“Superhuman Power”: Claude McKay and the Black Immigrant Voice

Heralded as an early pioneer of the Harlem Renaissance, Claude McKay (1889-1948) is often included in the African American literary cannon. On the surface, his poetry, with its focus on issues of racism and exclusion, appears to fit neatly into this category. Recent scholarship, however, points to a need for situating McKay in a context of transnational migration to America. [1] Born and raised in rural Jamaica, McKay did not move to the United States until his twenties. As such, his poetry does not capture an African American voice, but rather that of a West Indian immigrant adapting to American conceptions of blackness. In this essay, I apply this voice to McKay’s poems “America” (1919) and “The White House” (1922). Reading these poems from the perspective of a black immigrant navigating new geopolitical and social divisions, I analyze how each poem’s speaker must compromise his sense of self in order to stay afloat in a new land. I propose that in writing about experiences applicable to both black immigrants and African Americans, McKay lays out a road map for mutual understanding between these diasporic communities.

When read from the perspective of a black immigrant, “America” quickly takes on a tone of disillusionment with the American Dream. The poem opens with a series of metaphors delineating the opportunity costs of coming to the United States. While the country “feeds” the Speaker, the food is “bread of bitterness.” Similarly, while America gives him opportunities, it also “sinks into [his] throat her tiger’s tooth, / stealing [his] breath of life.” The tiger, an African animal, is a significant symbol because — as opposed to an eagle or some other patriotic image — it reverses the stereotype of the savage black man. In this way, we are able to envision the subhuman pain inflicted upon the black immigrant’s body through the lens of the very animalistic image used to subjugate people of African descent.

Despite this, the Speaker “confesses” to “love this cultured hell that tests my youth.” For a Jamaican poet in the early 1900s, America, and specifically Harlem, was “cultured” because it provided black artists with opportunity and community. At the same time, intense racism made the country “hell.” Indeed, for many West Indian immigrants, coming from majority black countries, America’s racial climate and one-drop rule were quite challenging. Ramesh and Rani (2006) situate McKay within this pattern of immigration from the West Indies to Harlem:

“Coming from a socially ranked color class system, these nonwhite immigrants abhorred the prevalent brutal racism of the United States… Moreover, the cultural baggage they brought from the West Indies prevented them from assimilating into mainstream African American life. Priding themselves on being British citizens, these black West Indians affirmed that racism did not exist in their islands. Even McKay used to assert that no race problem existed in Jamaica. In a letter to James Weldon Johnson he remarked, ‘In my village, I grew up on equal terms with white, mulatto and black children of every race because my father was a big peasant and belonged. The difference on the island is economic, not social’” (66).

This historical note helps clarify the love-hate relationship with America that develops over the course of the poem, particularly as the Speaker navigates the dichotomy between the nation’s proclaimed ideals and its xenophobia and racism. McKay writes: “Her vigor flows like tides into my blood, / giving me strength to erect against her hate.” The blood imagery, reminiscent of the one-drop rule, suggests a process of Americanization: embodying America’s ideals of liberty and confronting its racialization in order to advocate for his existence in the country. In this way, America has given him the very tools to fight its hate. Moving forward, the Speaker clarifies this impulse, comparing himself to a “rebel” fronting “a king in state.” In other words, his presence in a country stacked up against him is anti-hegemonic by nature and constitutes a form of resistance. Alluding to national borders, he continues, “I stand within her walls with not a shred / Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.” Moving to a new country and standing within its “walls” without feeling fear suggests great strength and power. As such, an immigrant’s very impulse to survive is constructed as a radical act of rebellion.

The poem’s final lines indicate a shift in temporal focus as the Speaker considers his future. Looking “darkly” into the “days ahead,” the future appears bleak and nebulous. As he envisions “granite wonders” — perhaps monuments to the country’s “bigness” — slowly sinking into the ground, I am struck by the image of sand. Quicksand is a stealthy killer, which attacks from below, limits motion, and eventually cuts off air. The image of sinking monuments parallels the slow but daunting realization that the American Dream was a fiction. Calling the “granite wonders” “priceless treasures” is ironic. They were never constructed for immigrants or black people, but on their backs. As idealism fades with “Time’s unerring hand,” oppression grows obvious, and the need for rebellion augments.

Whereas “America” argues for the inherent fighting nature of black and West Indian immigrants in America, “White House” celebrates these immigrants’ strength in the face of hate. Like “America,” it deals with borders, but here they take the shape of a door “shut against” the Speaker’s “tightened face.” In other words: segregation. Despite the dehumanizing event of being shut out, the Speaker demonstrates incredible “courage and strength.” Rather than lashing out, he keeps his emotions internal. From a majority black country, he would not have experienced institutionalized segregation before coming to America. As such, his will is tested by the titular White House — which serves as both a symbol of segregation (a literal white-owned house) and a metonym for the American government. Despite this, the Speaker emerges the stronger person, expressing nothing but “discontent” at the hatred embodied by the closed door. It is not that the Speaker lacks the emotional capacity to express indignation, but rather that endurance in a foreign land is valued, even as the self is compromised. He does feel both “anger” and “passion” rending his “vitals.” However, he suppresses these emotions, holding them in his stomach. The burn of his feet on the “pavement slab” only serve to exacerbate this internal pain. We might imagine that writing the poem is his way of dealing with the injustice. In real life, he might be deemed “a chafing savage” on a “decent street.” But in the poem, we may question who is truly decent and savage — a role reversal that compliments the tiger image in “America”. In the poem, we may realize that only cruel people would build “glass” doors: social divisions segregating the oppressed, but also forcing them to observe inequality from a distance. Up against such cruelty, the black immigrant’s strength is a marvel.

