America | Study Guide

Claude McKay

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America | Symbols



Bread is traditionally seen as a symbol of sustenance; yet, in "America" it is characterized with bitterness. It serves as a symbol of the paradox many African Americans, immigrants, and other oppressed and marginalized groups have faced in America. In a country that constitutionally guarantees freedom, marginalized groups do not enjoy the same freedoms as white settlers. While fed, sustenance for the marginalized groups includes bitterness at the injustices they bear in an unequal and oppressive society.

In his awareness of this paradox, the speaker embodies the "double consciousness" of African Americans described by W.E.B. Du Bois (1868–1963) in his influential essay collection The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Du Bois said that at the same time African Americans experience self-awareness, they keenly realize how the world views them. The speaker of "America" addresses this double consciousness by portraying a person who is both terrified by America and also strengthened by the need to navigate racist culture.

Tiger's Tooth

The description of a tiger's tooth "sinking" into the speaker's throat is a vivid, violent image. With it, McKay hints at the oppressive and dangerous situations that threatened many African Americans. The Jim Crow state and local laws legalizing racial segregation remained on the books in 1921 and would remain in place for decades, limiting African American citizens' job opportunities, voting rights, education, other basic rights, and social experiences. African Americans who defied segregation faced the threat of lynching—mob murders conducted without trials. The speaker claims that the tiger's tooth sinking into his throat steals his "breath of life," symbolizing the ways that racial oppression stole the spirits—and, for many, the lives—of African Americans.

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