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The pilgrimage of Claude McKay

There have been a good number of conversions of twentieth-century intellectuals to Catholicism, but few are as intriguing as the conversion of the poet, novelist, and critic Claude McKay. McKay. Along with Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, McKay is considered one of the great poets of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. A man of contradictions, involved by turns with atheism, homosexuality, Islam, Soviet communism, and Marcus Garvey’s Black Nationalist movement, McKay at last found that for him only Roman Catholicism offered peace, order, wonder, and truth.

Born in Jamaica in 1890, McKay moved to Harlem in 1915 to join the burgeoning literary scene. In Harlem he contributed articles to Garvey’s Negro World and had a brief passion for men. With the publication of his Harlem Shadows, a volume of poetry in 1921, McKay became known as the most fiery and vociferous black poet of the day. His work lacked the jazzy inventiveness of Hughes and the stately craftsmanship of Cullen, but it compensated through the sheer force of its honesty and bluntness. In Harlem Shadows, McKay showed belligerence, sorrow, hatred for Western civilization, and rage against Christianity. The poem "Enslaved" blamed what McKay called the "Christian West" for ravaging the "Black Land" of Africa. The poem "Baptism" invoked Christianity in order to distort it, telling of an imagined antibaptism in which McKay saw himself baptized by the...

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About the Author

David Goldweber teaches English in the San Francisco Bay Area.