Claude McKay

September 26, 2006


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


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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