Claude McKay

September 26, 2006

claude-mckay.jpg
(1889-1948)

Festus Claudius McKay
Born in Jamaica to peasant farmers, lived in the West Indie until 23
Came to the U.S. to study agriculture and to become a writer
Poetry expresses a new sense of black political assertion and a rich awareness of black cultural life
Figure of the Harlem Renaissance
Identified with oppressed and working people
Active socialist

Quotations:

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, O 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! / O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe! / Though far outnumbered let us show us brave, / And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow! / 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!

-If We Must Die (in whole)

Written in response to vilent anti-black riots in Chicago, 1919
First appeared in ‘The Liberator’
McKay’s most famous poem

Bananas ripe and green and ginger-root, / Cocoa in pods and alligator pears, / And tangerines and mangoes and grape fruit, / Fit for the highest prize at parish fairs,
Set in the window, bringing memories / Of fruit trees laden by low-singing rills, / And dewy dawns and mystical blue skies / In benediction over nun-like hills.
Mine eyes grew dim and I could no more gaze, / A wave of longing through my body swept, / And, hungry for the old, familiar ways, / I turned aside and bowed my head and wept.

The Tropics in New York (in whole)

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.

-America (in whole)

May allude to ‘Ozymandias’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I hear the halting footsteps of a lass / In Negro Harlem when the night lets fall / Its veil. I see the shapes of girls who pass / Eager to heed desire’s insistent call: / Ah, little dark girls, who in slippered feet / Go prowling through the night from street to street.
Through the long night until the silver break / Of day the little gray feet know no rest, / Through the lone night until the last snow-flake / Has dropped from heaven upon the earth’s white breast, / The dusky, half-clad girls of tired feet / Are trudging, thinkly shod, from street to street.
Ah, stern harsh world, that in the wretched way / Of poverty, dishonour and disgrace, / Has pushed the timid little feet of clay. / The sacred brown feet of my fallen race! / Ah, heart of me, the weary, weary feet / In Harlem wandering from street to street.

-Harlem Shadows (in whole)

Applauding youths laughed with young prostitutes / And watched her perfect, half-clothed body sway; / Her voice was like the sound of blended flutes / Blwon by black playrs upon a picnic day. / She sand and danced on gracefully and calm, / The light gauze hanging loose about her form; / To me she seemed a proudly-swaying palm / Grown lovelier for passing through a storm. / Upon her swarthy neck black, shiny curls / Profusely fell; and, tossing eons in praise, / The wine-flushed, bold-eyed boys, and even the girls, / Devoured her shape with eager, passionate gaze: / But, looking at her fasely-smiling face, / I knew her self was not in that strange place.

-The Harlem Dancer (in whole)

Publication announced McKay’s entrance into the American literary scene
Shakespearean sonnet form

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