Indeed, as the poem progresses, the Speaker argues that the perseverance of black immigrants indicates a certain “superhuman power” to follow the “letter of your law.” Like the rebel-within-borders in “America,” here the law-abiding immigrant is constructed as an evolved human: a reversal of eugenicist justifications for segregation and nativism, based in scientific theory that inferior non-Anglo-Saxons would corrupt white blood through intermixing. The black immigrant’s exceptional ability to stick to the law is corroborated by modern-day studies that show that immigrants commit fewer crimes than American-born citizens.[2] The phrase “letter of your law” — as opposed to “letter of the law” — highlights how segregation laws, immigration policies, and other discriminatory motions were not made with the consent of immigrants. [3] These laws truly belonged to the men in the titular White House (the white citizens of America). A non-citizen, the Speaker’s superhuman power similarly derives from his ability to exist in a country that does not represent him. This sentiment is echoed in the poem’s final lines: “Oh, I must keep my heart inviolate / Against the potent poison of your hate.” Another reversal of eugenicist notions, white hate — rather than non-whiteness — is deemed poisonous and corrupting. The only way for a black immigrant to survive, therefore, is to protect himself from spiritual damage.

Viewing these two poems in conjunction, I see them as highly related. “America” teaches about the importance of black immigrant resistance, whereas “White House” argues for the power of self-protection. Though a Jamaican immigrant, McKay was certainly aware of the resonances these lessons had with African Americans. Knowing his New York audience, he consciously wrote about his experiences as an immigrant in ways digestible to American black society. I believe this was a way of arguing for pan-African alliances. After all, West Indians and African Americans in Harlem had a common history of slavery and northward migration. Though their citizenship status was different, they were both the victims of white American hate. This is an alliance that McKay himself would seek to form, as he became involved in the African Blood Brotherhood, as well as communist and workers’ groups. In these poems, he uses the black West Indian voice as a stand-in for a greater experience, an early symbol of Negritude. This writing, therefore, is an attempt to light a fire under collective organization, to instigate mutual support, and to celebrate a diasporic people’s superhuman powers.

[1] See: Kotti Sree Rameesh and Kandula Nirupa Rani. Claude McKay: The Literary Identity from Jamaica to Harlem and Beyond. Jefferson, NC and London: McFarland & Company, Inc. 2006.

2] For more on this: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/26/us/trump-illegal-immigrants-crime.html?_r=0

[3] It is important to note that these poems were published in 1919. McKay would not become a citizen until the 1940s, just a few years before his death.

Claude McKay:The Power and Duality in his Poetry

The Harlem Renaissance was a period when African-American writers, artists expressed and articulated themselves through their writing and art. It was a remarkable era, as for the first time in history, African-American writers and poets were popularly accredited in America. While many of the writers of the Harlem Renaissance were born and raised in the U.S., McKay, of Jamaican origin, was slanted differently vis-à-vis his viewpoint. His poems ‘America’ and ‘If We Must Die’ explored the intricate and unique connection African Americans had with their ethnicity. His poems chanted America with words that mixed love and hate, pain and pleasure, contempt and veneration. He viewed America impassionately with all its virtues and vices because he had chosen America as his home. By probing ‘America’ and ‘If We Must Die’, one discovers how McKay builds upon Du Bois’ concept of “Double consciousness” which is shown through his adoration and frustration for America in the former poem and repulsion in the latter, ergo giving a voice to Black Americans to discuss the subtle and overt identity conflict and racism.

Respect and revulsion are two of the most overwhelming emotions that can be experienced. Outwardly, these sentiments appear dissimilar as they are polar contraries but diving in the depths produces some evocative similarities. In the poem “America”, the reader is treated to the manifestation of both of these emotions in a poem replete with provoking opposition and weighty statements about society. Prior to McKay’s ‘America’ and ‘If We Must Die’, another prominent Harlem Renaissance writer, W.E.B. Du Bois, wrote about the ‘two-ness’ or ‘Double Consciousness’ of African Americans. “Double consciousness can be defined as “the conscious splitting of the inner self in an attempt to create a character that would be accepted into mainstream society” (Du Bois, 3). The concept explains how African Americans are wedged between being Black and being American. This was a crucial issue in countless Harlem Renaissance writings as the writers grappled with being part of a country that celebrated liberty, and at the same time being constrained by the African ethnic identity.

The essay focuses on ‘America’ and ‘If We Must Die’ out of the all the poems from McKay’s treasure chest of anthologies because the above two poems perfectly and precisely delivered what it was to be Black in America. The unusual ardor and emotion in the poems makes them stand out. McKay was distinctive as he was the first Harlem Renaissance writer to express the spirit of the New Negro. The “New Negro” is a term propagated during the Harlem Renaissance suggesting a more candid promotion of self-respect and a refusal to submit peacefully to the practices and laws of Jim Crow racial discrimination. The term “New Negro” was made popular by Alain LeRoy Locke. McKay seems to be obeying conventional, ‘white’ ideas of poetry by writing a Shakespearean sonnet. “He believed Western societies were far more advanced than those in Africa and that in certain ways black men brought to the West were fortunate; moreover, he thought of himself as a child of the western civilization.” (Hansell 1) But the fact that the poem itself is about Black identity issues proves that he is in an identity crisis just like most other African-Americans. Many poets before and after McKay have talked about the theory of ‘Double consciousness’, but most of them have aspired and referred to the co-existence of both African and American cultures.

However, unlike them, McKay vehemently believed that the two identities were irreconcilable and there was no way a person could live with two very contrasting principles. For example, in “I, Too”, Hughes, another Harlem Renaissance poet, foresees a black poet being a part of an American ‘family’ and says, “Tomorrow, / I’ll be at the table / When company comes. / … Besides, / They’ll see how beautiful I am / And be ashamed / I, too, am America.” (8-18). In “Theme for English B”, Hughes says, “You are white– / yet a part of me, as I am a part of you. / That’s American.” (31-33). We can observe from the above stanzas that Hughes is far more concerned about making Blacks a part of America, unlike McKay who always finds himself as an outsider and thus never attempts to merge his dual identity.

