Claude McKay: The Evolution of a Conservative

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Date: Dec. 1992
From: CLA Journal(Vol. 36, Issue 2)
Reprint In: Poetry Criticism(Vol. 135)
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,693 words

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[(essay date December 1992) In the following essay, Griffin discusses the events leading up to the composition of McKay's "Cycle," an unpublished collection of sonnets he wrote in the 1940s after suffering a series of physical ailments and artistic disappointments.]

In the spring of 1922, just as he was gaining recognition as an intellectual and artistic provocateur,1 Claude McKay--one of the most prominent figures of the Harlem Renaissance--left Harlem for Russia to see for himself the "grand experiment."2 He remained in Russia for several months, basking in the hearty adulation of the Russian people--from top officials of the Communist Party to the simplest peasant. After Russia, McKay explored Germany, France, Spain, and North Africa.

When McKay returned to the United States on February 1, 1934,3 he had been away from America for twelve years. At home, things had changed: Harlem was no longer the joybelt, and he was forty-three years old. As far as publishers were concerned, the primitivism fad was over. Although many Harlem artists suffered from the new attitudes and tough economic conditions, McKay's case was especially pathetic.

His estrangement from the United States for so many years and his cultivation of the vagabond spirit left him without the benefit of social and cultural alliances within the States that could have provided him with the resources needed to function within society.4 Although he kept abreast of the news from America through intermediaries such as Walter White and Arthur Schomburg5 and maintained a certain literary presence in the States through the publication of works that continued to explore the black ethos--for example, Home to Harlem (1928), Banjo (1929), and Banana Bottom (1933)--McKay was preoccupied with discovering European customs, institutions, and cathedrals while the Harlem Renaissance, a literary movement that he helped define, was at its peak. His independent, maverick spirit drove him to work out his visions alone.

For the next fourteen years of his life McKay would suffer one disappointment after the other, from being housed at New York's Camp Greycourt, a facility for indigent men, to waging relentless struggles against high blood pressure and heart disease. Compounding his health problems was the hostile reception given his recent works by Harlem leaders, angered by McKay's candid criticism of the Harlem community in his 1937 autobiography, A Long Way from Home, and in his 1940 brutally frank study, Harlem: The Negro Metropolis.6

Broken and disappointed by his failure to regain his standing as an artist, McKay found himself turning in another direction. In 1942 he lay in his basement apartment alone, poor, and sick with influenza and heart disease. He was nursed back to health by Ellen Tarry, a Catholic writer with whom McKay had worked on the Federal Writers Project. Recovered, McKay expressed his gratitude by reading his poems at Friendship House, a lay Catholic organization.7 But in 1943, forced to take a strenuous job as a riveter in a shipyard, McKay suffered a stroke which left him partially blind and paralyzed. This time other Catholic friends lent him a cottage in Connecticut to aid in his recuperation. It was there that McKay began to assess his life, and it was there that he began the first draft of his "Cycle" manuscript, a collection of fifty-four sonnets which remains unpublished.8 These sonnets, which represent McKay's first meaningful steps toward Catholicism, are almost embarrassing in their revelation of personal pain, but they clearly show his anger at the secular world that had abandoned him. To Max Eastman, his close friend,9 he wrote that after his severe illness, "the only hands that ministered to [him] were those of strangers from the Catholic Mission stretched out to snatch [him] from the Shadow of Death."10

The subjects covered in his "Cycle" collection were not new. Here again was McKay's disdain of integration as a solution to racial oppression, condemnation of black intellectuals, and hatred of Communists. He had discussed these issues in various essays and articles over the years. And that is why it is puzzling, says Wayne Cooper, that he chose poetry to express his sentiments rather than prose, which could have more suitably accommodated his direct, heavy-handed didacticism. McKay himself must have wondered at his choice when he wrote to Eastman in 1945 that Harpers had rejected his poems, calling them "too bitter and personal," and Dutton had considered them not poems at all.11 But at that point in his life even he knew that the poetic spirit was dead within him as he confessed to Eastman, "Oh, I wish I had the old style!"12

In his "Cycle Manuscript" McKay takes four major stands: first he condemns the political and social world he had once been a part of; second he rejects intellectualism as a means to truth; third he recants his own literary works as representations of the secular world; and finally he recognizes the Catholic Church as savior and protector of humanity.

