- Claude McKay Describes His Own Life
Editor's Note: The selection of poems that Claude McKay refers to here were published with this autobiographical essay in Pearson's Magazine, edited by Frank Harris, in 1918. The poem "Harlem Shadows" became the title work of McKay's fourth book, published by Harcourt Brace in 1922.
I am a black man, born in Jamaica, British West Indies, and have been living in America for the last six years. During my first year's residence in America I wrote the following group of poems. It was the first time I had ever come face to face with such manifest, implacable hate of my race, and my feelings were indescribable. I sent them so that you may see what my state of mind was at the time. I have written nothing similar to them since and don't think I ever shall again.
The whites at home constitute about 14 percent of the population only and they generally conform to the standard of English respectability. The few poor ones accept their fate resignedly and live at peace with the natives. The government is tolerant, somewhat benevolent, based on the principle of equal justice to all.
I had heard of prejudice in America but never dreamed of it being so in-tensely bitter; for at home there is also prejudice of the English sort, subtle and dignified, rooted in class distinction—color and race being hardly taken into account.
It was such an atmosphere I left for America to find here strong white men, splendid types, of better physique than any I had ever seen, exhibiting the most primitive animal hatred towards their weaker black brothers. In the South daily murders of a nature most hideous and revolting; in the North silent acquiescence, deep hate half-hidden under a puritan respectability, of flaming up into an occasional lynching—this ugly raw sore in the body of a great nation. At first I was horrified, my spirit revolted against the ignoble cruelty and blindness of it all. Then I soon found myself hating in return; but this feeling couldn't last long for to hate is to be miserable.
Looking about me with bigger and clearer eyes I saw that this cruelty in different ways was going on all over the world. Whites were exploiting and oppressing whites even as they exploited and oppressed the yellows and blacks. [End Page 103] And the oppressed, groaning under the lash, evinced the same despicable hate and harshness towards their weaker fellows. I ceased to think of people and things in the mass—why should I fight with mad dogs only to be bitten and probably transformed into a mad dog myself? I turned to the individual soul, the spiritual leaders, for comfort and consolation. I felt and still feel that one must seek for the noblest and best in the individual life only: each soul must save itself.
And now this great catastrophe has come upon the world proving the real hollowness of nationhood, patriotism, racial pride, and most of the things which one was taught to respect and reverence.
There is very little to tell of my uneventful career. I was born in the heart of the little island of Jamaica on the 15th of September, 1889. My grandparents were slaves, my parents free-born. My mother was very sweet-natured, fond of books; my father, honest, stern even to harshness, hard working, beginning empty-handed he coaxed a good living from the soil, bought land, and grew to be a comparatively prosperous small settler. A firm believer in education, he tried to give all his eight children the best he could afford.
I was the last child and when I was nine years old my mother sent me to my eldest brother, who was a schoolmaster in the northwestern part of the island.
From that time on I became interested in books. The school building, to which was attached the teacher's cottage, was an old slave house, plain, substantial, and comfortable. My brother, an amateur journalist, country correspondent for the city papers, was fond of good books and possessed a nice library...