Claude Mckay

Claude Mckay [1889 - 1948]

Festus Claudius Mckay was a Jamaican-American writer and poet and one of the central leaders in the Harlem Renaissance movement. His writings captured an early black Atlantic in flux, with diasporic connections in Europe, the Caribbean and North America.

In 1919, he penned “If we must die”, a widely reprinted sonnet responding to the wave of white-on-black race riots and lynchings in America following the conclusion of the First World War. He spent some time in London, where he would frequent the former International Socialist Club in Shoreditch and the Soldier’s Club on Drury Lane.

While in London, Mckay joined the Rationalist Press Association, where he met Syliva Pankhurst and wrote for the Workers’ Dreadnought. He was a communist, travelling to Russia and writing about the relationship between socialism towards race.

A prolific writer and thinker, Mckay wrote five novels, a collection of short stories and four books of poetry. His most famous novel was Home to Harlem in 1928, an award-winning bestseller which won the Harmon Gold Award for Literature. The novel depicted street life in Harlem, with untold stories that significantly impacted Black intellectuals in the Caribbean, West Africa and Europe.

Although Claude Mckay was well respected and well-travelled, he was often penniless and suffered from ill health. Nevertheless, his body of work leaves an everlasting mark on the literary world, and his life captures the preoccupations of pre-World War II Black writers on the move with politics and art.