America | Study Guide

Claude McKay

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America | Context

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The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance—an artistic, political, and social movement within the African American community—was centered in the Harlem neighborhood in New York City. It emerged during the 1910s and lasted into the mid-1930s, giving birth to magazines such as The Crisis and Opportunity, published by African American civil rights groups including the NAACP and the National Urban League. Major influential figures within the Harlem Renaissance included poets such as Langston Hughes (1902–67) and Alice Dunbar Nelson (1875–1935) and artists such as Aaron Douglas (1899–1979) and Augusta Savage (1892–1962). Harlem became the symbolic epicenter for African American intellectuals, artists, and writers.

Harlem's large African American population was a result of the Great Migration of 1916 to 1970, during which more than six million African Americans left the rural southern United States to escape racial segregation and prejudice and limited economic opportunities. They settled in the Northeast, Midwest, and West. Prior to 1910 more than 90 percent of African Americans lived in the South; by the end of the Great Migration, only 50 percent remained. In addition to New York, the populations in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Detroit grew exponentially just in the decade between 1910 and 1920.

Although Claude McKay only lived in Harlem off and on before returning permanently in 1934, his poetry formed a part of the Harlem Renaissance movement. Much of his work dealt with the racial injustice he perceived in America through the lens of his Jamaican background. Like other Harlem Renaissance writers and artists, McKay chose to celebrate his cultural heritage and embrace its dialect. Because of this dual perspective, he could shift between his experience as both a Jamaican and an American. However, unlike most Harlem Renaissance writers, McKay also depicted the negative side of Harlem, such as its poverty and problems with drugs and prostitution. Some of McKay's peers criticized him for exposing and portraying these harsh realities.

Youthful Influences: Jamaica, British Literature, and the Sonnet

Having spent his early life in Jamaica, McKay's earliest influences came from Jamaica and Britain, not America. He had little experience with or understanding of racism until he moved to Kingston, a Jamaican city with a large white population, and he was shocked by the depth of racism in America when he moved to the United States. McKay held a great deal of pride in his Jamaican heritage, and it informed the themes of his later writings. His father, Thomas, came from Ashanti descent (an ethnic group in Ghana), and he shared the stories and of his culture with McKay. The author's understanding of his African heritage set him apart from many black people in the United States whose enslaved ancestors had been deprived of the knowledge of their roots.

McKay's wide reading of classical and British literature also informed the structure much of his poetry would take, including the sonnet form. A sonnet, a traditionally 14-line poem with a variable rhyme scheme, originated in Italy with the Petrarchan sonnet, although British poets adopted it in the 16th century in what became known as the Shakespearean sonnet. McKay used the Shakespearean sonnet structure for "America."

Shakespearean sonnets typically use the first 12 lines to reflect on a particular topic or feeling and then use the final couplet to provide a conclusion. The sonnets employ iambic pentameter, a type of metric line that establishes rhythm by using a set pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. Each line of iambic pentameter has five pairs (or "feet") of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable to create a rhythm that sounds like da-DUM / da-DUM / da-DUM / da-DUM / da-DUM (for example, from Romeo and Juliet, "But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?"). The sonnet's rhyme scheme usually follows ABAB CDCD EFEF GG.

The English poets John Milton (1608–74) and Alexander Pope (1688–1744) and the Romantic English poets John Keats (1795–1821), William Wordsworth (1770–1850), and Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822) present some of McKay's biggest British influences. The Romantics wrote about the grandeur of nature and the importance of imagination and emotion, and they often used formal poetic structures, such as the sonnet. McKay found a way to hybridize these two main influences—his Jamaican heritage and British literature—by writing in his native Jamaican dialect. McKay's early poems from his two 1912 collections, Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads, portray peasant life in Jamaica and offer critical commentary about life in a racially divided Kingston.

Influence of W.E.B. Du Bois

McKay's move to the United States greatly influenced the themes in his writing as well as his lifelong political activism. His experience of America's inherent racism and institutional segregation at Tuskegee Institute inspired him to write poetry on the subject. Soon after, during his time at Kansas State University, McKay encountered The Souls of Black Folk, a seminal 1903 essay collection by African American writer W.E.B. Du Bois (1868–1963) that investigates the "double consciousness" of African Americans. By double consciousness, Du Bois meant that African Americans are always conscious of how they view themselves and at the same time how the world views them. The speaker of "America"—who may stand in for McKay himself—addresses this double consciousness by portraying a person who is both terrified by America and also strengthened by the need to navigate racist culture.

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