Many poets in the Harlem Renaissance movement were born in America but since McKay was born in Jamaica, he approached the concept from an international perspective and was more critical to the experiences of spoken and unspoken “apartheid” in America. It is also interesting that “McKay did not learn protest by being the victim of American racism. Before he had come to the United States he had protested against injustice, the cruelty of man, the misunderstandings that ignorance could engender, and the evils of deprivation. For the general disharmonies, he blamed fate; for specific evils, he put the primary responsibility on individuals.” (Hansell 139) Therefore, unlike many poets, McKay did not completely blame the Americans his or his community’s misery. McKay’s writings are often termed separatist in nature as they were significantly influenced by his non-American stature. ‘America’ is a sonnet composed of triple quatrains and a couplet composed in iambic pentameter. The poem sees the speaker constantly oscillate between his concentrated feelings of positivity and negativity that he has for America.

The dichotomy of dual emotions in the poem mirrors the attitude of the African-American citizen during the time the sonnet was published. In the poem, America is personified and addressed as an entity with whom the speaker seems to have a bitter-sweet relationship. In the first stanza, McKay vents his contempt for America and the way it has treated him; however, he also expresses his reliance on the country. When McKay says “Although she feeds me bread of bitterness” (1), the ambiguous speaker is telling that he or she relies on America for his or her sustenance as a newborn depends on his mother. The receptive reader gauges the fact that America provides for the speaker, though the food being fed is unpleasant and upsetting. This statement approaches the buried emotions experienced by the Black Americans regarding their limited rights in the South. The blacks were given pseudo-equal rights, as the rights were limited to only a minuscule part of the Black population who matched unrealistic expectations both financially and socially. This led to deep-rooted hostility among African Americans. The speaker fervently felt that America was a parasite that sapped the life out of his body and it is clearly supported by the lines, “sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth, / Stealing my breath of life, I will confess” (2-3). This is another scathing remark on the unjust treatment of blacks that shattered the pride and soul of the people. The speaker makes a controversial move and says- “I must confess, / I love this cultured hell that tests my youth!” (3-4) which is quite contradictory to the anguish with which the poem opened.

The dyad element is evident in transition of both the tonality and the confession made by the speaker, and it clearly relays to Du Bois’ theory of Double Consciousness. In the following lines, the speaker uses the phrase “cultured hell” (4) an oxymoron. The speaker lets his guard down and unabashedly confesses enjoying the grime that exists in American culture. He suddenly presents America as a guilty pleasure and he is no longer averse to admitting it. He thus makes a potent example of the dichotomy that exists throughout the piece and in the minds of many African-Americans who are in a love-hate relationship with America. It seems as if McKay relishes the challenges, both physical and intellectual, that American society presented to him during this time period.

McKay, the poet, too seems to savor the trials that society hits him with during that period, and that is clearly reflected in his writing and poetry. The second stanza starts off on a more positive note and is strongly suggestive of the optimistic feelings the speaker has for America. “Her vigor flows like tides into my blood, / Giving me strength erect against her hate” (5-6). This line is one of the most powerful lines in the poem evocative as it is of the tactic imagery which the reader senses as they convey the speaker’s passion purely fueled by the nascence of America. While the speaker is boldly proclaiming that America is the source of his strength, he is rebelling against the provider of that very strength and using it to stand up against the racial hate that was prevalent during this time period in America. Although the speaker is fervently against the racism in America, he feels that he is just a drop in the ocean of the struggle for equality which is clearly echoed by the line- “Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood” (7). His feelings are relatable because often we fear losing our individuality and identity, we fear facing the masses as they approach us like a deluge. The speaker feels the same way as he communicates the ineffectiveness of one person combating the bigoted history of a nation unaccompanied. However, he is brave enough to take a solid stand and express his views as candidly as possible through his work. A rebel in a king’s presence is sure to see his doom. The speaker talks about the prospect of standing in front of a king like a rebel and awaiting censure and penalty. He compares standing in front of the rigid racism to the above and says, “Yet as a rebel fronts a king of state, / I stand with her walls with not a shred / Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer” (8-10). Interestingly, here, it is the reaction from the “king” that breaks down the expected barrier within the interaction between the two parties. He does not raid, nor does he express malice to the unknown standing in his court. The rebel stands tall and mighty before the king within his fortifications because he is sheltered by law.

McKay gives us an interesting metaphor to convey the true variance of the American system and the reality that existed within America at the time. The speaker like many Africans lived in the gray- the constant tussle of being White or Black. America is the source of his strength, but it also is the cause of his angst and frustration. Like many African Americans, the speaker desires to be true to his cultural roots in Africa, but America is home though the feeling of alienation haunts him. This expression resonates the concept of ‘Dual Consciousness’ explained by W.E.B. Du Bois and echoes what every Africa-American experiences. The poem settles on a melancholy note as the speaker foretells what lies ahead for America- “Darkly I gaze into the days ahead, / And see her might and granite wonders there, / Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand, / Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand” (11-14). Conventionally in the United States, in order to pay homage to a noteworthy citizen, or a significant event, a stone memorial is erected for posterity to commemorate the feats of those who have gone before.

In this passage, the speaker is examining the statues that remind people of America’s inspiring history. The speaker then foretells that America shall eventually wilt in memory with the passage of time. The speaker ingeniously uses the phrase “sinking in the sand” (14) which leads the reader to believe that the speaker knows of America’s brevity similar to most civilizations that ebbed into the sands of inconsequence over time. The robust use of metaphor and duplicity in the poem gives it a forceful slant. The stark dualism that McKay delivers is the sole purpose behind the prose. The points build a strong nexus with all those African-Americans who felt so during the 20th century and it urges them to acknowledge this feeling and allow it to empower them instead of making them feel demoted. The chaotic yelp that McKay releases from the lines of this poem are the reverberations of a group wedged between true parity and false hope. From diving deep into the depths of the speaker’s emotional and confused mind in ‘America’, the reader almost feels throttled by the tonality of ‘If We Must Die’ and the militant message it tries to disseminate. Although McKay denied referring specifically to the Blacks and the Whites in the poem, the fact that it was penned following the “Red Summer” of 1919 when the anti-black riots broke out, makes the sonnet reverberate the despair of the Africa-Americans during that time. “The persona calls black men in America to arm against racial oppression and lynching.

