Author, poet and activist Claude McKay (1890-1948) is arguably the leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance Movement. The first bestselling black author in American history, the Jamaican constantly evolved in his 58 years.
Superficially, Claude McKay cut a fairly conventional figure in most respects, at least for a significant chunk of his adult life. A married father-of-one, the only remotely controversial thing about him was that he was a black man who outspokenly advocated racial justice. This was unconventional and even dangerous, but hardly a radical departure from contemporary norms of the day.
Scratch the surface, however, and a much more complex man emerges. McKay was bisexual and his marriage aside had several sexual relationships and liaisons with men and women, both black and white. Although the Harlem Renaissance was and perhaps still is most commonly regarded as a wholly or mainly race-led movement, scholars and others are increasingly acknowledging that it was a profoundly intersectional cultural and social phenomenon. McKay and a handful of others, women and men, were at the heart of this Harlem Renaissance and reflected its intersectional nature in their own lives.
McKay’s determination to express himself fully and freely is as clear in his writing as it is in his life and relationships. His most famous work, the bestselling debut novel Home to Harlem (1928), was famously condemned by one of his heroes, WEB Du Bois, and others, as stereotypical and damaging in its unflinching depiction of ordinary black lives. McKay’s most famous poem, If We Must Die (1919), has a strong claim to be the Renaissance’s definitive piece of poetry, and is a stirring, unambiguous condemnation of racism and injustice.
Distinguished as these and other works are, perhaps the greatest indication of Claude McKay’s bravery and distinctiveness is that two of his major works were published posthumously. The first of these, Amiable with Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem, was written in 1941 and published in 2017, to rapturous acclaim. But its provocative title notwithstanding, this isn’t the author’s bravest work.
As early as 1929, Claude McKay started writing a book so far ahead of its time, it wasn’t published until 87 years after his death. At his editors urging, he set aside Romance in Marseille in 1933. Whatever its literary merits, this is a remarkable novel because it presents a sexual love relationship between two men as ordinary and equal to any heterosexual counterpart.
McKay was true to himself in his life and work. His globetrotting life story is distinctive and modern enough to cause a stir even now, well over a century after his birth. That he survived and thrived as a black migrant, communist, discreet but very active bisexual man and latterly Roman Catholic in the USA, where all of these identities were and, in most cases, remain fraught with danger, is a remarkable testament to a visionary who lived and loved a liberated existence way ahead of his time.
It’s fitting that his literary celebration of sexual love between two men is published in a cultural moment in which the Harlem Renaissance Movement and its legacy is being radically re-evaluated. His life and work are useful lenses for this vital and challenging project, helping all who are sufficiently interested and openminded to see both past and present more clearly, truthfully and ultimately aiding the intersectional nature of liberation struggles.
For this, everyone interested in black and/or queer liberation owes Claude McKay a great deal. The same applies to those of us who insist that these struggles are inseparable, only more so. Not bad for a Jamaican country boy whose original ambition was to be a farmer.
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