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About this poet

Claude McKay was born in Jamaica on September 15, 1889. He was educated by his older brother, who possessed a library of English novels, poetry, and scientific texts.

In 1912, McKay published a book of verse called Songs of Jamaica (Gardner), recording his impressions of black life in Jamaica in dialect. That same year, he traveled to the United States to attend Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He remained there only a few months, leaving to study agriculture at Kansas State University.

In 1917, he published two sonnets, "The Harlem Dancer" and "Invocation," and later used the form in writing about social and political concerns from his perspective as a black man in the United States. McKay also wrote on a variety of subjects, from his Jamaican homeland to romantic love, with a use of passionate language.

During the twenties, McKay developed an interest in Communism and traveled to Russia and then to France, where he met Edna St. Vincent Millay and Lewis Sinclair. In 1934, McKay moved back to the United States and lived in Harlem, New York. Losing faith in Communism, he turned his attention to the teachings of various spiritual and political leaders in Harlem, eventually converting to Catholicism.

McKay's viewpoints and poetic achievements in the earlier part of the twentieth century set the tone for the Harlem Renaissance and gained the deep respect of younger black poets of the time, including Langston Hughes. He died on May 22, 1948.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry
The Passion of Claude McKay: Selected Poetry and Prose (Schocken Books, 1973)
The Dialectic Poetry of Claude McKay (Books for Libraries Press, 1972)
Selected Poems (Bookman Associates, 1953)
Harlem Shadows (Harcourt, Brace, 1922)
Constab Ballads (Watts, 1912)
Songs of Jamaica (Gardner, 1912)

Prose
The Negroes in America (Associated Faculty Press, 1979)
Harlem: Negro Metropolis (Dutton, 1940)
A Long Way from Home (Furman, 1937)

Letters
My Green Hills of Jamaica (Heinemann Educational Books, 1979)
Trial By Lynching (University of Mysore Press, 1977)
Banana Bottom (Harper, 1933)
Gingertown (Harper, 1932)
Banjo: A Story Without a Plot (Harper, 1929)
Home to Harlem (Harper, 1928)
 

Harlem Shadows

Claude McKay, 1889 - 1948
I hear the halting footsteps of a lass
     In Negro Harlem when the night lets fall
Its veil. I see the shapes of girls who pass
     To bend and barter at desire's call.
Ah, little dark girls who in slippered feet
Go prowling through the night from street to street!

Through the long night until the silver break
     Of day the little gray feet know no rest;
Through the lone night until the last snow-flake
     Has dropped from heaven upon the earth's white breast,
The dusky, half-clad girls of tired feet
Are trudging, thinly shod, from street to street.

Ah, stern harsh world, that in the wretched way
     Of poverty, dishonor and disgrace,
Has pushed the timid little feet of clay,
     The sacred brown feet of my fallen race!
Ah, heart of me, the weary, weary feet
In Harlem wandering from street to street.

This poem is in the public domain.

This poem is in the public domain.

Claude McKay

Claude McKay

Claude McKay, who was born in Jamaica in 1889, wrote about social and political concerns from his perspective as a black man in the United States, as well as a variety of subjects ranging from his Jamaican homeland to romantic love.

by this poet

poem
I must not gaze at them although 
  Your eyes are dawning day; 
I must not watch you as you go 
  Your sun-illumined way; 

I hear but I must never heed 
  The fascinating note, 
Which, fluting like a river reed, 
  Comes from your trembing throat; 

I must not see upon your face 
  Love's softly glowing spark
poem

I plucked my soul out of its secret place,
And held it to the mirror of my eye,
To see it like a star against the sky,
A twitching body quivering in space,
A spark of passion shining on my face.
And I explored it to determine why
This awful key to my infinity
Conspires to rob me

poem
Your door is shut against my tightened face,
And I am sharp as steel with discontent;
But I possess the courage and the grace
To bear my anger proudly and unbent.
The pavement slabs burn loose beneath my feet,
And passion rends my vitals as I pass,
A chafing savage, down the decent street;
Where boldly shines