Claude McKay was born in Jamaica 1889, and in 1912, after his first volume of Jamaican dialect poetry was published in Jamaica, he traveled to the USA, eventually settling in New York City and becoming a part of the Harlem Renaissance movement of artistic expression.
In Harlem Shadows (published 1922), McKay captures his shock and disappointment at the discrimination he found in the United States. Racial identity is a key theme throughout the volume, and I found these themes hidden in many poems. He also wrote poems that encouraged people to be themselves, and his personal voice gives these poems an urgency. He also poignantly captures his homesickness for his tropical home. And although he wrote Harlem Shadows almost a century ago, his search for identity and place in a busy foreign world is one that we can still relate to.
I am a white woman and a stay-at-home mom living close to where I was born, and yet McKay’s racial frustrations and calls for individuals to remain strong, as well as his longings for the familiar, resonate with me. McKay’s beautiful poetry is well worth reading and revisiting.
As I pondered which of McKay’s poems to share, I found I was marking the majority of them. Although I’d like to, I cannot share all of the poems in Harlem Shadows that I loved (as found at Poet’s Corner). Here are a few that I really enjoyed.
The first one in the volume (at least, the first given as the volume is posted online) seems particularly striking this week since it is Easter weekend. “The Easter Flower” harkens to both his homesickness in a strange place as well as his delight in a changed, pleasant season and his own non-Christian approach to the flower he dubs “the Easter flower.” Although I am a Christian, I still love the parallel he draws between religion and pagan “worship” of nature.
What do you think of this poem?
The Easter Flower
FAR from this foreign Easter damp and chilly
My soul steals to a pear-shaped plot of ground,
Where gleamed the lilac-tinted Easter lily
Soft-scented in the air for yards around;
Alone, without a hint of guardian leaf!
Just like a fragile bell of silver rime,
It burst the tomb for freedom sweet and brief
In the young pregnant year at Eastertime;
And many thought it was a sacred sign,
And some called it the resurrection flower;
And I, a pagan, worshiped at its shrine,
Yielding my heart unto its perfumed power.
“The Tropics in New York” is a great example of McKay’s homesickness in New York. He begins with a litany of the tropical fruits he’s seen in the shop windows and he ends with his turning aside and weeping. I’m not sure why, but I kept being drawn to this poem.
And then “I Know My Soul” seems to me to be a challenge to everyone to be true to themselves. I’m including it here so you’ll all give it a read.
I Know My Soul
I PLUCKED my soul out of its secret place,
And held it to the mirror of my eye,
To see it like a star against the sky,
A twitching body quivering in space,
A spark of passion shining on my face.
And I explored it to determine why
This awful key to my infinity
Conspires to rob me of sweet joy and grace.
And if the sign may not be fully read,
If I can comprehend but not control,
I need not gloom my days with futile dread,
Because I see a part and not the whole.
Contemplating the strange, I’m comforted
By this narcotic thought: I know my soul.
In contrast to this poem and others (like “If We Must Die”) which celebrate being true to oneself, others of McKay’s poems comment on his frustration in a country with racial prejudice. As I mentioned, since he came to the United States as an adult, he hadn’t previously experienced such racism. How awful it must be to be suddenly a part of a situation in which he is constantly recognized by the color of his skin and not by his personality! How sad that this poem is still relevant today in some places and among some people!
I MUST not gaze at them although
Your eyes are dawning day;
I must not watch you as you go
Your sun-illumined way;
I hear but I must never heed
The fascinating note,
Which, fluting like a river reed,
Comes from your trembing throat;
I must not see upon your face
Love’s softly glowing spark;
For there’s the barrier of race,
You’re fair and I am dark.
And then, simply because when I talked about Anne Bradstreet I mentioned a poem about writing, here is McKay’s comparable poem. I love how incredibly personal his voice is in this poem.
SOMETIMES I tremble like a storm-swept flower,
And seek to hide my tortured soul from thee.
Bowing my head in deep humility
Before the silent thunder of thy power.
Sometimes I flee before thy blazing light,
As from the specter of pursuing death;
Intimidated lest thy mighty breath,
Windways, will sweep me into utter night.
For oh, I fear they will be swallowed up–
The loves which are to me of vital worth,
My passion and my pleasure in the earth–
And lost forever in thy magic cup!
I fear, I fear my truly human heart
Will perish on the altar-stone of art!
I first heard of Claude McKay as I researched Harlem Renaissance literature for the Classics Circuit more than a year ago. I’m so glad I revisited his poetry in one of the full volumes he published during the Harlem Renaissance. It is wonderful.
I read Harlem Shadows via Poet’s Corner via The Other Pages. It is in the public domain. I’ve discovered that is a wonderful resource! I highly recommend you give McKay’s 74 poems on that site a read. It won’t take you long, and I imagine you’ll find something you like!