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Small Axe 7.1 (2003) 17-45

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Becoming the People's Poet:
Claude McKay's Jamaican Years, 1889-1912

Winston James


In July 1912 Claude McKay, two months short of his twenty-third birthday, left his island home for study in the United States. McKay would never see Jamaica again, despite his initial intention to return after his studies. Indeed, instead of returning, he ranged even farther afield. "[G]ripped by the lust to wander and wonder," as he later disclosed, 1 McKay spent over a year in Britain between 1919 and 1921, six months in Lenin's Russia between 1922 and 1923, and between 1923 and 1934 he lived in Berlin, various parts of France (mainly Marseilles) and Spain, spending the last six years of his second exile in Morocco before returning to New York.

But although McKay left Jamaica, Jamaica never left McKay, despite his unending exile, his wide experience, and his traveling half a world away from the island. Desperately homesick while living in London in 1920, McKay explicitly promised to return to Jamaica: [End Page 17]

I shall return to loiter by the streams
That bathe the brown blades of the bending grasses
And realize once more my thousand dreams
Of waters rushing down the mountain passes.
I shall return to hear the fiddle and fife
Of village dances, dear delicious tunes
That stir the hidden depths of native life,
Stray melodies of dim-remembered runes:
I shall return. I shall return again
To ease my mind of long, long years of pain.2

But he never made it back to the green hills of Jamaica that gave him such joy and solace; he died in Chicago, an exile, on the twenty-second of May 1948.

Exiles inevitably carry memories of home with them, especially in the early years of separation. But in McKay's case, all the evidence suggests that his formation on the island and his memory of it possessed him to an unusually powerful degree. He could never quite forget Jamaica and he never wanted to forget Jamaica. He even claimed to have "embalmed" his Jamaican days. 3 And in his darkest moments abroad, he took refuge in this memory and wrote some of his most accomplished and moving poems of nostalgia. The very struggle to remember, to deepen and to nourish his memory of Jamaica against the corrosive power of time and distance, often became the subject of his poetic reverie. "Flame-Heart" captures well this struggle and sense of loss:

So much I have forgotten in ten years,
So much in ten brief years! I have forgot
What time the purple apples come to juice,
And what month brings the shy forget-me-not.
I have forgot the special, startling season
Of the pimento's flowering and fruiting;
What time of year the ground doves brown the fields
And fill the noonday with their curious fluting.
I have forgotten much, but still remember
The poinsettia's red, blood-red, in warm December.4 [End Page 18]

But although the detailed, seasonal, and quotidian rhythm of flora and fauna at times escaped him in exile, he remembered much, and much of greater significance than the "poinsettia's red, blood-red, in warm December." Moreover, his Jamaican upbringing and experience shaped him in profound ways. His perceptions of and preoccupation with injustice and inequality, his attitude toward women, his position on color and class hierarchies, his sympathy for and identification with the black oppressed and his attempt to give voice to their plight, all these—even though they adjusted over time—issued from his Jamaican background and experience and were evident before he left the island. Similarly, he developed his freethinking and socialist views before he emigrated, albeit in less radical forms than they would subsequently take. In addition to his autobiographical writings and much of his poetry, McKay's best works of fiction, notably Banana Bottom and Gingertown, explicitly evoke the world of his Jamaican years. 5 Indeed, Banana Bottom is in many ways a eulogy to the lost...


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