Biography, McKay's Jamaica Years, Still Further Continued

Around age fourteen, McKay returned to his parents’ home and began to prepare for the exam to become an elementary school teacher. However, after receiving a scholarship for trade school, he moved to Browns Town to prepare for certification as a wheelwright. At eighteen, he returned home, disheartened and “convinced that he would never be any good at a trade” (Tillery, 6). Less than six months after his return home, his mother died. McKay wrote, “The only one I loved was gone” (Cooper, 26). Devastated by her death, McKay left for Kingston, where, after working in a match factory briefly, he joined Jamaica’s constabulary (Tillery, 7) in June of 1911 (Cooper, 29).

McKay in his constable’s uniform

The Jamaican constabulary was an island-wide police force. Men enlisted for five years and received military and civil instruction. The constables carried only batons and handcuffs, but could be issued handguns in an emergency situation. While working as a constable, McKay continued writing dialect poetry and visiting his mentor Jekyll. Cooper claims, “Although it was never explicitly stated, the evidence suggests that Jekyll was homosexual” (Cooper, 30). Evidence indicates that McKay’s primary orientation was homosexual, although he had sexual relations with women as well. Cooper posits, “A homoerotic component most likely underlay the relationship Claude developed with Jekyll” (Cooper, 30), while Tillery claims, “It is entirely possible that McKay’s feelings for Jekyll were simply those of a student for an admired mentor” (Tillery, 12).
McKay disliked the constabulary, and wrote a volume of dialect poetry titled Constab Ballads to express his feelings. He “respectfully and gratefully dedicated” this volume to Lieutenant-Coloneal A.E. Kershaw, the Inspector-General of the constabulary, and Inspector W.E. Clark, under whom McKay served (McKay, Constab Ballads, 6). With Jekyll’s help, he left the constabulary after serving only seventeen months (James, 45) and returned home to Clarendon parish in 1911 (Tillery, 8). His two volumes of dialect poetry, Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads, were both published in 1912 (Cooper, Preface to The Dialect Poetry of Claude McKay).

In the spring of 1912, McKay left Jamaica to study agronomy at Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, claiming “Jamaica was too small for high achievment” (Tillery, 19-20). Both Jekyll and McKay’s friend T.H. MacDermot were against this move. MacDermot warned, “Claude, we hate to see you go because you will be changed, terribly changed by America” (Cooper, 56).

A history class at Tuskegee in 1902

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