- Claude McKay’s Road to Catholicism
I found it not in years of UnbeliefIn science stirring life like budding trees,In Revolution like a dazzling thief,Oh, shall I find it on my bended knees?—Claude McKay, “Truth”
Claude McKay’s seemingly sudden conversion to Catholicism, his self-proclaimed “right turn” in the mid-1940s, has puzzled literary and political admirers for over half a century. How could a leading light of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, one of the most militant black voices of twentieth-century African American literature, suddenly join one of the most hierarchical and powerful organizations in the world, not just a church but the Church, and not a black church but the Catholic Church? This conversion is all the more surprising because McKay had, throughout his life, so stubbornly maintained his radical individuality as he engaged with concentrated intensity in the social movements around him. Because he had refused to be rooted to any one place or worldview, he had experienced firsthand the most important and diverse movements of his own time, and anticipated many of the most important ideas to come out of twentieth-century black life. He was a student, albeit briefly, of agriculture at the Tuskegee Institute; already a West Indian migrant, he followed the Great Migration of black folk to the North and expressed in writing the tragicomedy of the new black metropolis, Harlem; he recognized, earlier than almost any Harlem intellectual of note, the significance and inner hopes of the Garvey Movement and attempted, alongside the distinctive African Blood Brotherhood, to create dialogue between the diasporic nationalism of the Garveyites and the socialism of the white-dominated American Left; a poet of the people, he found friends across the color-line in the increasingly radical movements of his time, briefly signing on to the 100,000-strong International Workers of the World in New York, working for women’s suffrage and labor rights with Sylvia Pankhurst in London, and later becoming co-editor of the radical-bohemian newspaper, The Liberator; he traveled to Russia to participate in the historic debates following the 1917 Russian Revolution; and, in the meanwhile, wrote the poetry, novels, and memoirs that have made him one of the most well-known and influential black writers of all time.
Given this illustrious life of intellectual and literary engagement, critics have been wary, to say the least, of McKay’s final conversion to Catholicism, suspecting him of an intellectual abdication or exhausted rejection of his nomadic and radical youth. This is perhaps why scholars have either ignored or dismissed his unusual and fascinating years as a Catholic, [End Page 148] even the most serious amongst them. Wayne Cooper, McKay’s eminent biographer, for example, gives the most detailed and sympathetic treatment of McKay’s conversion but finally settles on the conclusion that it was motivated by McKay’s troubled relationship to his fundamentalist Protestant father, essentially attributing a decision by the aging and cosmopolitan McKay to adolescent rebellion (365). Barbara Jackson Griffith sees McKay’s conversion as a response to his health problems and need for care and dignity in sickness. Tyrone Tillery is most blunt in his dismissal of McKay’s Catholicism: “McKay’s religious convictions are suspect and probably of less importance than his anti-Communism and his practical concerns” (180).
It is true that when McKay turned to Catholicism in his final years, he was suffering from poverty, health problems, and political and social ostracism by his own beloved Harlem. In her autobiography, black Catholic social activist and writer Ellen Tarry describes finding McKay at this time “alone and ill in a rented room. Claude needed medical attention and nursing care and I had no one to appeal to but my friends at Friendship House. Claude was fiercely proud and it was not easy, but the girls took turns nursing him” (qtd. in Davis 245). A proud man, McKay had always wanted to support himself through his writing, or failing that, through work befitting a person who had a way with words. When this basic desire for dignity was thwarted by racism, poverty, or the sectarian politics underlying both (a shameful...