The Fragmented Vision of Claude McKay: A Study of His Works

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Griffin, Barbara Jackson
Bryer, Jackson
Claude McKay, born in Jamaica in 1890, played a significant role in the development of Black American literature. His search for a Black aesthetic and his poems of defiance gave inspiration to young Black artists hungry to explore new ideas. Their creative spirit flowered into the Harlem Renaissance. But, McKay, whose themes helped to stimulate this movement, was plagued by the very concepts that helped to define it. Throughout his life, he was ambivalent about three things: his Afrocentric universe, his role as rebel spokesman, and his relationship to Jamaica. Already a poet of some consequence in Jamaica, McKay thought of America as a grander arena for his voice, but when he arrived in Charleston, South Carolina in 1912, he was shaken by the intense racism of America. His upbringing in rural Clarendon Hills had not prepared him for what he witnessed. By nature, a proud man, McKay turned his lyrical expression into an instrument that would change the arrogance of the Whites. "Harlem Dancer" and "Invocation" (1917) implied the nobility of African roots and affirmed the superiority of primitivistic value system over Western cultural standards. But in McKay's psyche lay the germ of ambivalence that rejected the code of any "world" not sanctioned by the West. During the years following World War I, when relations between Whites and Blacks were strained, McKay became a rebel spokesman for the masses with his defiant poem "If We Must Die" (1919). It urged oppressed people to stand valiant in the face of defeat. But McKay later denied that the poem spoke for Blacks and further questioned the artistic worth of his other "militant" poems. McKay was also ambivalent about his homeland. Throughout most of his life, he ignored in his writing the political, social, and economic realities of Jamaica and evoked instead the image of an Edenic island that offered him refuge from the complexities of the twentieth century.