Born on September 15, 1889 in Jamaica, Claude McKay was one of the leading voices during the Harlem Renaissance. An author of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, he won the Harmon Gold Award; Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen were among other recipients for the award. In his early 20s, he studied at the Tuskegee Institute and Kansas State University. From there, he traveled to Paris, Morocco, Russia, and the United Kingdom, amongst other places.
Appalled by widespread racism in the United States, he embraced his Jamaican heritage in his poems — most of which encapsulate the struggles of being black in racist America. In his poem “America,” McKay writes, “I love this cultured hell that tests my youths.” The importance of staying true to his black identity is captured in poems, like “I Know My Soul,” which powerfully ends with the namesake of the poem. Other poems by McKay, like “The White House,” explore the struggles of maintaining a black identity in a racist world, where embracing America, soured with racism, remains a difficulty, but also a duty: “Oh, I must keep my heart inviolate / Against the potent poison of your hate.”