Biography, McKay's Jamaica Years, Further Continued

Although McKay was born more than fifty years after emancipation, both sides of his family had experienced slavery. McKay’s mother was descended from slaves from Madagascar. Thomas McKay would often reprimand his sons by reminding them that their grandfather had been a slave and “knew how cruel the white man could be. You boys don’t know anything” (Cooper, 4). His parents grew up during the tumultuous postemancipation period. His family history of slavery, as well as his parents’ personal experience of postemancipation and the new peasant class, helped to shape McKay’s poetry and prose work (Cooper, 9).
When McKay was eight, his mother sent him to live with his oldest brother, Uriah Theophilious (called U’Theo or U. Theo), a schoolteacher in the northwest of Jamaica (Tillery, 5). Although McKay himself gave conflicting accounts regarding how long he stayed with his brother, it is safe to estimate that he spent at least four years in his brother’s care (Cooper, 11). Under U’Theo’s tutelage, McKay found that he had a voracious appetite for literature. McKay notes, “These were…the indelible years of my first reading of anything…thrilling just for the thrill” (Cooper, 14). During this period, McKay was also educated by Walter Jekyll, an Englishman who compiled the first collection of Anansi stories, as well as other Jamaican folklore.

Jekyll’s Anansi collection

Jekyll was the first to acknowledge McKay’s talent with verse. Jekyll would later encourage McKay to write poetry in his native Jamaican dialect. He claimed that McKay had a “chance as a native boy [to] put the Jamaican…into literary language” (Maxwell, xiii).