If we must die: We better claim Claude McKay before it's too late
If we must die, the famous poem by Jamaica's own Mr Claude McKay, has entered the lexicon of those versed in great literature and poetry in the English language. The poem gained world fame after being quoted by Sir Winston Churchill to inspire the British in the Second World War.
"If we must die, let it not be like hogs; hunted and penned in an inglorious spot. If we must die, O let us nobly die. Like men we'll face the murderous; cowardly pack. Pressed to the wall, dying but fighting back."
It is verse like this that prompted Professor Winston James to entitle his book A Fierce Hatred of Injustice: Claude McKay's Jamaica and his Poetry of Rebellion.
A graduate student at Columbia University while searching in a previously unopened archive discovered an unknown and unpublished manuscript of a novel by Mr Claude McKay. Written in 1941, the manuscript is entitled Amiable With Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem. The student and his professor have authenticated the manuscript and have been given permission by the McKay estate.
Mr McKay, although claimed in US media as a Black American, is a born and bred Jamaican. He was educated and grew to adulthood in Jamaica. He became an author after serving in the Jamaica Constabulary Force. Indeed, he recorded his experiences in XXX which is still in print. He was a leading Harlem Renaissance writer and a radical political activist. He was involved in the Communist movement as were many intellectuals and creative artists. He like many people of African descent was attracted to the Communism because of the Soviet Union's pronouncements against racism and colonialism.
Typical of Jamaicans, he fought against injustice and discrimination everywhere and all the time. However, like most Black intellectuals and activists he soon discovered the divorce between the rhetoric and reality. The newly found novel treats the tensions between Communists (amiable with big teeth) and black nationalists for "the souls of Black folks".
Mr McKay who died in 1948, was a pioneering author who influenced a generation of black writers, including Langston Hughes while still in his 50's. His work includes: Harlem Shadows, a 1922 poetry collection that some say ushered in the Harlem Renaissance. He also wrote the 1928 best-selling novel Home to Harlem and this was followed by Banjo in 1929. His last published novel during his lifetime was Banana Bottom which appeared in 1933. A novella, Harlem Glory: A Fragment Of Aframerican Life, was published posthumously.
Wayne Cooper, Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance: A Biography provides a fuller appreciation of the importance of Claude McKay. His contribution is such that it belongs to the world but if we do not claim him in a meaningful way he will be claimed as Black American or Jamaican-American. He would certainly rebel against this classification.
The Claude McKay High School in Clarendon is not sufficient recognition for the first Jamaican writer to achieve international acclaim.