The opening sonnet serves as preparation for the autobiographical nature of the collection. McKay, convinced that the world cruelly mistreated him, parallels his life of misery with that of Christ's. He writes,

These poems distilled from my experience,
Exactly tell my feelings of today,
The cruel and the vicious and the tense
Conditions which have hedged my bitter way
of life. But though I suffered much I bore
My cross and lived to put my trouble in song
I stripped down harshly to the naked core
Of hatred based on the essential wrong!13

McKay clearly implies here that he, like Christ, has been sacrificed to the "essential wrong," "essential wrong" being man's inhumanity to man, or more specifically man's inability to recognize him as the artist/prophet, the link between man and God. Yet in the concluding sestet McKay--though having established his identification with Christ as the sacrificial lamb--makes one last bid toward artistic independence:

But tomorrow, I may sing another tune
No critic, white or black, can tie me down,
Maybe a fantasy of a fairy moon,
Or the thorns the soldiers weaved for Jesus' crown,
For I, a poet, can soar with unclipped wings,
From earth to Heaven, while chanting of all things.14

McKay's tension here between independence and submission reflects the transitional stage in which the sonnet was written. He was in the process of recuperating from a serious illness and had not yet made a full commitment to Catholicism.

But his painful ambivalence concerning the integrity of artistic and individual freedom in a Christ-centered world is reflected again in his Sonnet 2. In the first six lines, the independent and rebellious McKay brags of his rejection of conformist ideas and his willingness to forego peace and personal well-being for the sake of his beliefs. With pride he boasts,

Now, really I have never cared a damn
For being on the wrong side of the fence,
Even though I was as naked as a lamb,
And thought by many to be just as dense.
But being black and poor, I always feel
That all I have and hold is my own mind. ...
(Sonnet 2)

Here is the old McKay, the stubborn nonconformist who revels in his history of defying tradition. But then McKay, in the final couplet, makes a drastic turnabout: He abandons his steadfast commitment to independence and professes total submission to the authority of God. He declares, "But whatever it may be, This is a fact, / I care not if my mind remains intact" (Sonnet 2). Although in this instance he sounds cavalier in his resolve to elevate faith in God over mental independence, toward the end of the collection, his tone will become more focused and serious.

Sonnet 30 represents McKay's bitter rejection of the symbols of his old secular world, and in that world the white intellectual played an intimate part. It is he that McKay accuses of enticing the black man into his world of ideas only to set the trap for his imminent embarrassment and rejection. And once the black man has been spurned by the larger society, his friend, the white man, can go off innocent and free to explore other compelling interests. McKay's biting tone leaves one to ponder whether or not Eastman could have been his target, Eastman who always came to McKay's aid but who was always better off, or perhaps McKay had in mind his well-meaning white friends, liberals, who quite often led him into traps of racial humiliation, oblivious of his pain. McKay charges,

... Like me big little white man wrote books alright,
Then turned to other fields, which he could choose,
Not difficult for one talented and White. ...
(Sonnet 30)

These so-called friends and fellow intellectuals who befriended him when it was fashionable to know Negroes have now gone on to explore other sources of amusement. In the final line of his poem, McKay declares that he holds such white men in "contempt!" (Sonnet 30). Whoever McKay's particular target, it is clear that he sees the white intellectual liberal as a hypocrite who gives lip service to democratic principles and intellectual equality but allows the black man, even a fellow intellectual, to travel alone down the long road of hardship and racial oppression. But even though McKay bristles at the white man's arrogant and condescending "innocence," he wonders at the black man's role as ally in reinforcing the suggestion of a racial hierarchy:

And we blacks treat such whites as superior men,
And try to emulate them or their tricks!
We shout Democracy around their den
Of iniquity of jobs and politics.
(Sonnet 30)

McKay implies that the black man who blindly embraces the touted democratic ideal of America, a disguise for falsehood and deception, is nothing more than a duped coconspirator.

Then turning from the white intellectual, whom McKay sees as a hypocrite who gives only lip service to democratic ideals, he focuses on the radical in Sonnet 49 and cries, "There Is no Radical the Negro's Friend."15 Within this poem, McKay resumes his long-standing argument with liberals, both black and white, who see integration as the ultimate solution to racial oppression. McKay takes to task members of the Negro elite who, like Alain Locke,16 subscribe to the theory that the masses of Negroes somehow benefitted when a privileged Negro gained entrée into white circles. He asks,

Must fifteen million blacks be gratified,
That one of them can enter as a guest,
A fine white house--the rest of them
A place of decent sojourn and a rest?
          Oh, Segregation is not the whole sin.
The Negroes need salvation from
(Sonnet 49)

Although McKay in this poem presents his familiar opposition to integration as a solution to racial oppression, his unfamiliar overlay of religious reference presents a dilemma in the last line, "The Negroes need salvation from within." Is he saying that Negroes need first to purify themselves from their own sins before they can achieve racial parity with whites, or is he saying that Negroes can receive racial equality only when they find solutions within their own community? Or is he implying that the only salvation necessary is that which comes through Christ? McKay's problem here is emblematic of his own inner conflicts concerning his judgement of the black ethos.

