write for the Workers' Dreadnought.
In 1920 the Daily Herald, a socialist paper published by George Lansbury, included a racist article written by E. D. Morel. Entitled 'Black Scourge in Europe: Sexual Horror Let Loose by France on the Rhine' it insinuated gross hypersexuality on African people in general, but Lansbury refused to print McKay's response to this racist slur. This response then appeared in Workers' Dreadnought. This started his regular involvement with workers' Dreadnought and the Workers' Socialist Federation, a Council Communist group active in the East End and which had a majority of women involved in it at all levels of the organization. He became a paid journalist for the paper; some people claim he was the first Black journalist in Britain. He attended the Communist Unity Conference, which established the Communist Party of Great Britain. At this time he also had some of his poetry published in the Cambridge Magazine edited by C. K. Ogden.
When Sylvia Pankhurst was arrested under the Defense of the Realm Act for publishing articles "calculated and likely to cause sedition amongst His Majesty's forces, in the Navy, and among the civilian population," McKay had his rooms searched. He is likely to have been the author of "The Yellow peril and the Dockers" attributed to Leon Lopez, which was one of the articles cited by the government in its case against the Workers' Dreadnought.
Home to Harlem and other writings
In 1928 McKay published his most famous novel, Home to Harlem (1928), which won the Harmon Gold Award for Literature. The novel, which depicted street life in Harlem, would have a major impact on black intellectuals in the Caribbean, West Africa, and Europe. Despite this, the book drew fire from one of McKay's heroes, W.E.B. Du Bois. To DuBois, the novel's frank depictions of sexuality and the nightlife in Harlem only appealed to the "prurient demand[s]" of white readers and publishers looking for portrayals of black "licentiousness." As DuBois said, "Home to Harlem ... for the most part nauseates me, and after the dirtier parts of its filth I feel distinctly like taking a bath." Modern critics now dismiss this criticism of DuBois, who was more concerned with using art as propaganda in the struggle for African American political liberation than in the value of art to showcase the truth about the lives of black people.
McKay's other novels were Banjo (1929), and Banana Bottom (1933). McKay also authored a collection of short stories, Gingertown (1932), and two autobiographical books, A Long Way from Home (1937) and Harlem: Negro Metropolis (1940). His book of collected poems, Selected Poems (1953), was published posthumously.
Becoming disillusioned with communism, McKay embraced the social teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and was baptized. He died from a heart attack at the age of 59.
See you in Jamaica.