Paul Ardoin on “Claude McKay, Exile Among Exiles”
Perhaps more than any other Harlem Renaissance writer, Claude McKay is associated with exile and expatriatism. Born in Jamaica, McKay would make his way to the United States, the Soviet Union, England, Germany, France, Spain, Morocco, and elsewhere, during the course of a career that would see him earn labels ranging from “internationalist” (Gosciak 139-142) and “migrant,” to “one of the most mercurial figures in American literary history” (Hathaway 29). Some (including himself) describe McKay as “rebel sojourner” (see especially biographer Wayne F. Cooper), while Léopold Sédar Senghor credited him as “the true inventor of négritude” (cited in Pedersen 118), the diasporic identity movement that emerged in the 1930s.
Even among exiles and expatriates, McKay was always an outsider. He spent time in Paris during its expatriate heyday, and he admired the literary work of figures like Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce. But, according to James R. Giles, “although [McKay] was also a follower of the expatriate movement, he could never really become an accepted part of it; his blackness effectively isolated him from the main body of bohemians” (154). In some cases, this isolation seems, on the surface, to have been by choice. For example, McKay “refused to visit Gertrude Stein’s famous salon” (Cooper 207), despite how hospitably he might have been received. In fact, McKay seems to have felt isolated by Stein’s work itself: “He had not been impressed by her treatment of black life in the story ‘Melanctha,’ and he remained unconvinced she had anything to offer him” (Cooper 207). Instead—McKay’s biographer reports—he felt a kinship with another “restless traveler,” D. H. Lawrence, whose own exile ranged from England to Germany, Italy, Australia, Sri Lanka, Mexico, the United States, Austria, France, and elsewhere.
Even amongst self-selected comrades, McKay felt estranged. His time spent with colleagues at the socialist magazine The Masses “radicalized his politics while making him wary of the ethnocentric assumptions” frequently held by those same comrades (Pedersen 115). The result of McKay’s various estrangements, as well as his belief that “no country was finally adequate to serve as the recipient of his group loyalty” (Giles 131) is that he remains something of an outsider within the literary canon. McKay is most frequently placed in the Harlem Renaissance, but his disagreements with some of that movement’s key ideas and figures belie such a simple and stable categorization. Though McKay felt clear excitement for the happenings in 1920s Harlem—as evidenced by his Home to Harlem—and though he was a seminal figure both during the renaissance and in retrospective views of it, McKay also traveled away from Harlem during much of its renaissance, and he was wary of some of the ideas put forward by key intellectual figures like Marcus Garvey, as argued by Cooper and as depicted in numerous fictional debates about Garvey in McKay’s Banjo. And, like many young figures of the Harlem Renaissance, McKay found his work the subject of harsh criticism from leading intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois, whose Crisis review of Banjo was “profoundly disturbed” by elements of the novel and paralleled insinuations that West Indians like McKay “knew little about African Americans” and perhaps “exploited other blacks to further their own schemes and desires” (Tillery 108).
For his own part, McKay always claimed art as first (and often alone) on his list of “schemes and desires.” Time and again, his characters voice frustration at various perceived limits placed on the individual artist from all corners of society. In his autobiography A Long Way from Home, McKay describes his initial departure from Jamaica as related to a “desire to find a bigger audience. Jamaica was too small for his achievement. There, one was isolated, cut off from the great currents of life” (21). Though McKay certainly located and swam in some of the great currents of his time, his sense of isolation seems to have followed him on his travels.
Cooper, Wayne F. Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State UP, 1987.
Giles, James R. Claude McKay. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1976.
Gosciak, Josh. The Shadowed Country: Claude McKay and the Romance of the Victorians. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2006.
Hathaway, Heather. Caribbean Waves: Relocating Claude McKay and Paule Marshall. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1999.
McKay, Claude. Banjo. San Diego: Harvest, 1970 .
—. A Long Way from Home. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2007 .
Pedersen, Carl. “Claude McKay: The True Inventor of Negritude.” Claude McKay: Centennial Studies. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 1992.
Tillery, Tyrone. Claude McKay: A Black Poet’s Struggle for Identity. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1992.
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