In Sonnet 46, it is obvious that McKay can hardly contain his rage as he points an accusing finger at the white man who is "puffed up" with conceit and pride, thinking himself a "paragon of creation" for whom the rest of the nations should bow down and be his "footstool." But McKay, suggesting a symbiotic relationship, indicts the black intellectual for being a willing Uncle Tom. He writes, the "many back scratchers of the Negro race" keep the white man secure in his place (Sonnet 46).

In Sonnet 6, a disillusioned McKay does not spare the Negro masses from censure. To McKay, the black masses, who believe the myth of the American dream taught to them by two-faced intellectuals, are willing dupes in their own destruction. Ignorance, stupidity, and a lack of inner group resources make them pitiful. In the poem he charges that Negro schools foolishly teach little Negro children that "they are just like other Americans." Consequently, they grow up "educated semi-fools," vulnerable to the smooth words of hypocrites and "charlatans." In their sad state they are

... ready for any crazy scheme,
That carries with it an offer of escape,
Although elusive as a bright sunbeam,
Or empty as the cranium of an ape. ...
(Sonnet 5)

McKay's reference to "any crazy scheme" of escape probably refers to Garvey's Back-to-Africa Movement, which McKay once called "stupendous vaudeville."17

In his last few years, McKay, losing some perspective of his place in the scheme of the world, expressed gloomy hopelessness and suspicion about a great many things. Not only did he question once again the morality and value of political organizations such as labor unions, calling them "mere signs and symbols" that oppress blacks, "pushing them around in every cruel way" (Sonnet 38), but he also questioned the motives and worth of those he once held close to him intellectually and personally. In 1947, McKay refused to appear in the same anthology with Langston Hughes,18 explaining to his agent that their ideas were "too radically opposed." He further suggested that they had nothing in common accept color.19 But in 1927, McKay had not only referred to Hughes as "an old friend," but once wrote about him, "I love his personality and his work."20 Twenty years later, McKay would claim that Hughes's poetry had little value because it lacked "backbone," and he charged that only his ties to the Communists kept him in "the public eye."21

By this time the Communists, too, had become his enemies. After McKay's return from Russia in 1922, he had become a critic of Marxism.22 In his Harlem: Negro Metropolis, McKay accused the Communists of attempting to destroy Negro culture by their attempts to control Negro writers and Negro organizations such as A. Phillip Randolph's Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association, the Urban League, and the NAACP.23 But by 1947, he had become so embittered and enraged by the Communist Party that he regarded them as mortal enemies bent on destroying him personally. According to McKay, the Communists were controlling the minds of people closely associated with him.

McKay once admonished his agent for allowing Arthur Schomburg, a friend whom McKay heavily depended on for many years, to see a manuscript because he feared that "the bastard" would "tip off" the Communists, who had agents planted "everywhere in the publishing, magazine, and newspaper business" and could prevent McKay's work from being placed. After all, said McKay, "they hate my guts."24 McKay saw the Communists as just one more "bully" out to threaten his happiness. Everyone was bent on seeing him fail: the Negro elite, white radicals, black radicals, political organizations, the press, and his so-called friends. Indeed, McKay felt that he needed protection from these "bullies," and only the Catholic Church was big enough to do it.25

In the Catholic Church, McKay had at last found the superior being that could take care of him, that would allow him to surrender his control and independence and become the child. In his essay "Right Turn to Catholicism," he explained his reasons for embracing the Catholic Church. Chief was his belief that because the Catholic Church promoted brotherhood and goodwill, they could accept him "as a child of Christendom," despite the reality that most white people regarded him as "an outcast child."26 In the Church he would receive succor and guidance.

McKay took the first step in his total surrender to God by rejecting his rational past. Immediately after his baptism in 1944, he recanted all of his major works. In his essay "On Becoming a Roman Catholic," he expresses regret for his earlier philosophy and writings. "I swung around from place to place in the circle of disillusioned liberals and radicals," McKay confesses. "I forgot about social revolution, instead I wrote risque stories and novels."27 And in a symbolic gesture of atonement, he prays to God for forgiveness, promising,

My Pagan life of arrogance
          and dross,
I lay down all and humbly
          at your cross.
(Sonnet 51)

As he looked backward, McKay could take no pride in his many articles, essays, and works of fiction which demonstrated his bold and independent spirit.

