The Making of a Black Bolshevik
by Winston James
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Pub Date 12 Jul 2022 | Archive Date 19 Oct 2022
One of the foremost Black writers and intellectuals of his era, Claude McKay (1889–1948) was a central figure in Caribbean literature, the Harlem Renaissance, and the Black radical tradition. McKay’s life and writing were defined by his class consciousness and anticolonialism, shaped by his experiences growing up in colonial Jamaica as well as his early career as a writer in Harlem and then London. Dedicated to confronting both racism and capitalist exploitation, he was a critical observer of the Black condition throughout the African diaspora and became a committed Bolshevik.
Winston James offers a revelatory account of McKay’s political and intellectual trajectory from his upbringing in Jamaica through the early years of his literary career and radical activism. In 1912, McKay left Jamaica to study in the United States, never to return. James follows McKay’s time at the Tuskegee Institute and Kansas State University, as he discovered the harshness of American racism, and his move to Harlem, where he encountered the ferment of Black cultural and political movements and figures such as Hubert Harrison and Marcus Garvey. McKay left New York for London, where his commitment to revolutionary socialism deepened, culminating in his transformation from Fabian socialist to Bolshevik.
Drawing on a wide variety of sources, James offers a rich and detailed chronicle of McKay’s life, political evolution, and the historical, political, and intellectual contexts that shaped him.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Winston James is professor of history at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of several books, including A Fierce Hatred of Injustice: Claude McKay’s Jamaica and His Poetry of Rebellion (2000); The Struggles of John Brown Russwurm: The Life and Writings of a Pan-Africanist Pioneer, 1799-1851 (2010); and Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia: Caribbean Radicalism in Early Twentieth-Century America, second edition (2020), winner of the Gordon K. Lewis Memorial Award for Caribbean Scholarship of the Caribbean Studies Association.
"Meticulously researched and superbly written, this is the premier work on Claude McKay’s astonishing artistic range and diverse passions. It is also an incisive examination of the wider Jamaican and Caribbean colonial context, and a major contribution to the history of the Atlantic World, the Harlem Renaissance and the overlooked connection with the founders of Négritude."
—Franklin W. Knight, Leonard and Helen R. Stulman Professor Emeritus of History, Johns Hopkins University
"James is well-known for his ability to historicize McKay while retaining a keen sensitivity to, and reading of, McKay’s literary contributions. In this book, he emphasizes an often-inadequately addressed aspect of the writer’s work: a deep understanding of McKay’s early political formation and radicalization, and how such origins structured McKay’s thinking and art."
—Michelle Ann Stephens, author of Skin Acts: Race, Psychoanalysis and the Black Male Performer
Available on NetGalley
Average rating from 2 members
Claude McKay: The Making of a Black Bolshevik by Winston James presents McKay in a manner which sheds life on both the man and his writing.
I have long liked McKay's work but knew very little beyond what I learned in various courses, which amounted to a very skeletal outline of his life and influences. While these shed some light on his literary output we were largely left to interpret and understand him with minimal context. This volume corrects that gap in my education and understanding.
This is a critical biography that focuses on his political and revolutionary changes as his experiences exposed him to new obstacles and communities, both welcoming and unwelcoming. While reading this I went back and reread a couple of his pieces and noticed so many more nuanced meanings than I had before.
While this will certainly appeal to anyone with an interest in literature and the Harlem Rennaissance, this will also satisfy most whose interest leans more toward political science and social/cultural history in general. McKay's life trajectory is exceptional, yet it also speaks to many of the intellectual trends of his day and into the present.
Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.