This Day In History: May 22
Claude McKay and Langston Hughes
After a decade of work, Oxford University Press and the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute published the African American National Biography(AANB). The AANB is the largest repository of black life stories ever assembled with more than 4,000 biographies. To celebrate this monumental achievement we have invited the contributors to this 8 volume set to share some of their knowledge with the OUPBlog. Over the next couple of months we will have the honor of sharing their thoughts, reflections and opinions with you.
Two African American literary giants died on the same day, nineteen years apart, Claude McKay, May 22, 1948 and Langston Hughes, on May 22, 1967. Both were poets, writers, and significant figures in the literary movement of the Harlem Renaissance.
Festus Claude McKay was born on September 15, 1889 in Sunny Ville, Clarendon Parish, Jamaica, West Indies. The youngest of eleven children, McKay began writing poetry at the age of ten. Before coming to the U.S. he published two volumes of dialect verse, Songs of Jamaica (1912) and Constab Ballads (1912). Shortly thereafter, he immigrated to the U.S. and enrolled in Tuskegee, Institute in Alabama. After a few months, he left to attend Kansas State University with the intention of studying agronomy. However, after experiencing the harsh realities of racism, he moved to New York and married his childhood sweetheart, Eulalie Imelda Lewis. The marriage lasted a year. She returned to Jamaica to give birth to their daughter. It was his encounter with American racism that informed much of his subsequent work.
He was a novelist, poet, short story writer, and journalist. He wrote three novels, Home to Harlem, 1928, winner of the Harmon Gold Award for Literature. It became the first novel by a Harlem writer to reach the best seller list. It was controversial because of its depiction of “the underside of Harlem life.” His second novel, Banjo was written in 1929. Banana Bottom was written in 1933. He wrote two autobiographies, A Long Way from Home, 1937, and My Green Hills of Jamaica, published posthumously in 1979. His nonfiction book, Harlem’s Negro Metropolis, 1940, did not gain much attention at the time; however, today it remains significant as an historical source. His collection of poems in Harlem Shadows, (1922), is thought to be the precursor of the Harlem Renaissance. One of his poems, a sonnet, “If We Must Die,” (1919) written during the Red Summer was a response to the racial violence against African Americans.
His concern for social and political affairs led him to write for the Liberator, a socialist magazine of art and literature, founded by Crystal and Max Eastman. He became the associate editor of the Liberator and traveled to Moscow with Max Eastman.
From 1919 to 1921, he lived in England and wrote articles for Sylvia Pankhurst’s Trade Union Journal the Workers’ Drednought. He returned to the U.S. briefly and in 1923, he began a sojourn throughout Europe, the Soviet Union, and Africa that lasted twelve years.
He was drawn to communism and supported the Bolshevist revolution; however, he soon lost faith and returned to the United States in 1934. For a brief time, he worked for the Federal Writers’ Project. Unable to make a living from writing, McKay worked in a shipbuilding yard and as a porter on the railroad. In 1943 he suffered a stroke brought on by high blood pressure and heart disease. On May 22, 1948, he died of congestive heart failure at age 59.
He greatly influenced Senegalese poet Leopold Sedar Senghor, Martinique poet Amiee Cesaire and other pioneers of the Negritude Literary Movement. Langston Hughes and other young poets of the Harlem Renaissance cite Claude McKay as a leading inspirational force for the candor in his poems and essays that focused on racial issues and the working class.
James Langston Hughes, writer, poet, playwright, novelist, was born Feb. 1, 1902 in Joplin, Missouri. His mother sent him to live with his grandmother in Lawrence, Kansas where he lived until her death. He was twelve when he returned to live with his mother and stepfather in Lincoln, Illinois. The family then moved to Cleveland where Hughes completed his high school education. While in high school, he began to develop his literary talent writing for the Central High monthly magazine and publishing his first poem. During the summer of his junior year, he visited his father, James Hughes, in Toluca, Mexico. Upon completion of high school, he returned to live with his father in Mexico. A strain developed between the two men. Father wanted his son to study engineering, but Hughes wanted to be a writer
In 1921, Hughes attended Columbia University in New York. One of his early poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” was published in 1921 in Crisis Magazine, edited by W.EB. DuBois. His poem “The Weary Blues” which won first prize in a contest and was published in 1926 in Opportunity Magazine launched his literary career.
Hughes traveled abroad extensively. He worked on a freighter down the west coast of Africa. In 1924 he lived several months in Paris, France, and from 1932-1933 along with a group of African American artists, he visited the Soviet Union.
A prolific writer, Hughes wrote two autobiographies, The Big Sea (1940), and I Wonder as I Wander (1956), several volumes of poetry, novels, plays, essays and a dozen children’s books. His work celebrated black life and culture infusing them with a strong sense of racial pride. His first novel, Not Without Laughter, (1930) won the Harmon Gold Medal for Literature.
In 1942 and continuing for twenty years, he wrote a column for the Chicago Defender newspaper featuring the character Jesse B. Simple. Simple, representing the common black man in Harlem, commented on matters mainly about race and racism culminating in a collection of essays entitled, “Simple Speaks His Mind.”
He experimented with free verse and infused his poems with the rhythms of jazz and blues. In his noteworthy essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” Hughes affirms the role of the Negro artist. “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are please, we are glad. If not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful and ugly, too.”
On May 22, 1967, Hughes died at age 65 from complications after abdominal surgery.