two poems

from Harlem Shadows (1922)


Claude McKay


McKay immigrated from Jamaica
to USA in 1912, d. Chicago 1948

Background: Born in Jamaica in 1889 to affluent farmers of African Ashanti (Ghana) descent, Claude McKay began reading classic British literature while living with his brother, a teacher. His friendship with an English gentleman living in Jamaica led to the publication of two volumes of verse in Jamaican dialect. He immigrated to the United States in 1912 to study at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, founded by Booker T. Washington. Shocked by Southern racism, he moved to Kansas and then New York City, where he married and, in 1922, published Harlem Shadows, the volume generally regarded as inaugurating the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. He traveled in England and Russia and was associated with Communist groups before becoming an American citizen and a Roman Catholic. He published several novels and volumes of poetry before dying in Chicago in 1948 at the age of 58.

Discussion questions: 1. How do the poems below exemplify the combined or conflicted immigrant and minority identities or attitudes of the New World Immigrant and the Afro-Caribbean?

2. Identify the poetic genre of these poems. How does the combination of a classic English structure and an African-American voice match the Afro-Caribbean profile? Where else did we see this in our Afro-Caribbean readings?

Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger's tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth!            4
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate.
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet as a rebel fronts a king in state,                       8
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,      12
Beneath the touch of Time's unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.


The White City
I will not toy with it nor bend an inch.
Deep in the secret chambers of my heart
I muse my life-long hate, and without flinch
I bear it nobly as I live my part.                             4
My being would be a skeleton, a shell,
If this dark Passion that fills my every mood,
And makes my heaven in the white world's hell,
Did not forever feed me vital blood.                     8
I see the mighty city through a mist
The strident trains that speed the goaded mass,
The poles and spires and towers vapor-kissed,
The fortressed port through which the great ships pass,     12
The tides, the wharves, the dens I contemplate,
Are sweet like wanton loves because I hate.


Additional poems by McKay:

If We Must Die

Harlem Shadows

Harlem Dancer