He further goes on to urges them to defy all sinister forces and meet violence with violence in ascertaining their ethical dignity in their struggle for social, economic and political emancipation regardless of all odds.” (Adewumi and Bolawale 17) McKay uses a derisive tone throughout the poem, quite contrary to the one used in ‘America’ and seems to cross the fence from devotion to anguish. The speaker aims at empowering Black Americans and emphasizes the significance of an honorable death. The existence and dreadful death of African Americans is pertinently equated to the rearing and nurturing of a hog only to be slaughtered. The rhetoric used here hits the nail on the head as it makes a powerful impact. Hogs are gelded male pigs and the reference indicates that Black people were rendered helpless and had to die without a choice. “hunted and penned in an inglorious spot” (McKay 2), goes on to show the aspect of being trapped in a pen; just as pigs. The revolting contrast is intentional as McKay wants the gravitas of the troubles to cement firmly into the minds of his people. He wants the readers to get affected so that their conscience can comprehend what his people were then undergoing.

McKay is strongly connected to the African-Americans in this poem and he directly addresses them. This poem is to all those who are subjugated, specifically the Blacks, and they are the people referred to in this poem. The speaker implores his people to passionately resist all those who murder them by saying, “If we must die, O let us nobly die, so that our precious blood may not be shed in vain.” (McKay 5-7). He wants them to forget the notion of being moral through non-violence and shows them nobility in purposeful death. The opening line “If we must die” is supposed to incite the rebels to act irrespective of the consequences and is conveyed in the line, “then even the monsters we defy shall be constrained to honor us though dead.” (McKay 7-8). It is interesting to note the contrast in the speaker’s mind as on one hand he gives them hope, but on the other hand, he tells them that death is impending and inevitable. The duality and uncertainty are explained by the conditional clause “if” in the poem.

McKay strains on mortality throughout the poem and seems preoccupied with the manner of death rather than the time of death. The setting of the poem is one of a brewing war and McKay urges his people to stay united and fight for their honor regardless of the outcome. He says, “O Kinsmen! We must meet the common foe! Though far outnumbered let us show us brave.” (8-9) and warns them they might be digging their own grave but courage is more important than victory. He urges them to never give up-“Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back.” It can be strongly argued that the poem addresses only men in the society as the imagery and tone used in the poem are masculine for example, “Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack.” (McKay 13). The poem seems to say that that the act of rebellion is associated with men and masculine visual imagery is used to enforce acts of warfare and hunting. The assertion of an honorable fight brings the distinction between cowards and real men in the concluding line of the poem and it intends to give a voice to African Americans and instill in them that they deserve an honorable death. McKay wants his people to deliver the ultimate death blow knowing that they might not survive and he wants them to know that death under oppression for liberty makes it all the more honorable.

The theme of nobility and honor is summed up by the line, “shall be constrained to honor us though dead!” Dogs represent the enemy in this poem and the image of vicious and hungry dogs creates fear among the readers. The poem, like many of McKay’s poems, ends on a blue and dual note. He calls the enemy a cowardly pack but at the same time tells his people bluntly to fight back knowing that death might be imminent–“pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!” Brevity is emphasized and conveyed by McKay and leaves the readers with hope that the death of his people shall bear fruits for posterity in the form of true equality and humanity.

The impact of the poem was significant and astonishing to even McKay himself. “If We Must Die” became, as Joel Rogers put it in 1927, really the “Marsellaise of the American Negro.” (James 17) A generation later, Melvin Tolson, the distinguished Afro-American poet, similarly noted that the poem was the anthem and McKay a symbol of the militant New Negro in the aftermath of the First World War and not just in the United States. “Indeed, “If We Must Die” is not only one of the most famous poems ever written by one of Africa’s children; the poem also became the rallying cry of oppressed peoples of all colors, all over the world.” (James 17) The reason for the fame can be attributed to both the poem and the poet’s state of mind. Both McKay and his poems were inflicted with a dual conscience. We see a burning passion and reverence for America in the poem of the same name and we also see the speaker’s desolation. In ‘If We Must Die’, the poet out rightly criticizes the Whites by calling them the “enemy” and entreats his people to retaliate. Thus, McKay’s dual conscience is evident. The fact that the name of the country is the title of the poem in “America” proves that it was in many ways a tribute to the land of dreams. McKay viewed America with a utopian lens but found vices in the system. Both his poems harp on the concept of brevity. “America” talks about the end of a great civilization and “If We Must Die” talks about the brevity of the African-Americans who shall wage a war against the “common foe”. McKay, as a poet lives in the gray and has two folded emotions for America, because, the poem “America” was written in 1921 and “If We Must Die” was written three years before in 1919. We can then say that McKay underwent a change of heart in those three years and unabashedly started to state both the virtues and vices of the country instead of just abhorring it. Through “America” and “If We Must Die”, McKay successfully conveyed the that there can be two sides to every emotion and it is acceptable to not align with either. By juxtaposing love and hate, McKay created a nexus with the African-American Community and found acclaim and recognition. In his prose, McKay emphasized the significance of the common Negro and brought together Negro Renaissance writers for the awakening of Negro traditional culture. But it is for his poetry that McKay will be most considered. For in his poetry, he best articulated the New Negro’s resolve to defend his self-respect, ethnic value, and his right to a worthy life.

Works Cited

Du Bois, W.E.B. 1903. e Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches. Chicago: A.C. McClurn & CO. Print.

Hansell, William H. “Some Themes in the Jamaican Poetry of Claude McKay.” Phylon (1960-), vol. 40, no. 2, 1979, pp. 123–139.

Adewumi, Samuel I., and Moses B. Kayode. “Thematic Trends in Claude Mckay’s Selected Poems of the Harlem Era.” International Journal of Education & Literacy Studies, vol. 2, no. 2, 2014., pp. 15-19.

Gates, Henry L., and Valerie Smith. The Norton Anthology of African American literature. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014. Print.

