The Proletarian Poet

The Proletarian Poet

A new book on Claude McKay is part of an effort to place the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance within the Black radical tradition.

Claude McKay speaking at the Kremlin, as printed in the December 1923 issue of the Crisis (Wikimedia Commons)

Claude McKay: The Making of a Black Bolshevik
by Winston James
Columbia University Press, 2022, 464 pp.

In 1919, the New York Times printed a number of reports on behalf of the U.S. Department of Justice related to the scourge of “Bolshevism” supposedly taking root among the country’s Black population. In one, titled “Exhibit No. 10: Radicalism and Sedition Among the Negroes as Reflected in their Publications,” the DOJ claimed: “there can no longer be any question of a well-concerted movement among a certain class of Negro leaders of thought and action to constitute themselves a determined and persistent source of radical opposition to the Government, and to the established rule of law and order.” Proof that “Soviet doctrines” had taken hold among the Black intelligentsia, the office said, could be found in periodicals like the Liberator, a socialist magazine that had recently published a poem titled “If We Must Die” by the Jamaican-born writer Claude McKay. The report, writes historian Winston James in his new book, Claude McKay: The Making of a Black Bolshevik, “explicitly mentioned McKay and his poem more than any other person or piece of writing” in its roundup of seditious Black literature.

McKay wrote “If We Must Die” in 1919, against the backdrop of the “Red Summer,” a campaign of racial terror (aided by local law enforcement) that devastated Black communities from Maine to San Francisco. The mass migration of African Americans to cities in the industrial North in the middle of a postwar economic downturn increased competition for wages, stoking the flames of white resentment. The violence, meant to subdue its targets, had the unintended consequence of sparking fierce and organized resistance. New political organizations, some quite radical, were formed, including Cyril Briggs’s African Blood Brotherhood (ABB), a socialist group that was later absorbed into the Communist Party of the United States of America. The FBI tried to attribute this new Black revolutionary consciousness to Russian interference rather than homegrown unrest.

McKay, James reminds us, composed “If We Must Die” during a bathroom break while employed as a waiter for the Pennsylvania Railroad. He first recited the lines “Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack / Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!” to his fellow Black laborers on the train. The poem, which became the anthem of the Red Summer, had initially been received as an explosive Black leftist proclamation, a radical battle cry born out of the imbricated struggles of race and class. Briggs swiftly republished “If We Must Die” in the ABB’s newspaper, the Crusader. As did Black trade unionists A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen in their socialist literary journal the Messenger.

James’s book is part of a broader effort by historians and literary scholars to resituate the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance within the Black radical tradition, against popular efforts, then and now, to anthologize its literature under the neutral banner of representation. The most significant of those efforts was carried out in 1925 by the scholar and critic Alain Locke. His literary anthology, The New Negro, contained relatively little writing that represented leftist elements of the new Black intelligentsia. While he ceded in his introduction that “the thinking Negro has shifted a little toward the left with the world trend,” Locke—who feared Marxist stirrings within the Black community would invite white backlash—insisted that the “Negro is radical on race matters, conservative on others.” Historian Barbara Foley argued that Locke’s anthology “signifies less a recognition of the New Negro’s arrival as interpreter of black modernity than an attempt—and a politically conservative one at that—to bring a certain version of that modernity into being.”

While McKay’s radicalism and involvement in socialist organizing is well-established among academics, lines from “If We Must Die” still circulate on social media and in everyday settings in a manner unmoored from its socialist inflections. (I remember reading the poem in middle school with my class, and I am positive no one mentioned Lenin.) “If We Must Die” was actually just one of seven poems by McKay that appeared in that issue of the Liberator, alongside others like “The Capitalist at Dinner.” McKay was someone who tried, James writes, “to look at politics not just from the perspective of a Black person in a white man’s world, but from the perspective of the Black working class, the Black poor, the Black ‘masses,’ in a racist and class-stratified society.”

