Calver on James, 'Claude McKay: The Making of a Black Bolshevik'

Winston James. Claude McKay: The Making of a Black Bolshevik. New York: Columbia University Press, 2022. 464 pp. $32.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-231-13593-1

Reviewed by Jasmine Calver (Independent Scholar)
Published on H-Socialisms (March, 2023)
Commissioned by Gary Roth (Rutgers University - Newark)

Printable Version:

Black and Bolshevik: A Biography of Claude McKay

Claude McKay was a cornerstone of the Harlem Renaissance, the African American intellectual and cultural movement originating in New York City after World War I. His literary output, specifically his “songs of struggle,” contributed to the formulation of black nationalist ideology in the United States. But how did McKay's political consciousness develop? What were the driving factors behind his radicalization? How did his experiences during his youth in Jamaica, his initial influential years in the United States, and his brief sojourn in Britain guide his political evolution? With the publication of two previously unreleased manuscripts by McKay (Romance in Marseille [2020] and Amiable with Big Teeth [2017]), there has been a marked increase in academic interest in McKay's literature. Since 2017 alone, academics have examined the depiction of diaspora, surveillance, urban landscapes, and labor struggles in McKay's poetry and novels, reinforcing his key role in the Harlem intelligentsia of the interwar period and his literary influence on both global decolonization movements and the US civil rights movement.[1] Detailed examinations of McKay’s origins and the personal motivations driving his activism, however, are mostly lacking in these primarily literary analyses.

In Claude McKay: The Making of a Black Bolshevik, Winston James tackles these questions by tracing McKay's political evolution and its reflection in his poems. Literary analysis is not the focus of this work, however. James's book is an exhaustive historical inquiry of McKay's life that provides readers with clear historical context for his political chrysalis and paints vivid images of the geographical, conceptual, and ideological landscapes in which he spent his formative years as a poet, from his birth in Jamaica in 1889 to his departure from London in 1921. What results is a detailed piece of scholarship that illuminates a deeply determinative yet comparatively understudied period in McKay’s life.

James’s aims are ambitious and clearly articulated from the outset. In broad terms, James attempts “a radical reevaluation” of the man and his work, a goal he seeks to achieve by drawing “a detailed, comprehensive, and more accurate political portrait” of McKay as a “remarkable thinker, political activist, and courageous child of the African diaspora who endured and articulated ... Black despair and struggle punctuated by days of sunshine and hope” (p. 10). James focuses on McKay’s experiences while living in three countries with distinct social, political, economic, and cultural ethnographies: Jamaica, the US, and Britain. His time in each of these places introduced McKay to different race and class issues, stimulating new dimensions to his poetry. James, therefore, uses McKay’s departure from one country and arrival in another as effective section markers in the text.

First, in part 1, James introduces readers to the Jamaica of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—the Jamaica of McKay’s youth—in stunning detail. In chapter 1, James traces McKay’s African roots and highlights his family’s relatively recent history of slavery (his paternal grandparents were sold as slaves) as well as his relationship with his parents, with particular emphasis on his close connection with his mother. This chapter challenges the traditional academic focus on the white influences on McKay's life; James makes a particularly compelling case that U. Theo McKay, McKay's older brother, shaped his political development in a more meaningful way than Walter Jekyll, the English aristocrat and “man of letters” who has broadly been considered the most important figure during McKay's time in Jamaica (p. 9). The author points to U. Theo's nationalism and rationalism as particular traits that he nurtured in McKay. Extensive scrutiny of contemporary Jamaican voting rights based on class hierarchies (and consequently race) precedes a thorough consideration of the disenfranchisement of Jamaican women, which, although not central to McKay's political thought, was sometimes reflected in his poetry. This is a welcome undertaking, as black women are still vastly underrepresented in histories of the Caribbean colonies.

Chapter 2 is one of the most impressive. James provides a deep examination of Jamaican history and articulates the prevailing economic, political, and social conditions that permeated McKay's youth, aspects that have not been explored in such detail by other biographers. James discusses a plethora of topics, including Jamaica's existing political economy, the formation of the Jamaican peasantry, the impact of urbanization, the decline of the sugar trade and the rise of the banana trade, population increases, taxation, land famine, and mass immigration to Panama and Cuba. Perhaps the most enlightening part of this chapter is the articulation of race and color in Jamaica and their subsequent translation into prejudices and discrimination in “multilayered pigmentocracies,” a term that James borrows from Gordon Lewis (p. 97). Chapter 3 considers how these issues were reflected in McKay's Jamaican poetry, specifically Songs of Jamaica (1912) and Constab Ballads (1912). James identifies consistent themes of race, color, class, oppression, revolt, and some feminist sympathies throughout both books of Jamaican patois “dialect poetry,” in addition to the intrapersonal conflict that dominated McKay's short time as an officer in the Jamaica Constabulary (p. 221). James identifies McKay as ideologically Fabian at this juncture of his life: politically left but with space to move further toward revolutionary socialism. Chapter 4 questions why McKay chose to leave Jamaica in 1912 to study at Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and enumerates the impact of his experiences in Jamaica by the time of his departure, once again highlighting the exemplary black role models shaping his development.