Winston, James. “Becoming the People’s Poet: Claude McKay’s Jamaican Years, 1889-1912.” Small Axe, no. 13, 2003., Web. Accessed 22 October 2016

Cooper, Wayne. “Claude McKay and the New Negro of the 1920’s” Modern American Poetry of University of Illinois. Web. Accessed October 22 2016

Critical Reading: “The Harlem Dancer” and Her Storm

Claude McKay’s “The Harlem Dancer” is a poem immersed in the rich cultural aesthetic of a cultural renaissance that is unable to conceal its somber song of oppression, even in an atmosphere trying relentlessly to exorcise those sour notes. The infected atmosphere in question is a Harlem nightclub, in which a beautiful, black female dances away her hardships as “laughing youths,” “prostitutes,” and the speaker watch. Using the speaker’s unique perspective, and the strict sonnet form, McKay illuminates both the beauty of resilience and degradation of the African American “self” perpetuated by racial oppression.

Initially, a division is drawn between the speaker and the rest of the audience because of a difference in race and perhaps morality. Critic Beth Palatnik agrees, stating that the speaker “identifies himself and the dancer with blackness” (Palatnik). According to her analysis, the speaker assumes a position of moral superiority over the rest of the audience that sexualizes the dancer’s “half clothed body” (McKay 2). She notes that the speaker is more preoccupied with the woman’s “swaying palm” than he seems to be with her scantily clad figure.

Though Palatnik seems to believe that this evidence alone proves the speaker’s moral superiority, the speaker is nevertheless an audience member himself in the nightclub, watching this sexualized dance. Therefore, it seems hypocritical to suggest that he is morally superior to those around him who are watching the same show. However, perhaps the difference involves not what the speaker sees, but what the audience does not see during the performance. The other audience members are described as “laughing,” “eager,” and “passionate”; diction that alludes to their unburdened enjoyment of the performance. The speaker is separate from these “boys” and “girls,” and the slow, deliberate meter of this sonnet, antithetical to the raucous atmosphere of the nightclub, allows the reader to infer that the speaker is a more reserved and thoughtful presence. Critic Eugenia W. Collier confirms that the “slow, measured, dignity of the sonnet” form, contrasts with the “wild world” of Harlem (Collier). The speaker’s demeanor contrasts with those around him just as the structure of this poem contrasts with its setting. Maybe, as Palatnik suggests, his behavior is derived from his repudiation of the audience-projected eroticism, which she labels as “cultural rape”or maybe, as Collier speculates, he behaves differently because of the age disparity between him and the other audience members (Palatnik). Yet, it is a third explanation that best defends the critical assertion that the speaker of this poem is morally superior to those around him. In the ending heroic couplet following this sonnet’s volta, the reader learns that the speaker sees the dancer’s “self” as well as her body, creating a psychological connection rather than just a corporeal fascination. The audience and the speaker are both voyeurs, enjoying the aesthetic pleasure of watching the dancer, but unlike the audience the speaker sees the dancer as a fully actualized being, spiritually separated from her body and gender, if not race. The speaker sees her as a person as well as the attractive subject of his voyeurism, particularly a person similar to himself because of their shared ethnicity. He recognizes the intersection of beauty and pain that both define her humanity and, as the speaker implies, the African-American race.

Using the dancer as an archetype, the speaker and poet illuminate the codependence of beauty and adversity in relation to the African-American woman, and the black community in general. In accordance with the philosophy of this poem, adversity begets beauty and this is emphasized through McKay’s use of a storm as an extended metaphor for the hardships faced by the black population through the course of American history. The poem states that the dancer had “grown lovelier for passing through a storm” (McKay 8). Palatnik is correct in her assertion that this storm is a metaphorical storm of racial oppression, supported with the emphasis on race in this poem and exemplified in the euphonic phrase “blown by black players,” the description of the dancer’s neck as “swarthy”, as well as through McKay’s other works that focus on race (ie: “Mulatto”). Critic Cary Nelson argues that the dancer’s beauty and pride, epitomized through her graceful movements and “proudly swaying palm,” represent the gains black people had made from overcoming adversity (McKay 5-7). Still, while the dancer may seem beautiful and triumphant, the description of her as “falsely-smiling” in the final heroic couplet implies that the resilient “self” that she projects to the audience may be as much of a performance as her dance.

Although analysis of the speaker establishes his recognition of the dancer’s “self,” further examination of the last phrases of this poem suggests that what the speaker is seeing is not the “self” but the absence of the “self,” resulting from the dancer’s continued experience of racial subjugation. The speaker states that he knew the dancer’s “self” was not in the “strange place” of the nightclub. This line contains two metrical deviations from standard iambic pentameter; a pyrrhic followed by a spondee that emphasize the words “strange place”. This spondee’s function is to separate “strange place” from the rest of the line, creating a division between itself and the word “self” and therefore a thematic separation of the dancer’s internal self from her external environment. This tactic conveys that the dancer has overcome adversity through adaptation, protecting the “self” through separating it from her body, which exists in an environment of racial oppression and sexual exploitation.

The music playing in the Harlem nightclub fades with a final somber note. Though triumph is found at the beginning of this poem, it is only a triumph of adaptation. In this poem, McKay insinuates that the oppressive conditions African Americans endured for centuries still persist into his current era and that any projected contentment on the community’s behalf is as much a facade as the dancer’s “falsely-smiling” face.

Double Consciousness and the Harlem Renaissance

In W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk, he introduces two concepts which are key to understanding what life is like for the modern Black American. These concepts are: Double Consciousness, and the Veil. These two concepts are intrinsically linked; to understand Double Consciousness requires understanding the Veil, and vice-versa. Double Consciousness refers to the idea that Black Americans live in two separate Americas: white America— where they are forced to behave according to the social protocol of white America and where they must live up to the expectations non-Black Americans have for Black Americans— and Black America, where there is an entirely distinct protocol. “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness,” writes DuBois. “This sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” (Souls of Black Folk 885) The Veil represents the cause and effect of Double Consciousness. In his essay, “The Veil of Self-Consciousness”, DuBois says: “Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil” (“Veil” 1). The Veil is a tangible representation of three intangible concepts, which are: the inability of white people to see past their assumptions about Black people; the inability of Black people to see themselves outside of the stereotypes and assumptions being made about them by white people; and the inability of white and Black people to ever fully connect and work in solidarity, or see one another as equals.

