McKay in Harlem

The Jamaican-American poet and novelist Claude McKay was born on this day in 1889. McKay’s poetry collection Harlem Shadows (1922) is regarded as one of the first and most influential texts of the Harlem Renaissance, and his 1928 novel, Home to Harlem, marked the first time that a black author made the bestseller lists.

McKay’s novel was not applauded on all sides within the black community. Horrified by the its vivid portrayal of Harlem’s sex/crime/unemployment subculture, W.E.B. Du Bois and many others accused McKay of selling his race out, “under the direction of the White man” who wanted to publish or read such trash. Or perhaps join in: the following excerpt describes one encounter in “that strange un-American world where colored meets and mingles freely and naturally with white,” searching for “the primitive joy of Harlem”:

They returned on a Saturday night, between midnight and morning, when the atmosphere of Madame Suarez’s was fairly bacchic and jazz music was snake-wriggling in and out and around everything and forcing everybody into amatory states and attitudes. The three white men had two others with them. At the piano a girl curiously made up in mauve was rendering the greatest ragtime song of the day. Broadway was wild about it and Harlem was crazy.… The [Negro] women, carried away by the rhythm of delight, had risen above their commercial instincts (a common trait of Negroes in emotional states) and abandoned themselves to pure voluptuous jazzing. They were gorgeous animals swaying there through the dance, punctuating it with marks of warm physical excitement. The atmosphere was charged with intensity and over-charged with currents of personal reaction…

Caught in the “How Shall the Negro Be Portrayed?” debate, McKay threw up his hands: “Between the devil of Negro intellectualism and the deep sea of Negro life stands the Negro artist.”