Claude McKay: Role in Harlem Renaissance & 'America' Analysis

  • 0:06 Claude McKay
  • 1:07 America
  • 3:31 If We Must Die
  • 6:03 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Claude McKay was an influential Harlem Renaissance poet. His poems 'America' and 'If We Must Die' explored the complicated relationship African Americans had with the world around them.

Claude McKay

Claude McKay was a famous poet during the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance was a time when African-American writers and artists expressed themselves through their writing and art. For the first time in American history, African-American writers were very popular in America.

Though born and raised in Jamaica, McKay eventually immigrated to the United States. While many of the writers of the Harlem Renaissance were born and raised in the U.S., McKay had a different perspective. His poems talk about America with a view that mixed love and hate, pain and pleasure. He was able to see America for all of its qualities, good and bad, because he had chosen America as his home.

Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay
Claude McKay

In addition to giving a voice to black immigrants, McKay was one of the first African-American poets of the Harlem Renaissance. As such, he influenced later poets, including Langston Hughes. He paved the way for black poets to discuss the conditions and racism that they faced in their poems.

Let's take a look at two of Claude McKay's poems about being black in America.

'America'

Perhaps McKay's most famous poem is titled 'America.' In some ways, it is a love sonnet to the country McKay had chosen as his own, though it also discusses the darker side of American society. Let's read the poem and then discuss it.

America

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!
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,
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,
Beneath the touch of Time's unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.

Twenty years before McKay wrote 'America,' another famous Harlem Renaissance writer, W.E.B. Du Bois, wrote about the 'two-ness' of African Americans: how they are caught between being black and being American. This was a central issue in many Harlem Renaissance writings: how to reconcile being part of a country that celebrated freedom, while at the same time being constrained by society and Jim Crow laws that took away the freedom of blacks.

Claude McKay builds on this idea of duality in his poem. He alternates between anger and frustration at the way America 'sinks...her tiger's tooth' into his flesh and his love for the country, full of wonders and treasures. He says he feels 'not a shred/Of terror, malice,' but yet he describes America as a 'cultured hell' that 'feeds...bread of bitterness.' It sure sounds like he has some anger, despite the fact that he says he doesn't!

Du Bois wrote about the two-ness African Americans struggle with
W E B Dubois

Yet, McKay also says he loves America, and he points out that it is her that that gives him strength to stand against her. Would he be as strong as he is without America to test him? Would he find the strength to stand up if not for America's energy and vitality as a country?

McKay's poem celebrates the two sides of the African-American experience. It juxtaposes hate and love, as well as pain and pleasure, and demonstrates what many blacks were going through at that time.

'If We Must Die'

Another famous poem by Claude McKay was written a couple of years before 'America,' during the summer of 1919. Let's read the poem, and then we'll discuss what inspired the poem and what it means.

If We Must Die

If we must die--let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die--oh, let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
Oh, Kinsmen! We must meet the common foe;
Though far outnumbered, let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

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