Portrait of a friendship: Claude McKay and Charles Ashleigh

This article by Rob Perrée (Afrikanah.org) explores the friendship between the poet and novelist Claude McKay and activist poet Charles Ashleigh. This is the 6th article in a series exploring their friendship.

Langston Hughes, the most important poet of the Harlem Renaissance, writes in 1925: “You are still the best of the colored poets and probably will be for the next century and for me you are the one and only.” Colleague James Weldon Johnson calls his collection of poetry Harlem Shadows “… .one of the great forces in bringing about …… the Negro literary Renaissance.” An artist does not need much more compliments to conquer a place in history. You would think. It did not happen.

Claude McKay receives little or no attention in most publications about the Harlem Renaissance. [. . .]

Claude McKay was born in Jamaica in 1889, in the Clarendon Parish. He mostly grew up with his brother. He is a teacher and introduces Claude to both British and classical literature. The story goes that little Claude was already writing poems at the age of 10. In 1907 he meets Walter Jekyll, an ex-clergyman, originally British but moved to Jamaica to become a planter, who is mainly concerned with collecting traditional local stories and songs. He recognizes McKay’s talent and mediates in the publication of Songs of Jamaica (1912). This expresses his sympathy for the black working class. McKay will receive a literary prize for this and his next collection. With the money associated with that prize, he leaves for the US to continue his education. He first enrolls at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He is shocked by the racism in the South. That would influence his literary work. Because he finds the training too militaristic, he completes his education at Kansas State University. In 1914 he moves to New York and marries a childhood friend.

Since he cared already about the fate of the black worker when he was living in Jamaica, his stay in the South of the US served to catalyze his involvement with the cause. He develops sympathy for communism, becomes editor of the Marxist magazine Liberator and interviews Trotsky. During this period, he wrote the poem that would become his best known: “If We Must Die.” Race riots in Harlem are the reason. The sonnet is widely regarded as the first Harlem Renaissance poem. McKay himself says: “…… The Negro people unanimously hailed me as a poet.” But his left-wing radicalization does not appeal to everyone. The Harlem Renaissance is not a worker movement, rather an intellectual, middle-class movement. Moreover, from a national perspective, there is no greater enemy for Americans than the communist. The fear of the red danger is still very much alive. That the FBI – the institutionalization of that fear – is going to interfere with the poet should therefore hardly come as a surprise. McKay decides to leave the country.

During these years, the second major barrier to his fame and acceptance arises: he starts dating men. Often, often briefly, and often from his own literary circles: the critic Waldo Frank and the poet Edwin Arlington Robinson, for example. His travels to Russia will not have satisfied that need, but in Paris and Morocco he will have every opportunity to put his homosexuality into practice. In Tangier he is part of the decadent international community of writers and artists who celebrate freedom inspired by the exotic environment. [. . .]

In his traveling years he has an on-again-off-again relationship with the Briton Charles Ashleigh (1888 or 1889-1974), a writer and translator who shares McKay’s political views. McKay gradually started to think like a communist. Ashleigh was ‘born communist’, as it were: he is a full-blooded, campaigning communist. He comes from a working-class environment and (thus) cares about the fate of the worker. This was demonstrated by not being averse to worker jobs, by organizing strikes, but also by writing for newspapers and writing poems. There is no doubt about his sexuality: he openly professes his homosexuality. On his journey through the Americas, he meets Claude McKay. They remain friends until McKay returns to New York. [. . .]

For full article, see https://africanah.org/claude-mckay-charles-ashleigh/

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