The 1920s witnessed an extraordinary flowering of literary and artistic creativity among African Americans. Critics hailed the emergence of a "New Negro," who took pride in the black race and its African heritage, and whose writings exposed and attacked discrimination, explored black folk culture, and strove to create a unique African-American literature. Yet for all its vitality, the cultural movement best known as the Harlem Renaissance was fraught with tensions: between the ideal of Africa and the reality of America; between the lure of a romanticized rural past and the demands of an alien urban present; between the need to affirm the uniqueness of black culture and the desire to achieve acceptance by the majority white culture. Perhaps more than any other Harlem Renaissance figure, Claude McKay embodied these contradictory impulses.
The paradox of Claude McKay cannot be reduced to any simple formula. He was at once an enfant terrible who took pride in the Negro's cultural heritage and an intellectual who strove for acceptance in predominantly white circles. He was a radical intent on transforming his adopted county who nevertheless left the United States temporarily for the Soviet Union. Yet these tensions, as this book strives to show, cannot simply be ascribed to personal or psychological problems; ultimately, they were rooted in the ambiguous social and cultural position of the black artist and political radical of the early twentieth century.