Jeremy Dewar reviews Claude McKay: The Making of a Black Bolshevik by Winston James, Columbia University Press, 2022, 464pp.
Claude McKay: The Making of a Black Bolshevik (MBB) is a rare thing, a political biography of an artist. Even rarer, a good one at that!
By weaving together the life story of Jamaican-born poet and novelist Claude McKay from his birth in 1889 to his departure from London in 1921, the struggles against racism and capitalism he both witnessed and took an active part in, and literary criticism, both contemporary and his own, Smith reveals some important insights.
In particular it is the interplay and tension between Black nationalism (in this case Garveyism) and at first Fabian socialism, then revolutionary communism, that runs like a thread throughout the book.
Over half of the book—which is only volume one of a projected ‘life’—is spent depicting McKay’s childhood and youth in Jamaica. Smith explained at its UK book launch at Brixton’s Black History Month that this was because that period between the Morant Bay rebellion of 1865 and WW1 is rarely discussed.
McKay wrote a poem dedicated to the Morant Bay uprising in which he urged ‘sons of Africa’s soil’ to ‘Break, break de oppressor’s hand!’ The British ruthlessly put down this uprising, with up to 3,000 women and men slaughtered, including the token Black Assembly member George Gordon. This event should be widely recognised in British History, like the Amritsar Massacre.
Land was the key question in Jamaica. Despite the liberation of the slaves the plantocracy remained in control of the best land. Even when the main export shifted from sugar to bananas in McKay’s infant years, benefitting the wetter western side of the island, previously considered poorer, United Fruit forced out the Black small farmers through monopoly pricing and withholding finance for machinery and fertiliser.
McKay’s family were some of the few petit-bourgeois Black farmers with 100 acres and no doubt quite a few workers. Education, though not political power, was one of the advantages of this class and Claude was encouraged to read, study and live with his much older brother Theo, who was an atheist and a Fabian as well as a teacher and political writer.
McKay started experimenting with writing in the Jamaican patois that he heard all around him as he shifted between apprenticeships, studies and jobs, which drew him some local fame as they were published in the newspapers. But it was ironically during the two years when he was in the police (a job he hated, he admits in the preface to his second book, Constab Ballads, because he had too much sympathy for the criminals!) that the content of his poetry shifted to city life, with his sympathetic vignettes of fiery apple-sellers, victims of injustice and prostitutes.
Escaping racist victimisation in the colonial police, McKay headed to Tuskegee, Alabama, in 1912 to study at Booker T Washington’s famous institute. Feeling stifled by the rigid conformity and shielded from racist America (Jim Crow was in full swing), McKay moved to Kansas, where he met socialists and mixed with radical Black and white students, before finally landing in New York in 1912.
McKay deeply immersed himself in the milieu of the early years of the Harlem Renaissance, where jazz, dance and literature fed off each other, creating a Black artistic scene, the envy of New York. That it was a radical political scene can be verified by the countless street and hall meetings and rising political stars; at this time McKay formed a close, lifelong friendship with Hubert Harrison, who also went to Moscow in 1922.
This was the extreme left wing of the Garvey movement. Although McKay did not in this period join the African Blood Brotherhood, a semi-underground group that gravitated from the UNIA to Marxism, his poems and writings were certainly published in its paper. And he did join in 1921.
Two events in 1917 proved a turning point. The first was the East St Louis massacre in July, where racist mobs burned thousands of Black homes, killing hundreds. Garvey organised a march in New York, where Harrison called on the crowd to arm themselves.
The second was the October revolution, which had an enormous effect on McKay. In a letter to The Negro World he urged anyone ‘who lays claim to leadership [to] make a study of Bolshevism and explain its meaning to the colored masses… Bolshevism has made Russia safe for the Jew… It might make these United States safe for the Negro.’
The Red Summer of 1919, so-called after the colour of blood, saw racist mobs threaten to turn East St Louis into a national bonfire of hate. But this time, they met organised armed resistance, led by Black WW1 veterans, especially in Chicago Southside and Black Washington. These events inspired McKay to write his most famous poem, If We Must Die.
He was working as a waiter on the East Coast trains at the time and describes burning up and his head buzzing with tension. He feigned a stomach ache and wrote the poem on a scrap of paper in the toilet; then he read the poem to his workmates that night.
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.
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but— fighting back!
The poem was published in over one hundred Black newspapers across the States and worldwide. It made McKay famous, but also a target of the state. Time for another escape, this time to London, England.
Racism in the ‘mother country’
McKay’s British ‘sojourn’ as he called it was not a happy time for him. The casual but pervasive racism—being denied lodgings and jobs, challenged to fights in the street—shocked him.
Worse, it seemed to possess even sections of the working class and ‘progressive’ intellectuals, like his hero George Bernard Shaw, who on meeting McKay suggested he might, being Black, become a ‘pugilist’ rather than a poet.
He soon settled though, becoming effectively the editor of the Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers’ Dreadnought newspaper. Here he wrote many excellent articles in support of strikes and denouncing racism on the East End docks, including one in support of Chinese workers, which was used by the courts as evidence to jail Pankhurst for sedition.
But when he wrote an article denouncing the employment of scabs at a sawmill owned by left wing hero, George Lansbury MP, Pankhurst refused to publish it. McKay commented wryly that the capitalist press censors articles for capitalist reasons, the socialist press for socialist reasons. He was also appalled by an article published in Lansbury’s Daily Herald that featured crude racist slurs on the Black French troops occupying the Rhineland.
McKay returned to the States in 1921, wiser but sadder for the experience.
McKay was not a communist. He was drawn to revolutionary Marxism because of Lenin’s appeal for the right of nations to self-determination, the Soviet state’s campaign against anti-semitism and its support for women’s equal rights.
True, he made a heartfelt (but not the most political) speech at the Fourth Congress of the Comintern, in November–December 1922, and was part of the delegation of Black radicals who influenced Lenin’s draft on the Black Question in the US, discussing and corresponding with Trotsky, whom he admired greatly. But he consistently turned down approaches for him to lead the anti-racist work in the US.
He was dismayed by Stalin’s ham-fisted Black Belt campaign and his treatment of Trotsky and though he joined the ABB he never followed them into the CPUSA. In his latter years he turned back to Black nationalism and even religion, though he still wrote about workers’ injustices for the Catholic Worker.
But he should be remembered—and read—as a pioneering modern poet. Though traditional in form—If We Must Die is a sonnet—and far less experimental than his contemporaries like Vladimir Mayakovsky and Berthold Brecht, his use of the Jamaican vernacular and everyday subject matter mark him out, and his poems burn with relevance today.
The slim Dover Thrift edition of his verse, available at £2.99 online, is well worth a read.