Richard Bradbury recalls the life and work of the black poet Claude McKay.
If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!'
Claude McKay wrote this poem in 1919 as a response to the pogroms being waged against black civilians and returning black soldiers across the US. It became one of the most republished and reproduced poems of the 20th century, even being used - bizarrely - by Winston Churchill in one of his speeches early in the Second World War. Its tone is, in part, the product of the shock McKay felt at his encounters with racism and segregation in the US.
He had arrived in 1912 from Jamaica, sponsored by a British teacher and after a brief career as a constable in the Jamaican police, to study as an agricultural engineer in the South. He went off to the US and what he saw radicalised him in ways that would change him.
The decision to abandon agriculture in favour of journalism, writing and activism took him north to New York and brought him into contact with the editor and writers of The Liberator, one of the most successful radical publications in the US at the time. While he worked as a reporter and editor, he continued with his poetry. The work he produced, with its direct address to racism and power, acted as a model for later writers like Langston Hughes.
As a reporter he travelled to Britain and wrote articles that ranged from his description of casual racism to his experiences trying to sell The Workers Dreadnought at a Sinn Féin demonstration in Trafalgar Square. Later he went to Moscow, where he acted as a semi-official delegate to the Third International, speaking on the relationships between race and class in the US and irritating most of the official delegation with his arguments that Communists needed to see the fight against racism as more than just an adjunct of the economic class struggle. These arguments, and his more general analysis of race in the US, were gathered at Trotsky's suggestion into a book and published as The Negroes in America.
The growing counterrevolution led, for McKay, first to the suppression of his book (it only exists now in an awful translation) and then to his departure from Russia. He wandered through Europe and North Africa, a period vividly described in his autobiography, A Long Way From Home. He finally settled in Marseilles, where he wrote his most famous novel, Home to Harlem.
Throughout the late 19th and early 20th century, there had been a steady migration of black Americans from the appalling racism and segregation of the Southern states to the northern cities, but this stream accelerated during the First World War. This, in turn, led to the growth of significant communities, most memorably in Harlem in New York. Here the social movements, the debates, the artwork, the music, became known as the Harlem Renaissance. Until the late 1920s, though, much of this was dominated by the idea that black Americans should present a 'respectable' upwardly mobile face to the white world.
McKay's Home to Harlem dropped a bomb into the middle of that. It was a frank account of working class life in the tenements and workplaces. One journalist wrote a review saying that he needed to take a shower after reading the book, because he felt so dirty. This expression of class disdain opened a division in Harlem about the relationship between art and reality that was to continue for many years.
This huge success - Home was the first novel by a black person to become a bestseller in the US - was followed by Banjo and the unpublished Romance in Marseille. These books dramatise and explore the tensions and strains in a city that was the centre of multiculturalism at the time. North and West African migrant labourers mix with European workers in a whirl of, among other things, rigorous debate about imperialism and resistance, race and class. Re-reading sections of these two recently reminded me, not of some past history, but of current debates about migration and racism, and the political responses to it.
By the mid-1930s though, McKay was becoming increasingly ill and his money was running out. He returned to the US and had some success with his autobiography (published in 1937) and with a collection of essays called Harlem: Negro Metropolis, which sought to capture the continuing rich complexities and contradictions of that community as the depression bit hard. It bit to the point where McKay, now penniless and cut off from many old contacts by the memory of his sympathy for Trotsky, sent a telegram to an old friend from an unemployed camp in upstate New York that read 'Very ill. Please save me.'
The last years of his life were a battle against serious illness and deepening isolation. In a gesture that is hard to interpret, but which contains a thick blend of isolation, despair, and conversion, he became a Catholic and lived his last years as the guest of that church. It was a sad end to a glittering whirl of a life.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, if I had to offer one example of why Claude McKay should be better remembered it wouldn't be his best-known poem and his more successful novel. It would be another poem from 1919, called The White House:
'Your door is shut against my tightened face,
And I am sharp as steel with discontent;
But I possess the courage and the grace
To bear my anger proudly and unbent.
The pavement slabs burn loose beneath my feet,
A chafing savage, down the decent street;
And passion rends my vitals as I pass,
Where boldly shines your shuttered door of glass
Oh, I must search for wisdom every hour,
Deep in my wrathful bosom sore and raw,
And find in it the superhuman power
To hold me to the letter of your law!
Oh, I must keep my heart inviolate
Against the potent poison of your hate.'
Richard Bradbury has edited a forthcoming edition of Romance in Marseille and will be speaking at Bookmarks on 20 October.