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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Rhythms in Poetry Claude McKay (1889-1948)

[3939] Underwood and Underwood, Famous New York African American Soldiers Return Home (1917), courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Born in Jamaica, Claude McKay came to America to study agriculture at Tuskegee Institute, a historically black university founded by Booker T. Washington. After two years, he transferred to Kansas State College, but soon realized that his talents were better suited to writing than farming. In 1917, McKay arrived in Greenwich Village, where he sought out the company of artists and activists, both white and black. In fact, his ability to straddle both worlds easily became a source of envy and respect among his contemporaries. In those opening years of the Harlem Renaissance, McKay’s poetry helped attract attention to the city and to the struggle for a new African American literary voice. While the earlier poetry that he had written in Jamaica used dialect, his writing in America relied on traditional poetic forms. His electrifying sonnet “If We Must Die” made him famous; it also worked as a call to arms for African Americans living through the Red Summer of 1919. In the poem, McKay urges African Americans to “face the murderous, cowardly pack” and to “nobly die” while “fighting back.” These images of blacks rising up against their white oppressors gave voice to the frustration and rage of the African American people at a time when racism seemed to be spiraling out of control. Although McKay is often credited with helping to spark the Harlem Renaissance, he took great pains to distance himself, both physically and philosophically, from the movement in its heyday.

McKay left America for London in 1919, where he read Marx and Lenin and worked for a communist newspaper. Although he did return to America to oversee the publication of his first volumes of poetry, Spring in New Hampshire (1920) and Harlem Shadows (1922), McKay became disillusioned with African American leadership and the disappointing state of race relations in the United States. He felt that the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance, particularly Alain Locke and W. E. B. Du Bois, were discouraging artists from portraying black experience honestly. Refusing to enter the 1926 Opportunity prize contest, he wrote: “I must write what I feel what I know what I think what I have seen what is true and your Afro-American intelligentsia won’t like it.” McKay also felt that black editors, particularly of small magazines popular during the Harlem Renaissance, worried more about the reactions of white benefactors and audiences than they did about the integrity or political efficacy of the art. With sharp criticism for the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance, which he voiced throughout his career, McKay left America for Russia in 1922. While abroad, he wrote his bestseller Home to Harlem (1928) and Banjo (1929). His status as an exile, first as a Jamaican in America, and then as an American in Russia, colored his writing throughout his life. Poems like “Tropics in New York” represent this struggle with a double-consciousness. McKay returned to America, but not until 1934, by which time the Harlem Renaissance had ended, its writers dispersed and the fire of the movement dimmed.

Teaching Tips

  • 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.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: In “Africa” who or what is the “harlot”? Why does McKay use this word?
  2. Context: McKay uses several animal images in “If We Must Die.” To whom does he refer each time? How do the images change? What do you associate with hogs? How are images of dogs associated with African American history, specifically slavery?
  3. Exploration: How does McKay’s language differ from that of other poets in this unit, particularly Harlem Renaissance writers? Why do you think he chooses to use this kind of diction? What kind of audience is he trying to reach? What kinds of political and social goals does his poetry seem to harbor?
  4. Exploration: Compare McKay’s use of the sonnet to that by African American poets Henrietta Cordelia Ray, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Gwendolyn Brooks. How does each adapt the sonnet form? How does their use of the sonnet differ from that of some of the other famous modernist sonneteers such as E. E. Cummings, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Robert Frost?

Selected Archive Items

[3939] Underwood and Underwood, Famous New York African American Soldiers Return Home (1917), 
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration. 
The 369th (former 15th New York City) regiment marches in Harlem, including Lieutenant James Reese Europe, a well-known musician. African American veterans advocated for civil rights. Home to Harlem (1928), by Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay, tells the story of an African American soldier’s life after his return from the war.

[4766] Aaron Douglas, The Judgement Day (1927), 
courtesy of The Walter O. Evans Collection of African American Art. Aaron Douglas, American (1899-1979). Gouache on paper; 11 3/4″ x 9″. 
Douglas’s painting incorporates images from jazz and African traditions and can be compared to “Harlem Shadows,” by Claude McKay, and “The Weary Blues,” by Langston Hughes.

[5289] Aaron Douglas, Study for Aspects of Negro Life: The Negro Man in an African Setting (1934), 
courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago: Aaron Douglas, American, 1899-1979, Study for Aspects of Negro Life: the Negro in an African setting, before 1934, gouache on Whatman artist’s board, 37.5 x 41 cm, Estate of Solomon Byron Smith; Margaret Fisher Fund, 1990.416. 
Sketch of Africans dancing and playing music. This became part of a Harlem mural sponsored by the Works Progress Administration chronicling African American history, from freedom in Africa to life in the contemporary United States. Africa and ancestry were themes of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” by Langston Hughes, and “Africa,” by Claude McKay.

[7390] Samuel Herman Gottscho, New York City Views. Vendor in Greenwich Village Area (1914), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-G622-T-81587]. 
Greenwich Village has long been home to both artists and activists. Jamaican-born poet Claude McKay lived there in 1917.

[7405] Carl Van Vechten, Portrait of Josephine Baker (1949), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-93000]. 
Photograph of jazz musician Josephine Baker in Paris. Paris was a major center for modernist artists, perhaps because it was less restrictive than American cities. Poet Claude McKay portrays the tensions of African American performers in “Harlem Dancer.”

[9139] Wilfred Owen, Dulce et Decorum Est (1921), 
courtesy of Project Gutenberg. 
Wilfred Owen’s poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” uses aspects of the sonnet form to critique his contemporaries’ attitudes toward World War I. The sonnet form was also popular among writers of the Harlem Renaissance, most notably Claude McKay.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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