This idea is also explored— although through a different metaphor— in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem, “We Wear the Mask.” In this poem, Dunbar specifically addresses the internal struggle of a Black American working within non-Black (specifically white) America. “Why should the world be overwise, / In counting all our tears and sighs? / Nay, let them only see us, while / We wear the mask” (1033). In this stanza, Dunbar tells the reader that the veil can be used in the Black American’s favor. This stanza begs the question: why let the cries of the oppressed fall upon ears which are intentionally covered? In Dunbar’s opinion, no good comes from expressing to white people those same things that can be expressed among other Black people. Instead, Dunbar chooses to use the Veil to his advantage. To consciously shift his consciousness to that which white America expects so that his own true consciousness may remain safe underneath.

Not all Black authors, however, agree that living a life behind a mask is ideal. In his poem, “If We Must Die,” Claude McKay directly rails against the concept of shifting his consciousness within white spheres, as a Black man, to better fit in with white society. The poem, “If We Must Die” thematically tells the reader that it is better to die for living genuinely— with dignity— than to assimilate into white culture and die anyway, stripped of dignity. “If we must die, let it not be like hogs / Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot, / While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs, / Making their mock at our accursed lot. / If we must die—oh, let us nobly die, / So that our precious blood may not be shed / In vain; then even the monsters we defy / Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!” (483). McKay, through this poem, maintains the binary of oppressor vs. oppressed (in this case, white vs. Black), but McKay’s concept differs from DuBois’ concept of Double Consciousness because he argues: while this binary does exist— and the Black man must be aware that it does— it is more ideal for a Black man to fully embrace the Black side of his consciousness and band together in solidarity with his Black community to overcome their oppressor: “Oh, Kinsmen! We must meet the common foe; / Though far outnumbered, let us show us brave, / And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow! / What though before us lies the open grave? / Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack, / Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!” (483). He suggests that meekly observing the white ideal of what a Black man must be in order to survive, the Black community ought not sell themselves short because they are fewer in numbers than the white majority, but ought to fight for their right to claim their Black identity.

With this ideal, McKay launched the Harlem Renaissance, inspiring his peers such as Langston Hughes. Like McKay, Hughes writes of the beauty of his Black community, and cautions against allowing oneself to be split into a Double Consciousness, instead valuing the Black man who embraces his Black self and community. Hughes starts his manifesto, The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, by saying: “One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, ‘I want to be a poet–not a Negro poet,’ meaning, I believe, ‘I want to write like a white poet’; meaning subconsciously, ‘I would like to be a white poet’; meaning behind that, ‘I would like to be white.’ And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself. And I doubted then that, with his desire to run away spiritually from his race, this boy would ever be a great poet. But this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America–this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible” (348). Hughes argues that a Black person can never create art that is true to themself unless they embrace their Blackness. Hughes interprets the veil between white people and Black people as a mountain; something to be overcome. This, like the writings of McKay, is in direct opposition with DuBois’ idea that surviving in America requires better assimilating with white culture; or, rather, posits that just surviving is not enough. To thrive in America, to create art, requires doing away with having two separate consciousnesses and, instead, embracing one’s consciousness in its entirety— Blackness and all.

Hughes does not think DuBois was wrong in his writings, per se— in fact, Hughes calls DuBois’ writings “the finest prose written by a Negro in America.” But there is a time for meeting the oppressor where they are at and, for Hughes and his contemporaries in the Harlem Renaissance movement, that time is over. “…within the next decade,” writes Hughes, “I expect to see the work of a growing school of colored artists who paint and model the beauty of dark faces and create with new technique the expressions of their own soul-world. And the Negro dancers who will dance like flame and the singers who will continue to carry our songs to all who listen-they will be with us in even greater numbers tomorrow” (349). For Hughes, the way to dismantle the systematic oppression of Black people is through art. He works towards this goal in his poetry specifically by honoring the musical traditions of the Black community. “Most of my own poems are racial in theme and treatment, derived from the life I know. In many of them I try to grasp and hold some of the meanings and rhythms of jazz. I am as sincere as I know how to be in these poems […] Jazz to me is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America; the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul–the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains, and work, work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile” (349).

At this early point in the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes’ work created a spark of controversy in the Black community of the time, who prescribed to the writings of DuBois and were ashamed of their Blackness. “The old subconscious ‘white is best’ runs through her mind. Years of study under white teachers, a lifetime of white books, pictures, and papers, and white manners, morals, and Puritan standards made her dislike the spirituals. And now she turns up her nose at jazz and all its manifestations–likewise almost everything else distinctly racial. […] She wants the artist to flatter her, to make the white world believe that all negroes are as smug and as near white in soul as she wants to be” (349). The mindset, at the time, was to dispose entirely of the Black side of consciousness and to fully embrace and live with the consciousness that is closest to white; most acceptable to white society. Hughes, however, believed the opposite. He believed Black people should express themselves truly through art and should be able to see themselves, free of flattery, free of wishing to be white; resplendent in their Blackness. “But, to my mind, it is the duty of the younger Negro artist, if he accepts any duties at all from outsiders, to change through the force of his art that old whispering ‘I want to be white,’ hidden in the aspirations of his people, to ‘Why should I want to be white? I am a Negro–and beautiful’” (349). This ideology— that art should express what being Black truly means, and that it is beautiful— runs at the core of the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes’ manifesto was a call to action, and Hughes himself inspired the Black artists who caused the Harlem Renaissance to thrive.

