"Claude McKay Describes His Own Life."

by Claude  McKay

I am a black man, born in Jamaica, , and have been living in America for the last six years. During my first year's residence in America I wrote the following group of poems. It was the first time I had ever come face to face with such manifest, implacable hate of my race, and my feelings were indescribable. I sent them so that you may see what my state of mind was at the time. I have written nothing similar to them since and don't think I ever shall again.

The whites at home constitute about 14 per cent. of the population only and they generally conform to the standard of English respectability. The few poor ones accept their fate resignedly and live at peace with the natives. The government is tolerant, somewhat benevolent, based on the principle of equal justice to all. I had heard of prejudice in America but never dreamed of it being so intensely bitter; for at home there is also prejudice of the English sort, subtle and dignified, rooted in class distinction—color and race being hardly taken into account.

It was such an atmosphere I left for American to find here strong white men, splendid types, of better physique than any I had ever seen, exhibiting the most primitive animal hatred towards their weaker black brothers. In the South daily murders of a nature most hideous and revolting, in the North silent acquiescence, deep hate half-hidden under a puritan respectability, oft flaming up into an occasional lynching—this ugly raw sore in the body of a great nation. At first I was horrified, my spirit revolted against the ignoble cruelty and blindness of it all. Then I soon found myself hating in return; but this feeling couldn't last long for to hate is to be miserable.

Looking about me with bigger and clearer eyes I saw that this cruelty in different ways was going on all over the world. Whites were exploiting and oppressing whites even as they exploited and oppressed the yellows and blacks. And the oppressed, groaning under the lash, evinced the same despicable hate and harshness towards their weaker fellows. I ceased to think of people and things in the mass—why should I fight with mad dogs only to be bitten and probably transformed into a mad dog myself? I turned to the individual soul, the spiritual leaders, for comfort and consolation. I felt and still feel that one must seek for the noblest and best in the individual life only: each soul must save itself.

And now this great catastrophe has come upon the world proving the real hollowness of nationhood, patriotism, racial pride and most of the things which one was taught to respect and reverence.

There is very little to tell of my uneventful career. I was born in the heart of the little island of Jamaica on the 15th of September, 1889. My grandparents were slaves, my parents free-born. My mother was very sweet-natured, fond of books; my father, honest, stern even to harshness, hard working, beginning empty-handed he coaxed a good living from the soil, bought land, and grew to be a comparatively prosperous small settler. A firm believer in education, he tried to give all his eight children the best he could afford.

I was the last child and when I was nine years old my mother sent me to my eldest brother who was a schoolmaster in the northwestern part of the island.

From that time on I became interested in books. The school building, to which was attached the teacher's cottage, was an old slave house, plain, substantial and comfortable. My brother, an amateur journalist, country correspondent for the city papers, was fond of good books and possessed a nice library—all the great English masters and a few translations from the ancients. Not caring very much for play and having plenty of leisure I spent nearly all my time out of school reading. I read whatever pleased my fancy, secretly scribbling in prose and verse at the same time. Novels, history, bible literature, tales in verse like Scott's I read, and nearly all Shakespeare's plays for the absorbing story interest. As yet I couldn't perceive the truths. Now, looking back, I can see that that was the great formative period of my life—a time of perfect freedom to play, read and think as I liked.

I finished elementary school with my brother and helped him to teach while studying further under him. In 1906 I passed an examination for the Government Trade Scholarship and was apprenticed to a wheelwright and cabinet maker. But I couldn't learn a trade.

At this time I began writing verses of Jamaica peasant life in the negro dialect. I met an Englishman who loved good books and their makes more than anything else. He opened up a new world to my view, introduced me to a greater, deeper literature—to Buddha, Schopenhauer and Goethe, Carlyle and Browning, Wilde, Carpenter, Whitman, Hugo, Verlaine, Baudelaire, Shaw and the different writers of the Rationalist Press—more than I had time to read, but nearly all my spare time I spent listening to his reading choice bits from them, discussing the greatness of their minds, and telling of their lives, which I must confess I sometimes found even more interesting than their works.

Trade proved a failure. I gave it up, joined the Jamaica Constabulary 1910-11, despised it and left. With Mr. Jekyll's help, the Englishman mentioned before, my Songs of Jamaica was published at this time. I went home and farmed rather half-heartedly. The government was then encouraging the younger men to acquire a scientific agricultural education so that it could employ them to teach the peasantry modern ways of farming. I came to America in 1912 to study agriculture, went to Tuskegee, but not liking the semi-military, machinelike existence, I left for the Kansas State College where I stayed two years.

In the summer of 1914 I came to New York with a friend. We opened a little restaurant among our people which also proved a failure because I didn't put all my time and energy into it.

After a while I got married, but my wife wearied of the life in six months and went back to Jamaica. I hated to go back after having failed at nearly everything so I just stayed here and worked desultorily—porter, houseman, janitor, butler, waiter—anything that came handy. The life was different and fascinating and one can do menial work here and feel like a man sometimes, so I didn't mind it.

I am a waiter on the railroad now. Here are a few of my poems.


McKay, Claude. "Claude McKay Describes His Own Life." Pearson's Magazine (September, 1918).


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