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