The second section tracks McKay's radical growth through his experiences in the United States and the impact of “bitter” American racism on his political thought (p. 21). Chapter 5 investigates why McKay's radicalization progressed so rapidly in comparison with other Caribbean activists who immigrated to the US at the same time. James ascribes this to two key events: the outbreak of war in Europe, which destroyed McKay's belief in European civilization, and the Russian Revolution, which gave him hope for the future. Again, James challenges the narrative that McKay was primarily influenced by his white mentors by asserting the role of Black Harlem, and specifically Hubert Harrison, in stimulating his racial and social consciousness. Chapter 6 is another exceptional contextual chapter that focuses on the Red Summer of 1919 when racist mob attacks and lynching swept the United States. The events that James mentions are meticulously chosen and presented to encourage readers to consider how McKay, as a black worker on the US railroad, must have felt when writing his seminal poem “If We Must Die” (1919) and the lesser-known “A Roman Holiday” (1919), both of which are expressions of black struggle and advocations of “revolutionary suicide” (p. 251). This chapter ends by assessing McKay's political status: by the time he left the United States, McKay was a determined black radical with revolutionary socialist sympathies.

McKay's brief sojourn in Britain is the site of the book's third section. Chapter 7 expounds on his personal experiences with pervasive, ignorant, English racism including, but not limited to, housing discrimination, refusal of service, and regular harassment by white youths. There is also a fascinating section recounting McKay's response to the inflammatory and incorrect statements published by E. D. Morel in the Daily Herald about the supposed “Black Horror on the Rhine” (p. 298). These events provide background for McKay's decision to operate within a primarily foreign radical milieu; while working with Sylvia Pankhurst on the socialist newspaper Worker's Dreadnought, he attended the European-dominated International Socialist Club and often felt great dismay about the extent to which the British workers' movement was permeated by racism. Chapter 8 discusses the publication of Spring in New Hampshire (1920) and McKay's often fraught relationship with his editor, C. K. Ogden, which resulted in the exclusion of McKay’s more “propagandistic” poems, including “If We Must Die.” The author argues that McKay wrote his most powerful nostalgia poetry about Jamaica because of his experiences in London. However, he queries whether McKay had truly “looked upon the face of the British nation” as he professed, considering he did not experience Britain beyond London and surrounded himself with foreign intellectuals in his socialist work (p. 340). To conclude his biography of McKay's first thirty-one years, James offers a coda that charts, in brief, the trajectory of McKay's Bolshevism beyond his departure from London in 1921. In particular, James highlights McKay’s eight-month visit to Moscow in Autumn 1922, during which he spoke at the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, and his visit to Berlin in the summer of 1923 as the height of his Bolshevik commitment.

Claude McKay goes beyond biography. Although an excellent biography of a pivotal period in McKay's early political education, the book is also an important contribution to scholarship in several other fields, chiefly Jamaican history in the fin de siècle. Few scholars have been so detailed and sympathetic in their treatment of McKay's early experiences. James has succeeded in effectively demonstrating how McKay's ideology was marked by both continuity and change and has given serious weight to the idea that McKay and his black contemporaries were ahead of their time ideologically. It should be noted that McKay's known bisexuality is not a central feature of this treatment of his early life. James does mention his sexuality on two occasions: first, he highlights the closing words of the poem “My Ethiopian Maid” as a possible reference to bisexual desire, and, second, he cites French governmental reports of McKay as a “sodomite” during his stay in Morocco (p. 341). A. B. Christa Schwarz identifies several poems from Harlem Shadows (1922) that can be interpreted as containing themes of same-sex love.[2] Although this book of poetry was published in 1922, just beyond the chronology that Claude McKay considers, many were written during the period under scrutiny but not chosen to be included in Spring in New Hampshire. An expanded debate about the influence (or lack thereof, if that is the case) of McKay's bisexual identity on his development both poetically and politically would enhance our understanding of this fascinating figure in black Caribbean, black American, socialist, and literary history. Nevertheless, James's biography of McKay goes an impressive distance to demonstrate the intricacies of McKay's transition from Jamaican Fabian to revolutionary socialist in the United States and cosmopolitan Marxist in London with a deep dislike of Britain and a determination to embrace his African heritage.


[1]. Marina Bilbija, “Diaspora Doubtful: Illegible Diasporic Subjects in Claude McKay's Banjo and Nadifa Mohammed's Black Mamba Boy,” South Atlantic Review 84, no. 4 (2017): 98–120; Kelsey Kiser, “‘How Come You Just Vanished Thataway like a Spook?’: Global Surveillance in the Transatlantic Novels of Claude McKay,” CLA Journal 61, no. 3 (2018): 171–87; Anne Collett, “Claude McKay and the Pestilential City: The Metropolis, the Clinic, the Crisis,” in Postcolonial Past & Present: Negotiating Literary and Cultural Geographies (Leiden: Brill, 2018), 121–33; and Stephanie J. Brown, “Claude McKay, the Workers' Dreadnought, and Collaborative Poetics,” Literature & History 28, no. 1 (2019): 27–48.

[2]. A. B. Christa Schwarz, Gay Voices of the Harlem Renaissance (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003), 93.

Citation: Jasmine Calver. Review of James, Winston, Claude McKay: The Making of a Black Bolshevik. H-Socialisms, H-Net Reviews. March, 2023.

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