The second step in McKay's surrendering authority to the Church manifested itself in the rejection of those people, no doubt intellectuals and fellow artists, whom he associated with his secular existence. In a poem published in The Catholic Worker, McKay, while continuing to seek God's grace and mercy for the sins of his past life, lashes out bitterly at those who he believes exploited his gifts and intellectualism. He writes,

Around me roar and crash the pagan isms
To which most of my life was consecrate,
Betrayed by evil men and torn by schisms
For they were built on nothing more than hate!
I cannot live my life without the faith

McKay's representation of his past ideas as Godless idols whose destruction must come through "roar[ing]" and "crash[ing]" evokes the image of Jesus' violent cleansing of the temple as he overturned and sent crashing to the floor the merchandise of the money changers. Also McKay's poem, notes Cooper, expresses the bitterness, despair, and disappointment of a man who "had seen better days" but now was forced to realize that his past as a celebrated artist and his past associations with those people of influence, both black and white, of whatever political and social persuasion, could not be counted on to lift him from his desperate circumstances.29 But perhaps the Church could.

Finally, in "Truth" McKay challenges the notion that man can find absolute understanding in intellectualism. In this poem, he symbolically rejects the philosophical theories that once captured the imagination of his youth, such as agnosticism, Darwinian evolutionism, and revolution:

I found [truth] not in years of Unbelief,
In science stirring life like budding trees,
In Revolution like a dazzling thief--
Oh, shall I find it on my bended knees?30

McKay implies that faith in rational approaches to truth is useless, for only faith in God can make complete understanding possible. His resolution at the end of the poem to exchange revolution for total submission on "bended knees" is a startling reversal for the black artist who once defined rebellion for his generation.

Certainly, notes Wayne Cooper, the possibility exists that McKay's conversion was motivated by practical factors as well as by religious ones. After all, the Catholic Church definitely satisfied his needs at the lowest point in his life as no other entity could have.31 It satisfied his persistent need for dependence by serving as his last symbolic father. Also, within the bosom of the Church, he found a sustaining philosophy to which he could submit totally. And finally from the Church he received a job and medical care which allowed him a means to live in dignity what little life he had left. McKay himself was not unaware of the practical benefits which he gained from Catholicism. In a letter to his agent Carl Cowl he wrote, "It was a good thing I hooked up with the Catholics. ... for they have certainly taken good care of me."32 On another level, McKay's conversion may have symbolized his final rejection of an Afrocentric world. Ever since he, as a young boy, pasted to his wall a Catholic picture whose colors he adored, he had been in love with the aestheticism of Western civilization exemplified in the church's lush paintings, marble sculptures, majestic cathedrals, and long rich history of Western tradition.33

After his conversion, he marvelled that there was "grandeur and wonder" in the church's role as link between modern man and the past, and he lamented that his education had been neglected since he had not studied the early Christian fathers as intensely as he had studied the Greek philosophers.34

Perhaps after all is said and done, McKay's conversion was his way of putting peace back into his life again. Or perhaps McKay was just another twentieth-century exile making a gesture toward reconciliation with conformity. What did it matter that his skin was black. "Thornton Wilder wrote a Christian novel. ... Hemingway joined the Catholic Church ... [and] dozens of young men followed T. S. Eliot's example and called themselves royalists, Catholics and classicists."35 Perhaps McKay's baptism represented an end, at last, to the warring complexities within himself.


1. See Harlem Shadows (New York: Harcourt, 1922). And see McKay's two sonnets, pseud. Eli Edwards, "The Harlem Dancer" and "Invocation," published in Frank and James Oppenheim's Seven Arts Magazine, 2 (Oct. 1917), 741. These works established McKay as one of the first artists to articulate the philosophy of Negritude.

2. Claude McKay, A Long Way from Home (New York: Lee Furman, 1937), p. 150.

3. Wayne F. Cooper, "Stranger and Pilgrim: The Life of Claude McKay," Diss., Rutgers Univ., 1982, p. 675.

4. Cooper, pp. 682-83.

5. At that time, Walter White was secretary of the NAACP and a novelist in his own right. Arthur A. Schomburg was then a collector of objects which covered all aspects of black life. His collection has since become the Schomburg Collection of Literature and History of the Negro now housed in the New York Public Library.