While DuBois made great strides for Black liberation by naming the existing facts of life as a Black man in white America— namely, the idea that two modes of consciousness are necessary to survive in a world where Black people are separated from their white oppressor by a thick veil of prejudice— his theories alone were not enough to set his Black contemporaries on the path towards liberation. Like Dunbar, DuBois cautioned that it is better— safer— to hide behind a mask of what white people want a Black person to look like. McKay and Hughes knew the truths within DuBois’ theories to be true, but argued that safety was no longer the prime directive. They made great strides in shedding light on the oppression facing Black people in America, and did so by making the point that Double Consciousness and the veil must become things of the past. The Harlem Renaissance was a re-writing of DuBois’ theories and a re-writing of the fate of Black Americans. “We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the [racial] mountain, free within ourselves” (Hughes 350). Now— say McKay and Hughes— now is the time for the beauty of Blackness to shine through that thick veil. Now is the time for Black Americans to be seen for that which they truly are: beautiful.

Works Cited

DuBois, W.E.B. “The ‘Veil’ of Self-Consciousness.” Atlantic 80.478 (1897): 194-98. Print.

DuBois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. American Literature, 8th Edition. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012. 885-901. Print. Vol. C of The Norton Anthology.

Dunbar, Paul Laurence. “We Wear the Mask”. 1897. American Literature, 8th Edition. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012. 1033. Print. Vol. C of The Norton Anthology.

Hughes, Langston. The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain. 1926. American Literature, 8th Edition. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012. 348-350. Print. Vol. D of The Norton Anthology.

McKay, Claude. “If We Must Die”. 1919. American Literature, 8th Edition. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012. 483. Print. Vol. D of The Norton Anthology.

Poetry Analysis Essay: Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die”

Poetry Analysis Essay: Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die” In the poem,

“If We Must Die” written by Claude McKay, the author was inspired to compose this piece of writing because of the brutality and race riots against the African American society that the United States experienced in 1919. The author came over from Jamaica in 1912 and eventually became part of the Harlem Renaissance along with other African American writers that developed their ideas together and this was the first time this was very popular in America. Mckay had a different standpoint on our country because he was born in a different country and settled on America being his home. He was able to catch sight of the vigorous and shoddy facets of America. This poet inspired other black poets to communicate about their experiences and encounterments with racism in their poems. As you read on, I’ll give a more capacious explanation of the meaning of this poem and some techniques used to make it more captivating.

As there could be many interpretations of what “If We Must Die”means, a person really would not understand if they didn’t take the time to read and dissect the poem. As said before in the analysis, McKay composed this poem during the Harlem Renaissance era when black poets would share their experiences with racism through poetry. This means that McKay constructed this poem most likely because of something he was enduring or witnessed during this time. What I elucidated from the title was a feeling of hope for African Americans. McKay wants the black community to stand up and fight back for equality in every aspect of life and to live comfortably in America. At first, the title seemed as though it was a wake up call for blacks and he was trying to motivate us to die for a cause or with meaning and that he wanted us to contribute to the black’s history before we leave the earth so others would remember us and maybe even the enemy will honor our death. On the other hand, he could not necessarily be trying to warn blacks about being killed but to apprise us to not let our voices be silenced any longer.

Having a voice is formidable and can have an immense impact on other people and can also be the deciding factor of your level of success. McKay detected its influence on people and has mastered the power of voice through poetry and wants to inspire African Americans to use theirs to make a change in America. The structure of poems is the way it is written in a sense to make it flow better. The rhyme scheme of this poem is ABABCDCDEFEFGG and it uses many characteristics of the Shakespearean Sonnet. McKay used casual language for the most part because he is mostly directing this to younger African Americans since we will be in control in the future. This particular piece of writing would be considered lyric poetry because the author is expressing his personal feelings about oppression against African Americans. Lyrical poems typically does not have to rhyme but in this case it does. The author uses words to express his state of mind and his perceptions. In the opening lines of the writing, it says “If we must die, let it not be like hogs”. He is making a connection with blacks and hogs to advise us not to be like this. He does not want us to squeal in fear and just stand still while the whites are trying do away with us. Additionally he feels like he is being ambushed and oppressed by the whites when he states, “While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs” in line 3 of the poem. The speaker also says, “Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack”, in line 13. McKay feels as though the white men are murderous and cowardly. If he calls the whites cowards, then he must feel lionhearted and that is what he is trying to get the blacks to attain from this. In summary, the author used these statements to express the long standing situation of the whites encumbering the blacks and their attempt to shut us up for good and he is not willing to let that continue on. Further into the poem, it is self-evident that the speaker in “If We Must Die” is a man that is trying to escape from someone or something. In the first line the speaker says, “If we must die, let it not be like hogs Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot, While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs”. This hints at a problem or a group of people that the speaker is trying to flee from and the oppression the speaker is up against is becoming too much to withstand. He compares the blacks to hogs because they were viewed as a disgust and that is how the whites viewed us. In the poem, he isn’t alone judging by the use of the word “we” being used in the poem several times. He wants his followers and the reader to be aware of what is taking place. In line 10 the speaker says, “Though far outnumbered let us show us brave”. He is referring to the many whites in this statement and that the blacks are outnumbered but we still shouldn’t be afraid. In short, the speaker knows that the blacks are outnumbered but he does not feel like that is a reason to not fight back for what we believe in or not to want a change for the better.

Throughout the poem, the author uses techniques of languages to project meaning. McKay’s skilled use of these devices generated clarity and opulence in the writing for the readers to better understand and engage. In line 3, the author describes the adversary as “mad and hungry dogs”. This is an example of a metaphor because he is comparing the whites to vicious dogs without directly saying that. This sends a memo that the whites are deranged and diabolical beings that are less than human. Now that he has put the picture of the whites because vicious and crazed, he tries to lessen that or make them less chilling. In line 10, the speaker says “O kinsmen! We must meet the common foe”. He is now comparing Caucasians to the common enemy and this gives a sense of hope for African Americans because they really aren’t as scary and monstrous as we first pictured. Maybe viewing them as the ordinary enemy, will make the blacks fight harder and have confidence while doing so. Some Christian imagery is also apparent in this writing. When the speaker says “If we must die, O let us nobly die, So that our precious blood may not be shed in vain” in lines 5 and 6. He wants us to die with purpose if we must die. In the bible it speaks about humans being put on Earth for a reason and carrying out the plan that God has for us. This brings to mind the image of Jesus being hung on the cross. He died for our sins and for us to live and that was the purpose that he served before he was killed. This use of language helps us understand how the two races viewed each other then and now.