In The Making of a Black Bolshevik, James’s question is a simple one: how did McKay come to see the world this way? The poet would seem intent on making such a task impossible, implying at regular turns that he was simply born to do so. “I had imbibed Fabian Socialism with my mother’s milk,” he told an interviewer a few years before his death, referring to his family’s leftist inclinations. Furthermore, for much of McKay’s youth, Jamaica’s governor was the Fabian and Labour politician Sydney Olivier. However, Fabianism was a gradualist, reformist kind of socialism, unlike the Bolshevism McKay was openly pledging allegiance to by 1919.

To trace the texture of that becoming, James turns our attention to events in the background, often veering away from McKay the man to the world through which he moved. There are extended sections on the history of the United Fruit Company and the effects its monopoly had on Jamaican workers and the labor movement. James also delves into the imperial police force and how British strategies for quelling Irish independence were transported to Jamaica to protect the interests of wealthy farmers and foreign investors. When the book follows McKay’s move to the United States, James recounts the new militarism of Black protest following the events of Red Summer, and how the Russian Revolution of 1917 expanded the sense of what was possible from Moscow all the way to Mississippi.

In writing Making of a Black Bolshevik, James’s “objective,” he explains, “is not a conventional ‘political biography’—partly because I find it difficult to conceive of a nonpolitical biography.” Instead, James’s thesis is essentially that McKay became a revolutionary because his eyes were opened to the world around him. He shows the development of political consciousness as a process of osmosis. Perhaps that process was more acute for McKay because he was a poet. His ear was tuned to the cries and complaints that surrounded him, from the fields of Jamaica to the railway kitchen—sounds emitted in many languages and dialects, but in the shared tones of the weary and exploited.

McKay was born into a family of middle-class farmers, but he was largely reared by his elder brother U. Theo, a schoolmaster and intellectual described by the Jamaican press as one of the most radical members of his generation. Theo called for a progressive income tax at a time when any taxes on income whatsoever were considered heretical. Following his education under Theo, McKay apprenticed for a “mulatto” cabinetmaker (McKay, who was dark-skinned, was especially attuned to inequalities that existed among the Black population of Jamaica along the lines of color). “He was one of those men who wanted to guard his trade secrets and was not eager to teach me anything,” he wrote in My Green Hills of Jamaica (1947). However, seeing the “lavish interiors of the houses of the ‘whites and near-whites,’” James writes, only “deepened [McKay’s] appreciation of inequalities in Jamaica” that he had first grasped under his brother’s tutelage.

It was also through the “crabby,” fair-skinned cabinetmaker that McKay first met the English aristocrat Walter Jekyll, who would become McKay’s mentor and patron. Jekyll was a collector of Jamaican folksongs and stories; he compiled many in his 1907 volume Jamaican Song and Story, published in London by the Folklore Society. As a Black man who wrote poetry, McKay was “at first regarded . . . as an exotic novelty” by Jekyll, James writes, “a member of a somewhat peculiar, talking-horse-like species.” Yet it was Jekyll who encouraged McKay’s early efforts to write poetry in Jamaican Creole rather than standard English, a decision that would make McKay an important force in Caribbean poetics and postcolonial literature long after his death. It is ironic, James notes, to consider this legacy in part as a byproduct of the colonist Jekyll’s exoticism.

Being around Jekyll also gave McKay insights into the nuances of class antagonism. One day, McKay asked Jekyll why he could tolerate him, ostensibly a lowly farmboy, but had little patience for the local governor. “English gentlemen have always liked their peasants,” he told McKay; “it’s the ambitious middle class that we cannot tolerate.”

When he turned twenty, McKay abandoned his apprenticeship. He found work first at a match factory and then with the Jamaican Constabulary. There had always been a police presence on the island, but in 1867, following a peasant rebellion over low wages and limited access to land for purchase, British authorities established a stricter, militarized police force in Jamaica modeled on the notorious Royal Irish Constabulary. McKay’s reasons for joining are opaque. He told a journalist it had to do with “a pitiable love story” but gave no details. (McKay, it should be noted, had relationships with men and women.) McKay, inclined since his youth to be disdainful of authority and incorrigibly outspoken, made for a poor cop. “I had not in me the stuff that goes to the making of a good constable,” he wrote in the preface to his 1912 poetry collection Constab Ballads. “It is my misfortune to have a most improper sympathy with wrongdoers.”

