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

May 24, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.

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