The overall tone (mood) of “If We Must Die” is fearlessness and acceptance. Towards the start of the writing, McKay paints an image of the whites trying to corner African Americans so we have no place to run. He stresses to the black community, that this is not how we should go out. Towards the median of the poem, he describes the whites with further detail. He tells the reader that they are wicked and unfair and that he is aware that we are outnumbered. McKay also wants us to accept death but wants us to put up a fight so that there would be a struggle. Towards the conclusion of the poem, he tells the reader that the whites are cowards and paints a less scarier picture of them which makes effortless for us to be brave. Once we see that they are not half as horrible as we once thought, this makes us lose all of the fear that we once had. It’s almost like a child that has a fear of monsters. Once the child turn their light on and look under the bed or in the closet and see nothing, it is easier for them to sleep. These details used can contribute to the overall theme of this poem which would be, “Fight back so that one dies with honor, even when one is outnumbered”. The unemployment crisis and police brutality during the Harlem Renaissance, made life extremely hard for Africans Americans to live comfortably in the U.S. Blacks were killed and treated unfairly but this is an ongoing conflict. We still have racism today and prejudiced treatment, not only towards blacks but other races also. Poets like Claude McKay, share their disdain for racism and the stupidity of the racist. The message he is trying to send to the reader is apparent in his writings. McKay is encouraging the African American race to make use of their 1st amendment rights to fight for a greater cause before the Caucasian race completely take over and dominate America, in short.

Patriotism and Criticism Combined: A Close Reading of “America”

Claude McKay, a now-celebrated poet who was active during the Harlem Renaissance, was often seen as a literary voice for social justice for African Americans. One of his most famous poems, known for describing his mixed feelings regarding America and American social norms, is “America.” Through the usage of personification, imagery, similes, and metaphors, McKay combines the literal meaning of his poem with his title “America” to convey to readers that his work is, indeed, about his country. “America” is a sonnet, as it includes three quatrains followed by a couplet and a rhyming scheme, that goes back and forth between positive and negative imagery to represent his feelings regarding America and American norms to show that although he loves and appreciate his country, there are key issues that are hurting many and that need to be addressed.

The first quatrain highlights McKay’s mixed feelings while setting the precedent of personification, imagery, and metaphors for the rest of the poem. The very first line itself, “Although she feeds me bread of bitterness” (McKay 1), can demonstrate his mixed feelings as he says that she is feeding him, thus showing his dependence upon America, but mentions that such provisions are bitter. His mentions of a “she” when talking of land, especially in regards to feeding, demonstrates personification, as he makes America seem as if it is a woman, more particularly a mother. The imagery of a “tiger’s tooth” (2) sinking into one’s throat serves to highlight this bitterness of living in America and the pain that social norms cause to many, comparing it to the pain of being bitten by a tiger. To show this bitterness within the first two lines, McKay used a metaphor to show readers how America’s unjust social norms have affected many. The last two lines of the first quatrain use literal language to show what was being said figuratively within the first two; “stealing [McKay’s] breath of life” (3) demonstrates just how harshly the norms impacted him and his will to live, while “I love this cultured hell that tests my youth” (4) shows that he still loves America, no matter the injustices and issues.

McKay’s second quatrain takes on a more positive tone as it switches from metaphors to similes, all while keeping a constant use of imagery and personification, and flows into the first half of the last quatrain. The first simile, which can be seen in the first half of this quatrain, shows his readers that America and its vigor are what allow for him to be strong and to stand “against her hate” (6), which, in McKay’s case, is racial hate and racism. His word choice with “flows like tide” (5) later followed by “like a flood” (7) creates a flowing water imagery throughout the quatrain to solidify his message regarding the overwhelming strength and size of America and its societal norms. The third line of the quatrain keeps the personification as McKay says “her bigness sweeps my being like a flood” (7) while including a simile as he refers to the idea that “she,” representing America and its societal norms, is too big and powerful for him to fight alone. His final line within the quatrain, alongside the following two lines, follow this idea of him fighting back as he says that “as a rebel fronts a king in state,/ I stand within her walls with not a shred/ Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer” (8-10). Such lines show his standing up against societal norms by using a simile to show readers that he is standing strong against injustice within America without fear.

The last four lines, which make up the second half of the third quatrain and the couplet, show his prediction for America’s future. Although it might seem like a positive future due to his mentioning of the “might and granite wonders” (12), looking at the imagery and the simile shows that his reference to such wonders is to say that they will one day be gone. His usage of the word “darkly” (11) already suggests a darker tone for the rest of the poem, and he clearly says that he is talking about the future as he mentions “the days ahead” (11). Those “might and granite wonders” (12) that he talks about will soon be become “like priceless treasures sinking in the sand” (14), meaning that they will fade, due to “the touch of Time’s unerring hand” (13), hinting at the fact that it will all be time’s doing. The imagery of artifacts sinking into sand not only suggests that they will one day disappear, it also suggests that no one will be able to do anything about it. When this literal meaning is combined with the title and the rest of the poem, it is rather easy to see that the figurative meaning can go one of two ways; the first being that he simply believes that America will fade away like ancient civilizations if it does not change its ways, and the latter being that he believes current American social norms will soon change and be forgotten about.

Claude McKay manages to fight for social justice within his poetry and to show others that he stood with them in the battle for civil rights. “America” not merely shows his own battle with his emotions regarding the country amidst racial injustice. It also goes to show his thoughts regarding the future of the country by using a literal meaning that is very close to his figurative meaning, imagery, similes, personification, and metaphors.

References:

McKay, Claude. “America.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44691/america-56d223e1ac025.