His poems read as a kind of exorcism, exposing police corruption and cruelty while valorizing the people who made up Jamaica’s seedy underbelly. When “Papine Corner,” an ode to Kingston nightlife that appeared in Constab Ballads, was published in a local paper, the city’s clergy used its imagery “to inveigh against the wickedness of life” in the capital. However, it was precisely this wickedness that McKay relished, with lines like, “When you want to be jus’ broke / Ride up wid your chum / Buy de best cigars to smoke / An’ Finzi old rum.” McKay also devoted three stanzas to the constabulary, who indulged in the same vices they were meant to be policing: “Ef you want lost policeman / Go dere Sunday night / Where you’ll see them, every one / Lookin’ smart an’ bright.”

The poems in his second collection, Songs of Jamaica (1912), were influenced by the local farmers struggling to compete with the United Fruit Company. UFC first came to Jamaica in the 1880s, when it was still the Boston Fruit Company. Its owner, Lorenzo Dow Baker, began aggressively buying up acres in eastern Jamaica to grow bananas for export to the United States. Local sellers were forced to try to deal their bananas to a merchant that also owned farmland, which severely depressed prices. James highlights McKay’s poem, “Quashie to Buccra,” as an especially powerful piece of commentary on the status of poor Black farmers in Jamaica at the time. A quashie, he explains, is “the black country bumpkin, the peasant, the subaltern,” and a buccra is a white man. In the poem, a Black peasant lectures the white buyer on the difficulty of his labor and how poorly the price reflects it: You tas’e petater an’ you say it sweet / But you no know how hard we wuk fe it / You want a basketful fe quattiewut’ / ’Cause you no know how ’tiff de bush fe cut.

McKay gives the person of lower social status the chance to speak out against the figures who rule over them. He does something similar in “A Midnight Woman to a Bobby,” in which a sex worker heckles a cop. Reading McKay’s early poetry, you understand his comment about imbibing socialism from his mother’s milk: his political consciousness already seems so fully realized. But he was also undergoing a process of radicalization—the inevitable product, James implies, of McKay’s clear-eyed witnessing.

Though McKay’s first two books were met with near universal acclaim, poet was not a viable vocation. He elected to leave Jamaica in 1912 to study agriculture at the famed Tuskegee Institute, then run by Booker T. Washington, whose worldview could not have departed more starkly from McKay’s. Washington, a staunch believer in bootstraps capitalism, promoted an accommodationist stance toward racial injustice. In a famous 1895 speech to a mostly white crowd that came to be known as the Atlanta Compromise, he gave assurances that Black Americans would not pursue voting rights or pursue anti-lynching legislation if they were provided with free technical education that could lead to economic prosperity. McKay chose to study at Tuskegee at the encouragement of Jekyll, who believed that an education in agriculture would furnish him with a career as a farming instructor back home in Jamaica, which could in turn help his poetry by “keeping McKay close to the peasantry and its aspirations and ways of thinking.”

McKay did not last long in Tuskegee. In 1914, after a stint at Kansas State (where he joined a socialist student group), he moved to New York City, where he was set to reunite with and marry his childhood sweetheart from Jamaica, Eulalie Lewars. According to another McKay biographer, Wayne F. Cooper, a wedding gift allowed him to open a restaurant to feed the city’s growing contingent of Caribbean immigrants. After he arrived, McKay was entranced by Harlem, which struck him as “a paradise of my own people.” He gave himself over, he would later say, to the “the rhythm of Harlem life which still remains one of the most pleasurable sensations of my blood.” The marriage to Lewars lasted only six months. His restaurant venture also went bust. To make ends meet, McKay turned to odd jobs—janitor, butler, porter, fixing furnaces—before he landed his job as a waiter with the Pennsylvania Railroad. “I waded through the muck and scum,” he would later write in his autobiography, A Long Way From Home (1937). McKay’s poetry from this period reflected both the drudgery of wage work and the spirit of Black working-class comradery. A proletarian poet whose class consciousness derived from Black struggle under capitalism, McKay would shuttle seamlessly back and forth between the white left downtown and the Black socialists of Harlem.

