In my last blog I wrote about Langston Hughes, our Harlem Renaissance poet, and his collection of poetry, The Weary Blues, which was published in 1926, the same year my father was born.
I want to uplift the works of another Harlem Renaissance writer, Claude McKay. McKay was, first and foremost, a poet, and one of his best known works, “If We Must Die,” uses the sonnet as his poetic form of expression, written in 1919, responds to white-on-Black race riots and lynchings across the United States in 1919. Fifty-two years later, during the Attica Prison Rebellion, in one of the prison yards, one of the people in the prison yard wrote one of the poem’s stanzas across a white sheet. Tom Wicker, a New York Times reporter covering the Rebellion, wrote a book about it, A Time to Die, perhaps inspired by the words on the sheet. From his comment on the stanza, it was obvious that Wicker did not know this famous sonnet. (Perhaps reporters don’t know poetry!)
Although McKay was, as stated above, first and foremost a poet, he wrote five novels and a novella, Home to Harlem (1928), a best-seller that won the Harmon Gold Award for Literature, as well as short stories and other works. After reading “If We Must Die,” one of the most powerful poems I had ever read, even before I knew what a sonnet was, I set out to read this Bard. The first novel I read by McKay was Banana Bottom, published in 1933, the same year my mother was born.
McKay, born in Jamaica, first traveled to the United States to attend college. In the States he read W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk, and one can see how DuBois’ writing on the “duality,” the dual consciousness of Black folk in America, influenced Banana Bottom, whose main character is a Jamaican girl who was adopted and sent to be educated in England by white missionary benefactors. When the girl, Bita Plant, returns to her native village of Banana Bottom, she “finds her black heritage at war with her newly acquired culture.” (Talk about “cancel culture!”)
Claude McKay was a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance, and anyone interested in that period should read him. Additionally, McKay was interested in politics, and as many Black intellectuals of the day, flirted with the politics of the Left. Almost any political philosophy, they probably intellectualized, had to be better than America’s since her Democracy spiraled out of control and turned violent against Black people simply affirming their humanity, or simply being (in the way James Baldwin’s character, Sonny, the title character of that great short story, “Sonny’s Blues” wants to be), and “dying” (read murdered by white folk), for this alone.