Claude McKay was born September 15, 1890, in Jamaica, West Indies. He studied under his brother Uriah and Englishman Walter Jekyll, who encouraged McKay’s affinity to British poets. Though rather than imitate the writers he admired, Jekyll pushed McKay to write in his own style, leading to his first collections written in dialect—Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads—published in 1912. Each painted a strikingly different portrait of his homeland. The former showed his contentment in his native Sunny Ville, where he lived with others proud of their predominantly African-peasant heritage. The latter was critical of the culture in Kingston, Jamaica’s capitol, which had a racially-charged, primarily white population.
After receiving a stipend and award for Songs of Jamaica, McKay headed for America in 1912. He attended Tuskegee University briefly before transferring to Kansas State College, but less than two years later, he moved to New York City. Quite possibly the first voice of the Harlem Renaissance, McKay continued to write poetry fueled by his firsthand experience with racial injustice. In 1921, he published Harlem Shadows, featuring notable poems like “If We Must Die,” which criticized persecution and paved the way for future writers of the movement like Langston Hughes. From 1922 to 1934, McKay traveled abroad and lived for a time in the Soviet Union and France. He continued writing during this time and produced such works as Home to Harlem and Banjo (1929), along with short stories featured in Gingertown (1932), and a novel, Banana Bottom (1933).
McKay continued writing for various newspapers and magazines after his return to New York in 1934. He died in 1948, and his final collection, Selected Poems was published posthumously in 1953. He is still viewed today as an initiator of the Harlem Renaissance.