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Claude McKay

Claude McKay
September 15, 1890 – May 22, 1948
Notable: Writer & Poet
Nationality: Jamaican


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Festus Claude McKay was born in the Sunny Ville area of Clarendon Parish, Jamaica to Hannah Ann Elizabeth Edwards and Thomas Frank McKay. McKay’s parents were poor farmers but they took pride in having descended from Malagasy and Ashanti people. One of 11 children, during his childhood McKay was primarily taught by Uriah McKay, an older brother, who was a school teacher.

Uriah encouraged McKay to make use of his library of English books and texts. There McKay found himself drawn to poetry from an early age. Through Uriah, McKay was introduced to the philosophies and writing of various free thinkers.

As a young man, McKay found a mentor in Walter Jekyll. The older man was a British aristocrat and intellectual who worked in part as a translator. Jekyll also made his library available to McKay, expanding his access to British writers and philosophers. Nourishing McKay’s passion for poetry, Jekyll encouraged him to write in his natural Jamaican dialect.

McKay left home at 17 years old to apprentice in Brown’s Town as a woodworker. The arrangement did not work out long-term and after a short stay, McKay moved to Kingston where he found work as a constable. During this time, Jamaica was still under colonial rule and as the capital, Kingston had a relatively large White population. Black people were regarded and treated as second-class citizens. Having grown up in a primarily Black community, the openly prejudiced assumptions about and racist treatment of Black people was a culture shock for McKay.

Unhappy with his experiences in Brown’s Town and Kingston, McKay returned to Sunny Ville. Back home, McKay put together collections of poems that would be published in London as Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads. The poems drew on the life experiences he’d had as a Black man living in various parts of Jamaica. The volumes at times praised the positives of a simple peasant farmer life and lamented the hardships of living in the hustle and bustle of Kingston.

In recognition of his poetry, McKay received a monetary award from the Jamaican Institute of Arts and Sciences. He used the prize money to fund a move to the United States in 1912 where he planned to study agriculture at the Tuskegee Institute. Unfortunately, McKay found himself unable to adapt to the racial tension in Tuskegee. He transferred to and spent one year at Kansas State College before moving to Harlem.

McKay’s time in Harlem would be productive on both the personal and creative fronts. Believed to have had both male and female romantic partners, McKay’s brief marriage to Eulalie Imelda Lewars produced a daughter. McKay worked odd jobs to support himself while he restarted his writing career. Between 1916 to 1919, a flurry of activity saw the publication of If We Must Die and several other poems published in American magazines.

McKay traveled and lived abroad in Europe, Russia, and North Africa for much of the period between the late 1910s to the early 1930s. The 1920s would see the publication of additional poems, books of poetry, and novels. As a result, he would become a key early figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Yet, McKay stood apart from most as he was involved with the Communist Party during this time. Thus his work not only provided commentary on race relations but also addressed classism.

By the time McKay returned to Harlem on a more permanent basis in 1934, he was increasingly disenchanted with communism and became a US citizen in 1940. He also began to explore other philosophies and religious faiths. An atheist or agnostic for much of his life, McKay converted to Catholicism in either 1942 or 1944.

Suffering from health issues and financial difficulties by the mid-1940s, McKay spent the last years of his life in Chicago where he worked as a teacher. On May 22, 1948, Claude McKay died of congestive heart failure. McKay was buried in New York after his funeral in Harlem.


  1. Editors. 2021. “Claude McKay.” Biography.Com. A&E Networks Television. October 26, 2021.
  2. Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. 2023. “Claude McKay.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. May 18, 2023.
  3. “Claude McKay.” 2023. Poets.Org. Academy of American Poets. June 5, 2023.
  4. “Claude McKay.” n.d. Poetry Foundation. Accessed August 15, 2023.
  5. Salvo, Victor. n.d. “Claude McKay.” Edited by Owen Keehnen and Carrie Maxwell. Legacy Project Chicago. Accessed August 15, 2023.
  6. Samuels, Wilfred D. 2020. “Claude McKay (1889-1948).” Blackpast.Org. June 9, 2020.
  7. Simoneau, Heather. 2023. “Claude McKay: Biography.” Edited by Amardeep Singh. African American Poetry (1870-1927): A Digital Anthology. August 7, 2023.

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