Meanwhile, back home in Jamaica, a young Black nationalist named Marcus Garvey had formed the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Garvey, born to poor farmers on the island, had worked briefly as a timekeeper for the United Fruit Company in Costa Rica, witnessing firsthand its predatory practices towards Black and indigenous laborers. In 1912, he left to find work in London, eventually landing a job as a paperboy for the African Times and Orient Review, a newspaper “devoted to the interests of the coloured races of the world.” It was banned in British India and its African colonies. Inspired by Washington’s message of self-sufficiency and racial separation, Garvey founded UNIA on the principles of race pride and self-segregation, the latter earning UNIA the shorthand of the “back to Africa movement” (Garvey created a cruise line, Black Star Line, for that express purpose). 

Though Garveyism was internationalist in scope and advocated for decolonization in Africa, Garvey was suspicious of socialists and a politics rooted in cross-racial class solidarity. One of UNIA’s members, Hubert Harrison, coined the Garveyist slogan “Race First.” When McKay moved to Harlem, he befriended Harrison, who, in fact, was a socialist. Harrison saw no contradiction in this. Putting race first, Harrison believed, was what “white people—including his erstwhile comrades of the Socialist Party—practiced, and it therefore made sense for Black people to do the same, if only for defensive purposes.”

Harrison edited Negro World, the official newspaper for the Garvey movement. It was in those pages that McKay contributed to a debate about the Russian Revolution and its significance for Black people everywhere. “Every Negro who lays claim to leadership,” expounded McKay, “should make a study of Bolshevism and explain its meaning to the colored masses.” For him, the chief appeal of Bolshevism was what it had done, or what he believed it had, for the plight of the Jews. McKay viewed pogroms as a relic of imperial Russia, believing the Bolsheviks had liberated Jews from the threat of violence by creating a solidarity across class lines that diffused ethnic divisions. Against the backdrop of the Red Summer, this struck McKay as a solution he could pin his hopes to. Just as the Bolsheviks had “made Russia safe for the Jew,” he wagered that they “might make these United States safe for the Negro.”

The actual picture is far more complex, as McKay had to know deep down; while it is true that early Bolshevik leaders vocally rejected anti-Semitism, labeled it counterrevolutionary, and took steps to prevent pogroms (at the urging of Jewish socialists), anti-Semitism—including violent expressions of it—persisted throughout the Soviet era.

McKay’s transformation from Fabian to Bolshevik was now complete. Despite the acclaim that “If We Must Die” brought him on the New York literary scene, he was uneasy with literary celebrity. He began to think of himself as not just a poet but a propagandist whose main task was to spread the promises of Bolshevism to the “colored masses” through organizing and journalism. One of his poems from this time, “Labor’s Day,” was a celebration of the international working class. “He expressed the belief,” James writes, “that the real poetry of ‘hope and vision’ is being written by labor itself, for itself: the labor movement no longer needed the traditional poet; labor’s struggle is poetry.”

At the end of 1919, McKay set sail for London. Though he had letters of introduction to the city’s brightest literati, the first person he sought out was Sylvia Pankhurst, the editor of the Workers’ Dreadnought, an erstwhile suffragette newspaper turned socialist. Within weeks, McKay began working for her, becoming, according to James, “Britain’s first black journalist.” He primarily covered labor: everything from unionizing efforts at the London docks to a strike at an East End sawmill. After dock workers earned a pay increase, McKay reported, shipping companies began employing Chinese sailors at lower wages, stoking ethnic tensions to derail the labor movement. “The whole plot is so obvious,” McKay wrote, “and yet the nicely fed and clothed labour officials play the capitalist game to perfection, by stirring up the passions of the workers against aliens (need I add Jews?).”

McKay also contributed poems to the Workers’ Dreadnought, including one devoted to the Russian Revolution: Long struggling under the Imperial heel / Some dared not see the white flame of your star / Dimmed by the loathsome shadow of your Tsar / But men who clung to sacred dreams could feel / Some day you would put forth your arm of steel. The Worker’s Dreadnought was closely surveilled by British authorities, so McKay published under various pen names. When he began to agitate among disaffected members of the British Armed Forces, police raided the paper’s offices and arrested Pankhurst for sedition.