6. Cooper, p. 693. McKay's Harlem: Negro Metropolis (New York: Harcourt, 1940) is a social history of Harlem during the 1920s and 1930s. McKay, however, infuriated the Negro elite with his portrait of a poor, backward, crime-infested Harlem rather than a viable middle-class community.

7. Ellen Tarry, The Third Door: An Autobiography of an American Negro Woman (New York: David McKay, 1955), p. 187.

8. Cooper, pp. 811-15.

9. Max Eastman was founder and editor of two socialist journals, The Masses and The Liberator, published between 1911 and the mid-1920s. In 1921 Eastman hired McKay as coeditor of The Liberator. Eastman and McKay remained friends throughout much of McKay's life. Often McKay relied on Eastman for both financial and emotional support.

10. Claude McKay, letter to Max Eastman, 3 September 1943, in The Passion of Claude McKay: Selected Poetry and Prose, 1912-1948, ed. Wayne F. Cooper (New York: Shocken Books, 1973), pp. 303-04.

11. Claude McKay, letter to Max Eastman, 26 January 1945, in Passion of Claude McKay, p. 307.

12. Claude McKay, letter to Max Eastman, 21 March 1945, in Passion of Claude McKay, pp. 308-09; Cooper, "Stranger and Pilgrim," p. 815.

13. McKay, "Opening Sonnet," "Cycle Ms.," McKay Papers, James Weldon Johnson Collection, Bienecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale Univ., New Haven, Connecticut. Hereafter, sonnets contained in the "Cycle" Manuscript will be cited parenthetically in the text.

14. Ibid.

15. McKay, "Sonnet 49," "Cycle Ms.," published later as "There Is no Radical: The Negro's Friend," Catholic Worker, 12 (Oct. 1945), 4-5.

16. Alain Locke was considered the impresario of the Harlem Renaissance. As editor and critic, he promoted the works of young black artists. In 1925, he edited The New Negro, a volume which sought to define the revolutionary philosophy of black artists and intellectuals.

17. See McKay, "Garvey as a Negro Moses," The Liberator, 5 (April 1922), 9.

18. The anthology in question was Poetry of the Negro (1949), edited by Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps. However, McKay ultimately agreed to be one of the contributors to the anthology but he refused to honor the editors' request for current biographical data, demanding that they use standard biographical references already available.

19. McKay, letter to Carl Cowl, 11 November 1947, James Weldon Johnson Collection.

20. McKay, letter to Harold Jackman, 27 June 1927, James Weldon Johnson Collection.

21. McKay, letter to Carl Cowl, 14 November 1947, James Weldon Johnson Collection.

22. Cooper, "Stranger and Pilgrim," p. 399.

23. Harlem: Negro Metropolis, p. 197. See also McKay, letter to Carl Cowl, 14 November 1949, James Weldon Johnson Collection.

24. McKay, letter to Carl Cowl, 16 May 1947, James Weldon Johnson Collection.

25. McKay, letter to Eastman, 16 September 1946, in Wayne Cooper, ed., The Passion of Claude McKay, p. 314.

26. "Right Turn to Catholicism," MS, McKay Papers, Schomburg Collection, p. 1, The New York Public Library. See also McKay's The Negroes in America, ed. Alan L. McLeod (Port Washington, New York: Kennikat, 1979), p. 50, which discusses McKay's belief that the Catholic Church more than any other was capable of administering to brown and black people.

27. McKay, "On Becoming a Roman Catholic," photocopy in McKay folder at Schomburg from published article in Epistle, 11 (Spring 1945), 44.

28. McKay, "The Pagan Isms," Catholic Worker, 12 (July 1945), 4.

29. Cooper, "Stranger and Pilgrim," p. 818.

30. McKay, "Truth," Selected Poems, p. 46. Despite McKay's expressed sentiment in "Truth," he continued throughout the remainder of his life to demonstrate an interest not only in the political and social developments pressing upon the world after the war (see letter written to Eastman, 16 Sept. 1946, in Passion of Claude McKay, pp. 312-14), but he continued to write, completing the final draft of his Selected Poems, published posthumously in 1953.

31. "Stranger and Pilgrim," p. 830.

32. McKay, letter to Carl Cowl, 30 March 1947, McKay Papers, James Weldon Johnson Collection; Cooper, "Stranger and Pilgrim," pp. 830-31.

33. McKay, "My Green Hills of Jamaica," MS, Schomburg Collection.

34. McKay, "Right Turn to Catholicism," MS, Schomburg Collection.

35. Malcolm Cowley, Exile's Return: A Narrative of Ideas (New York: Norton, 1934), p. 239.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420112181