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Claude McKay Biography

(1890–1948), Songs of Jamaica, Constab Ballads, Home to Harlem, Banjo, Gingertown, Banana Bottom

american jamaica verse harlem

Jamaican/American novelist and poet, born in the Clarendon region of Jamaica. McKay was influenced by the English folklorist Walter Jekyll, who introduced him to poetry and encouraged him in the writing of local ‘dialect’ verse. His collections Songs of Jamaica (1911) and Constab Ballads (1912) mark an important step forward in anglophone Caribbean verse, being the first volumes of West Indian verse to employ a Creole voice as the main register. However, in the year of their publication, McKay left Jamaica for the USA, where he spent most of the remainder of his life. After attending the Tuskegee Institute and Kansas State University, he migrated north to New York, where he became an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance. During the 1920s McKay became a communist and travelled to the USSR where he met Lenin and Trotsky and addressed the Third Internationale as a representative of the American Workers' Party. Back in America he turned to prose fiction, publishing Home to Harlem (1928); Banjo (1929); Gingertown (1931), a volume of short stories set in Jamaica; and Banana Bottom (1933), acknowledged as his finest novel. McKay also published Spring in New Hampshire and Other Poems (1920); A Long Way from Home (1937), an autobiography that provides personal testimony of American racial prejudice; and the non-fiction Harlem: Negro Metropolis (1940). In his later years he was converted to Catholicism. He occupies an important place in the African-American literary canon, but his contribution has a particularly Caribbean quality to it. See also ethnicity.

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