Claude McKay was born in Jamaica, West Indies, in 1889 (there has been much confusion over whether McKay was born in 1889 or 1890, but his birth certificate has been discovered showing that he was born in 1889 [See Winston, Footnote 8] ). Educated by his older brother, McKay published his first work entitled Songs of Jamaica in 1912, the same year he left his homeland for the United States. There he attended Tuskegee Institute, although his enrollment was short-lived. He left after just a few months to study agriculture at the Kansas State University. In 1922 he published the poems "If We Must Die" and "America". (AAP, 2006) "If We Must Die," written in 1919, was a bold statement of racial strategy. It raised McKay to international acclaim when Winston Churchill used it to rally British troops against the Nazis. In an essay titled "A Negro Poet Writes," McKay asks about American racism: "why should I fight with mad dogs only to be bitten and probably transformed into a mad dog myself?" His poetry was the perfect way for him to maintain his civility while at the same time lashing back at the racial violence around him. (Boone, 1990) The poem "America" was doubtlessly influenced by McKay's interest in Communism (AAP, 2006). The beginning of the poem portrays America as a cruel mistress; a "cultured hell" (line 4) that he loves nonetheless. This is most likely due to the way America treated his race was treated at that time. At the same time, however, McKay foresees America's downfall, "her might and granite wonders
sinking in the sand" (lines 12-14).
Boone, Joseph and Michael Cadden. "Caged Birds: Race and Gender in the Sonnet" Engendering Men. New York: Routledge, 1990
The Academy of American Poets (AAP). Claude McKay. 15 March 2006.
Winston, James "Becoming the People's Poet: Claude McKay's Jamaican Years, 1889-1912". Small Axe - Number 13 (Volume 7, Number 1), March 2003, pg.17-45