McKay returned to New York after a little over a year in London. The verses he composed while overseas became his first major collection published in the United States, Harlem Shadows (1922). The title poem is devoted to Black sex workers—“dusky, half-clad girls of tired feet.”

Soon after, in 1922, he traveled to Moscow, where he had been invited to speak at the Fourth Congress of the Communist International (McKay’s name had been suggested two years earlier to Lenin by the American journalist John Reed). McKay, a nervous public speaker, opened his address by saying he would prefer to face a lynch mob. In his remarks, he spoke mainly about how effective racism had been in stymying the labor movement and sowing distrust among workers. He was frank about the racism he witnessed from white comrades in the fight against capitalism and imperialism (James notes that McKay was particularly dismayed to see Irish nationalists invoke the racist idea they should not be colonized on the grounds that they were white). “This is the greatest difficulty that the Communists of America have got to overcome,” he told the crowd in Moscow, “the fact that they first have got to emancipate themselves from the ideas they entertain towards the negroes.”

The Making of a Black Bolshevik is the lead installment in a planned two-part biography by James, and his second book on McKay. His first, A Fierce Hatred of Injustice: Claude McKay’s Jamaica and His Poetry of Rebellion (2001), was an analysis of his early poetry as informed by the changing political landscape of Jamaica. Though a historian, James is a perceptive literary critic, and his close readings are some of the most electrifying parts of The Making of a Black Bolshevik. With the second part of the biography, one eagerly anticipates his discussion of McKay’s turn to the novel with books like Banjo (1929), Gingertown (1932), Banana Bottom (1933), Romance in Marseille (1933, pub. 2020), Harlem Glory (1940, pub. 1988), and Amiable with Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem (1941, pub. 2017). 

The curious title of the latter novel hints at the transformation that McKay underwent—his Bolshevik unbecoming. Amiable is set in 1935 after Italy’s invasion of Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia. In the novel, all of Harlem is energized to defend this symbol of Black sovereignty, and a small charitable organization is formed to send funds. But a mysterious Russian communist named Maxim Tasan tries to infiltrate the organization to his own ends. The novel (which was not published until 2017) is a messy but engaging cautionary tale about Popular Front machinations and a rebuke of Moscow-led communism (many Black leftists felt betrayed when it was revealed that Stalin had an arms deal with Mussolini and was furnishing the very weapons that killed Black soldiers in Ethiopia).

Amiable was not a complete disavowal of Bolshevik principles, but the novel skews more sympathetic to the Garveyist-inspired characters. Their sense of race pride does not blind them to the ills of capitalism but rather opens them up to forms of coalition building that transcend national politics. During McKay’s time, there were bourgeois Black intellectuals and leaders (like Alain Locke) who tried to use race as a cudgel against class politics. But McKay always saw race as something that could be a basis for radical organizing. Indeed, many working-class Black socialists in Harlem got their start in political organizing through Garveyism, and the CPUSA’s activism around the Scottsboro Boys case brought many Black people skeptical of communism into the movement’s fold. Furthermore, McKay’s own socialist education stemmed in part from his sense of solidarity, along racial lines, with Black peasants in Jamaica, despite the fact that some were in his family’s employ. 

For that reason, James is careful to caution anyone familiar with the later points of McKay’s biography to mistake any apprehensions he had about the Communist Party for a betrayal of his innermost principles: “McKay’s politics right up to his death exhibited remarkably strong threads of continuity with the earlier, Bolshevik phase of his political evolution.” In the decade before his death, McKay worked for the Federal Writers’ Project, collecting oral histories about the lives of New York City’s poor Black communities. In 1938, he praised the CPUSA, writing, “it must be admitted that more than any other group the Communists should be credited with the effective organizing of the unemployed and relief workers.” A major author of the twentieth century, feted by the publishing world of New York City, McKay died penniless, near homeless, and almost forgotten, like so many Black writers of his generation. The author of “If We Must Die” knew that he would have to fight the twin scourges of racism and poverty until the very end. “O kinsmen!” he urged us, “we must meet the common foe!”

Jennifer Wilson is a contributing essayist at the New York Times Book Review and a contributing writer at the Nation.