McKay was selected as one of the 100 Greatest African Americans in a study by Temple University professor Molefi Kete Asante in 2002.
The Jamaican Nationals’ Association (JNA) of Washington D.C. is a non-profit organization with an aim to unify, foster, and promote the welfare of all Jamaicans and persons of Jamaican heritage in the Washington Metropolitan Area. The organization also provides assistance and support to individuals and organizations in the United States and in Jamaica.
Festus Claudius “Claude” McKay (September 15, 1889 – May 22, 1948) was a Jamaican writer and poet, who was a seminal figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Claude McKay was born in Nairne Castle near James Hill in upper Clarendon Parish, Jamaica. McKay referred to his home village as Sunny Ville.
He wrote four novels: Home to Harlem (1928), a best-seller that won the Harmon Gold Award for Literature, Banjo (1929), Banana Bottom (1933), and in 1941 a manuscript called Amiable With Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem which remained unpublished until 2017.
McKay also authored collections of poetry, a collection of short stories, Gingertown (1932), two autobiographical books, A Long Way from Home (1937) and My Green Hills of Jamaica (published posthumously), and a non-fiction, socio-historical treatise entitled Harlem: Negro Metropolis (1940). His 1922 poetry collection, Harlem Shadows, was among the first books published during the Harlem Renaissance. His Selected Poems was published posthumously, in 1953.
McKay was attracted to communism in his early life, but he always asserted that he never became an official member of the Communist Party USA. However, he gradually became disillusioned with communism, and by the mid-1930s had begun to write negatively about it.
He was the youngest child of Thomas Francis McKay and Hannah Ann Elizabeth Edwards, well-to-do farmers who had enough property to qualify to vote. His parents were also active and well-respected members of the Baptist faith. Thomas was a strict, religious man who struggled to develop close relationships with his children due to his serious nature.
McKay went to live with his oldest brother, Uriah Theodore, a teacher, to be given a proper education. Claude was influenced by Uriah to become an avid reader of classical and British literature, philosophy, science, and theology.
In 1906, McKay was apprenticed to a carriage and cabinet maker known as Old Brenga, maintaining his apprenticeship for about two years. In 1907, McKay met Walter Jekyll, who became a mentor and an inspiration for him. Jekyll encouraged him to focus on his writing and convinced McKay to write in his native dialect. Jekyll also set some of McKay’s verses to music. Jekyll helped McKay publish his first book of poems, Songs of Jamaica, in 1912. These were the first poems published in Jamaican Patois (a dialect of mainly English words and African structure). McKay’s next volume, Constab Ballads (1912), was based on his experiences of joining the constabulary for a brief period in 1911.
McKay left for the U.S. in 1912 to attend Tuskegee Institute. McKay was shocked by the intense racism he encountered when he arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, where many public facilities were segregated, which inspired him to write more poetry. At Tuskegee, he disliked the “semi-military, machine-like existence there” and quickly left to study at Kansas State University. At Kansas State, he read W. E. B. Du Bois’ Souls of Black Folk, which had a major impact on him and stirred his political involvement. But despite superior academic performance, in 1914 McKay decided he did not want to be an agronomist and moved to New York City, where he married his childhood sweetheart Eulalie Lewars.
Asante used five factors in establishing the list:
- Significance in the general progress of African-Americans toward full equality in the American social and political system
- Self-sacrifice and a willingness to take great risks for the collective good
- Unusual will and determination in the face of great danger and against the most stubborn odds
- A consistent posture toward raising the social, cultural and economic status of African Americans
- Personal achievement that reveals the best qualities of the African American people