“If we must die, O let us nobly die/So that our precious blood may not be shed/In vain,” is perhaps another way of saying that black lives matter.
Its message “we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack/Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!” though maybe fatalistic, is powerful.
Such writing is mostly what McKay is remembered for. That writing was part of the Harlem Renaissance, a black cultural movement connected to radical struggles against racism and for liberation.
Biographies of McKay tend to be less keen to talk about his own involvement in radical politics and activism.
The Academy of American Poets says euphemistically that McKay “developed an interest in communism”.
In truth he was almost certainly a member of the Communist Party, and definitely committed to building revolutionary organisation in the US. He put a lot of thought into how the fight against racism tied into class struggle, and how barriers dividing black and white workers could be broken.
McKay said that when he moved to the US from Jamaica, where he was born and grew up, “It was the first time I had ever come face to face with such manifest, implacable hate of my race.
“I had heard of prejudice in America but never dreamed of it being so intensely bitter.”
McKay railed against racism in the working class movement.
He argued that prejudice against black people among communists and socialists in the US was “the greatest difficulty that the Communists of America have got to overcome.”
Racism among working class people helped American capitalists “in their fight against the interests of labour.”
It also meant “The blacks are hostile to Communism because they regard it as a ‘white’ working class movement and they consider the white workers their greatest enemy, who draw the colour line against them in factory and office and lynch and burn them at the stake for being coloured.”
Nevertheless, McKay hoped to organise black people on a specifically socialist, working class basis.
At the time the struggle for black liberation was organised through the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Universal Negro Improvement Association.
At times McKay criticised both bitterly for being dominated by middle class people.
Instead he wanted to find ways of organising and spreading propaganda that recognised the “essential class nature” of the struggle.
The fight against racism was a class struggle because black people were “especially a race of toilers, hewers of wood and drawers of water, that belongs to the most oppressed, exploited, and suppressed section of the working class of the world.”
McKay wrote and spoke about the practical realities of building communist organisation among black people, at the Fourth Congress of the Communist International.
This was in 1922, in Russia, in the years following the Russian Revolution. The International wanted to build revolutionary organisations around the world.
Like millions of people around the world, McKay had been inspired by the 1917 Revolution, particularly how it had challenged antisemitism used by the previous Tsarist regime.
Describing his visit to Russia, he said he didn’t feel the racism or “snobbishness” he experienced in other countries. But he was bombarded with questions from Russian workers about conditions black people in the US.
It was part of the radical transformation of society the revolution had begun. “No one but a soulless body can live there without being stirred to the depths by it,” he wrote.
Sadly, when those gains were rolled back by Stalin’s counter revolution, McKay became disillusioned with Communism.
He became a figure more acceptable to liberals who celebrate his poetry but are embarrassed by his early radicalism.
Even then for much of his life, “fighting back” wasn’t about heroic self-sacrifice. It was about a belief that the world could be radically better.
Class struggle toppled apartheid