America | Study Guide

Claude McKay

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America | Themes


Character in Conflict

McKay presents a character in deep conflict. The poem's speaker loves the thing that causes him harm: America. He personifies America as a "she" because the country sustains and feeds him like a mother, even as she wounds him. In a complex relationship, America steals his "breath of life," like an evil spirit, as she provides him with an inner strength, for which he feels grateful.

The speaker comes to the conclusion that his fate is bound with that of America as he stands "within her walls." Yet, as he gazes into the country's future and imagines it continuing on its present hateful course, he sees America's greatness and power fading. It is no wonder that his gaze is "dark," since in his love/hate relationship with the country, a "sinking" America might pull him into the sand along with its treasures.

The Dangers of Social and Racial Inequality

Through imagery and personification, McKay highlights the oppression of African Americans in the 1920s. The "breath of life" that the speaker accuses America of stealing is his sense of equality and belonging. The speaker paints a portrait of someone given the illusion of freedom yet constantly prevented from achieving his potential until he feels forced to rebel. Through the imagery of the tiger's tooth in the speaker's throat, McKay also gives the sense that America is "feeding" off of people such as the speaker. With this image, McKay references the fact that much of America's early economy and prosperity was built on slave labor and, in the 1920s, African Americans experienced inequalities in job opportunities and pay. The speaker suggests in the final couplet that continued oppression will inevitably lead to America's downfall.

The Power of Strength and Rebellion

McKay suggests that the speaker and others like him can start a revolution not through the traditional methods of terror, malice, or mockery but through art. Indeed, the poem itself is a form of rebellion "from the inside out" in giving the speaker a voice—a voice that the "tiger's tooth" threatens to silence.

Out of the struggles he and others have suffered comes resilience and the courage to "front a king in state"—precisely what the founders of America did when they rebelled against King George III (1738–1820) and declared independence during the Revolutionary War (1775–83). McKay suggests that even if America sees its minority groups as a threat, even if she continues to oppress and attempt to silence them, hope for rebellion still exists.

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