Claude McKay attempted throughout his career to resolve the complexities surrounding the black man's paradoxical situation. A widely travelled man, he lived for twelve years (1922-1934) in Britain, Russia, Germany, France, Spain, and Morocco. It is during these years that a new wave of Afro-American writing, now widely known as the Harlem Renaissance, spread across America. McKay is generally credited with having inspired the Renaissance with his militant poem "If We Must Die" (1919) when the nation was gripped with a red scare and race riots in the northern cities. Later, however, the self-exiled McKay developed an ambivalent relationship with the New Negroes of the 1920s; he did not share the "social uplift" philosophy of Alain Locke and W.E.B. Du Bois although he had affinities as writer with Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. McKay is also considered a pioneer in the development of West Indian fiction, though he never returned to the land of his birth, Jamaica, having left it at age twenty-three. Today, many regard his fiction as his most valuable contribution, but McKay also published four collections of poems, an autobiography, many essays, and a sociological study of Harlem.
It is as a poet that McKay first won attention in both the West Indies and the United States. In 1912, before he went to Kansas as an agriculture student (hoping to become the prophet of scientific farming on his return home!), he had published two volumes of dialect verse, Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads, and won himself a reputation as "the Jamaican Bobby Burns." Soon, he was made aware of the intricacies of American racial prejudice and he decided to cast his lot with working-class Afro-Americans. McKay was both stimulated and angered by the American environment—"Although she feeds me bread of bitterness / ... I love this cultured hell that tests my youth!" ("America"). His background in the Jamaican society where the blacks formed a majority often gave him an edge as poet-observer over black American artists whose careers were sometimes wrecked by a debilitating bitterness. In his poems of personal love and racial protest, McKay gave strong expression to joy and anger, pride and stoicism. "If We Must Die," although not his best poem, won him great popularity because it powerfully evoked, in lines charged with emotion, the militant mood of Afro-American communities over the treatment meted out to black soldiers returning from World War I. The poem achieved a kind of universality in spite of its trite diction, as was well-demonstrated when Winston Churchill related it to the Allied cause by reading it to the House of Commons during World War II.
McKay's influence on later black poetry is measured better by the power of his sentiment than by any innovations in form, style or diction. McKay empathizes with the sufferings of working-class blacks in the many poems of Harlem Shadows, but he succeeds best when he focuses on an individual's tragedy to protest against the forces of oppression. This is evident in poems such as "The Harlem Dancer," where a young female dancer is surrounded by a crowd of "wine-flushed, bold-eyed boys" which has no inkling of her soulful pride. In "Baptism," he expresses a Victorian stoicism that asserts the individual's victory through the harshest of tests. McKay often tried his hand at the sonnet form, using irregular rhyme and meter to achieve his own poetic ends. "One Year After," dealing with inter-racial love in a two-sonnet sequence, anticipates contemporary black attitudes in attributing the failure of a black-white relationship not to society's pressures but to the lover's black pride: "Not once in all our days of poignant love / Did I a single instant give to thee / My undivided being wholly free." McKay also wrote many poems about love and sex that had little to do with racial conflict and in some of these (e.g., "Flower of Love" and "A Red Flower")—as often in his fiction, especially in Home to Harlem—he creates erotic effects through suggestive portrayals of sexual pleasure. Yet McKay's link to more recent black literature is based primarily on his protest poems and his three novels.
McKay wrote both short stories and novels. Gingertown, his only collection of short stories, is important mainly as a source of clues and parallels to his development as novelist-thinker. The three novels—Home to Harlem, Banjo, and Banana Bottom—together form a thematic trilogy exploring the black man's special situation against the Manichean opposition between "instinct" and "intellect." Home to Harlem and Banjo, both essentially plotless novels, raise issues relating to the black's alleged primitivism, and its possible uses in an age when the fear of standardization is obsessive. The two protagonists—Jake and Banjo respectively—are rollicking roustabouts, taking life and women as they come. Their life of instinctive simplicity is, however, not without a Hemingway-like code. If they would not scab against a fellow worker, they would not be gullible enough to join a union either. As lovers, they do not permit themselves to become pimps or demean themselves to satisfy their women's masochistic desires. In the sexual metaphor that is McKay's lens in all the three novels, sexual deviations and perversions symbolize the pernicious influence of white values on black lives. In Banana Bottom there is a tentative resolution of these conflicts in the character of Bita Plant who (like McKay himself) despite self-hatred cannot reject native traditions completely even as she continues to find uses in her life for Western thought. Bita is, in some ways, a dramatization of the tangled thoughts on the significance of race and heritage in modern life that McKay filtered through the character of Ray, who appears in both Home to Harlem and Banjo.
There is no hint in either his autobiography, A Long Way from Home, or his sociological study, Harlem: Negro Metropolis, of McKay's conversion in 1944 to Roman Catholicism, an astonishing turnabout by any standards. McKay's autobiography is unusual in not giving any details of his personal life, although useful as a mirror to his independence in the midst of stimulating encounters with issues, places, and people (including Frank Harris, H.G. Wells, Isadora Duncan, Sinclair Lewis). The section on his Russian visit is particularly valuable in determining a phase of his uneasy relationship with the leftist movement, from the days of his association with Max Eastman and The Liberator to the anti-Communist sentiments of his final years. Harlem: Negro Metropolis offers a scathing view of Harlem's community life and the obsessive fight of its leaders against segregation. The reviewers criticized the book justifiably for its frequent failures in objectivity. Although McKay never became an apologist for capitalist imperialism, he did try in his last years to vindicate his conversion to Catholicism in his essay "On Becoming a Roman Catholic" and in many letters to his life-long friend, Max Eastman. One cannot, however, help feeling that a tired McKay surrendered his difficult search for the positive meanings of black life by giving in to the traditional discipline of the Roman Church. As he himself put it in a letter (16 October 1944) to Eastman: "It seems to me that to have a religion is very much like falling in love with a woman. You love her for her ... Beauty, which cannot be defined."