Monday, 21 January 2008

In Honour of Claude McKay

For the dim regions whence my fathers came
My spirit, bondaged by the body, longs.
Words felt, but never heard, my lips would frame;
My soul would sing forgotten jungle songs.
I would go back to darkness and to peace,
But the great western world holds me in fee,
And I may never hope for full release
While to its alien gods I bend my knee.
Something in me is lost, forever lost,
Some vital thing has gone out of my heart,
And I must walk the way of life a ghost
Among the sons of earth, a thing apart;
For I was born, far from my native clime,
Under the white man's menace, out of time.

Outcast, by Claude McKay

I picked up second hand a copy of Fox&Kloppenberg's Companion to American Thought. The first entry I opened to was Claude McKay, a poet and novellist I had never heard of before. I found his story particularly fascinating. The following is edited from that entry.

McKay, Claude (b. Clarendon, Jamaica, 1890; d. Chicago 1948). McKay was born to a farm family and educated primarily by his brother, a free thinking school teacher. McKay served as part of the Kingston constabulary, however he found life there oppressive and felt himself increasingly alienated by this location between the urban elite and the great mass of the urban poor. He emigrated to the USA in 1912 to attend the Tuskegee Institute but he soon moved to Kansas State University, shocked by the shocked by the intense racism he encountered in Charleston, South Carolina, where many public facilities were segregated. He also cited the "semi-military, machinelike existence there" as motive for leaving. Most of his poetry was written after this, while he was working menial positions in Harlem.

The political and racial sensibilities of McKay's writing quickly gained him a reputation as a protest poet. However, this focus has often served to obscure his identity as a poet of exile.The sense of rupture between the poem's narrator and an organic community is at the root of the speaker's anger. This opposition is also posed structurally with the black intellectual-artist-speaker anxiously mediating between the representation of the black subject and the received poetic forms of the metropole.

McKay joined the staff of Slyvia Pankhurt's Workers Dreadnought in 1919 upon his move to London. His engagement with the communist movement can be seen as an attempt to mediate the identity crisis of the black intellectual which McKay perceived acutely: that of alienation from the black community. McKay saw an alternative way of life in in the communists, who promoted a vision of a world in which distinctions of nation, class and race would become less important as markers of power and in which black intellectuals would have an organic relationship to society. McKay's address to the Fourth Congress of the Communist International in 1992 prompted the Congress to declare African Americans to be "in the vanguard of the African struggle against oppression". McKay therefore had a hand in moving the struggles of African Americans from a relatively peripheral issue for the Communist Party of the USA to becoming the party's preeminent concern by the early 1930s. McKay however became disenchanted with the CPUSA for what he saw as it frustration of initiatives that arose from within the black community itself, such as cooperative movements and demands for jobs for African Americans in white-owned Harlem businesses.

His novels question notions of race and class within a world divided up by European and American capitalism. Home to Harlem explores the polarity of the implicitly effeminate black intellectual Ray, agonised by his alientation from black community and absorption in European "high" culture, and the virilely masculine Jake who is spontaneous and direct, acting without reflection or self-doubt. The books thus posits a new type of intellectual, not unlike Gramsci's notion of the "organic intellectual". This intellectual would be produced by and remain a part of the black masses rather than attempting either rise above or lead them from above.


McKay made one of the earliest attempts to articulate the problems of race and class in a global society. His struggle with his own identity and his sense of alienation from the very people he was trying to help speaks some tragically ineffable truth about modern life and the difficulty anyone attempting an intellectual challenge to the problems of the world faces.

Claude McKay's poems

More info on McKay

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