The Harlem Dancer | Study Guide

Claude McKay

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The Harlem Dancer | Themes


Human Dignity

In writing about "The Harlem Dancer" a fellow poet and contemporary of Claude McKay (1889–1948), Countee Cullen (1903–46), identifies the central theme of the poem as human dignity. This may seem counterintuitive given the poem's subject matter, as it centers on a dancer in a seedy nightclub who is "praised" by having coins thrown at her. However, the speaker's attitude toward the dancer is dignifying and humanizing. Rather than objectify her or participate in the same lustful fixation as the rest of the patrons, the speaker instead admires her grace and sympathizes with her situation. As Cullen also notes, the choice of the sonnet form itself is a dignified one. The iambic pentameter that constructs the poem gives dignity and grace to the poem's content, in spite of the undignified and bawdy setting of a Harlem nightclub.

Like his fellow patrons, the speaker admires the dancer's beauty, and the dancer's "half-clothed body" isn't lost on him. However, he doesn't describe her in lustful terms; he instead focuses on her graceful dancing and her beautiful voice. In comparing her to a palm tree "lovelier for passing through a storm," the speaker is both acknowledging what he assumes has been a difficult life for her—the storm here represents her troubles—and also celebrating her triumph over the adversity. The palm tree image also serves as a cultural link to the Caribbean from where McKay, and perhaps the dancer, hailed.

The theme of human dignity is best encapsulated in the poem's closing lines, in which the speaker describes how "looking at her falsely smiling face, / I knew her self was not in that strange place." Although the dancer's surroundings are profane and low class, she is removed from them. Her mind and spirit are somewhere else, and she is unstained by the seediness of the nightclub and its patrons.

Black Is Beautiful

In "The Harlem Dancer," the titular dancer is depicted as beautiful, and McKay chooses to dwell on her African features in describing her beauty. While this may not seem strange to 21st-century readers, at the time of the poem's composition (1917), celebrating African features and non-European standards of beauty was a new and radical concept. In fact, the phrase "black is beautiful" would not enter common usage until the 1950s and '60s, decades after the poem's publication, when photographer Kwame Brathwaite (b. 1938) popularized it through his photography celebrating the beauty of African features.

During the early 20th century, American culture was outright hostile to African Americans, with attitudes influenced by popular stereotypes and a legal system that regarded black people as inferior to white people. The 1857 Dred Scott court decision had even ruled that African Americans were not fully human. In a time when black people were stereotyped and caricatured in popular culture, McKay wrote "The Harlem Dancer," describing a beautiful African American dancer and celebrating her African features. Dark skin and curly hair are both features strongly associated with African roots. Because of internalized racism, a phenomenon in which oppressed people are critical of themselves because they are taught to perceive themselves as inferior, for much of American history African Americans used hair-straightening and skin-bleaching products to appear more European.

In "The Harlem Dancer," the dancer's skin is described as "swarthy," and her hair is in "shiny curls." These features are treated as beautiful rather than anything to be ashamed of. Indeed, the patrons—"youths" who are probably white, based on their faces being "wine-flushed"—are captivated by her beauty, "devour[ing] her" with their eyes. The significance of the poem's approach to the dancer's looks is that she is considered beautiful because of her black features, not in spite of them—a radical idea for the time.

Changing Moral Values and Social Attitudes

In "The Harlem Dancer," Claude McKay captures the changing moral values and social attitudes of his day and offers an honest look at how risqué the world can be. Written in 1917, "The Harlem Dancer" was published at the height of World War I (1914–18), a time of incredible and rapid economic and social changes in Harlem and the rest of America. Although the poem predates the Roaring Twenties and the Jazz Age, its content serves as a portent for changes to come.

The early 20th century was a time of repressed sexual attitudes and conservative social conventions. The turn of the century saw the end of the Victorian era, named for long-ruling and influential British monarch Queen Victoria (1819–1901). However, the era that followed in the United States is commonly referred to as the Progressive Era because of the many political reforms and social changes that occurred during the period. One of the most important facets of the Progressive Era was the widespread temperance movement opposing the legal distribution and consumption of alcohol. Nightclubs such as the one depicted in "The Harlem Dancer," with its "wine-flushed" patrons, were targets of temperance advocates. Indeed, three years after the poem's publication, the sale of alcohol would be made illegal with the passage of the 18th Amendment, which went into effect in 1920. Rather than destroy such businesses, though, the prohibition of alcohol made nightclubs and speakeasies more popular than ever.

"The Harlem Dancer" is fascinating because although it predates the Jazz Age, it identifies so many of the themes and associations of the era. These include more revealing attire for women (the dancer's "half-clothed" body), the importance of music (the dancer's singing), and the power of alcohol. The young patrons' inebriation makes them "bold-eyed" when assessing the dancer. Such subject matter as scantily clad women, public drunkenness, and the prospect of race-mixing (between the young men, likely white, and the African American dancer) would never have appeared in a poem of the Victorian era. In "The Harlem Dancer" McKay, without being perverse or needlessly graphic, poignantly captures the profane world of the Harlem nightlife.

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