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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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3. Utopian Promise   

10. Rhythms
in Poetry

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Activities: Author Activities

Claude McKay - Teaching Tips

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  • After reading Langston Hughes and some of the other poets in this unit who diverge from traditional forms, students will probably be struck by McKay's reliance on the sonnet. The sonnet form, however, has a long tradition of political engagement, one that goes back to the European Renaissance. In McKay's own lifetime, poets had skillfully reinvented the sonnet form to provide biting criticism of World War I, as seen in the work of British poet Wilfred Owen ("Dulce et Decorum Est"). The sonnet was particularly resonant for African American poets and was a popular form for men and women during the Harlem Renaissance. As critic Marcellus Blount argues, "For black poets, the sonnet has served as a zone of entrapment and liberation, mediation and self-possession . . . [black] poets have turned to the sonnet as an alternative space for performance, one that demonstrates the poet's craft while calling into question the marginality of black men and women in Euro-American discourse." What is the relationship between the highly structured form and McKay's subjects, for example, lynching ("The Lynching") and racial uprising ("If We Must Die")? Students should be encouraged to scan the poems, paying particular attention to where the meter or rhyme scheme intensifies or provides tension.

  • The violence in "The Lynching" and "If We Must Die," both written in 1919, becomes clearer and more significant when read about the historical context. The summer of 1919 was named the Red Summer because of the many racist uprisings around the country. Lynching reached a historical high that year, and blacks were appalled and frightened by the renewed vigor with which whites from Chicago to the Deep South were acting out their hatred and aggression.

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