Claude McKay was a pioneering Jamaican-American poet and author during the Harlem Renaissance, who released the first publications of that historic period in black history.
Born Festius Claudius McKay, he was born to a well-to-do family that made sure he received the best education possible. McKay would begin writing poetry at the early age of 10. By 1912, McKay had taken the advice of his mentor, Walter Jekyll, and published the first poems in Jamaican patois called “Songs of Jamaica.” That same year, McKay left for America to study with Booker T. Washington and was astounded by the level of racism he encountered in segregated Charleston, South Carolina.
In 1917, McKay was writing under the alias of Eli Edwards and working as a waiter on the railway. He published poems about his experience of the Red Summer and racial rioting all over the country. It was also during this time that he was said to have engaged in affairs with men, though he had married his high school sweetheart in 1914.
For a brief period of time, McKay was politically involved with the leaders of the African Blood Brotherhood and radicals who opposed Marcus Garvey before moving to London. While in Britain, McKay became one of the first black published journalists. He became seriously interested in the Communist Party and attended meetings of the Communist Unity Conference.
McKay was best known for his work in 1928 called “Home to Harlem,” which won the Harmon Gold Award for Literature and his poems, “If We Must Die” and “Outcast.” His work was said to be of great influence to black American novelists James Baldwin and Richard Wright.