Claude McKay was one of the most influential figures during the Harlem Renaissance period of the 1900s. Born and educated in his native Jamaica, McKay ventured out to the United States in 1912 to pursue further education (McKay). While in the US he discovered the cruelties suffered by the African Americans.
McKay was shocked with the racism people of color encountered in the United States; thus his sonnets were his responses to events he encountered in the country. I chose to write a paper on Claude McKay and his works because I believe that through his experiences and his poems one can see the inequalities happening in the United States to people of color in the country.
McKay first came as a foreigner. He should have been treated as a guest, but rather he experienced the discrimination of the whites. An educated man, McKay’s writings focused on urging African Americans to self-determination. He promoted equality among races through his literary works. His earlier writings were constructed with similes which depicted the anger he felt like a man of color.
During the Red Summer, a period of race riots and violence against African Americans in 1919, McKay wrote and published his “If We Must Die” sonnet as his response to the current events taking place during that time. Through such literature, he urged his comrades to defend themselves from their oppressors and fight back for their rights.
In the lines of the poem, McKay expressed his sentiments that people of color are treated like animals by the white people of America. He described such treatment similar to that of hogs. “If We Must Die” was very powerful because the writer gave a sense of empowerment to the oppressed by saying that if they meet their deaths, they should die nobly and not like hogs.
“If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,” (Harper and Walton)
Claude McKay related such racism and violence with the ignorance of US law. In this poem “The White House,” McKay wrote about the inequalities of the law wherein his understanding, current politicians during that time were protecting the order of inequality.
In the first lines of the said literature, McKay made known to his readers that his anger was so great that he compared it to the sharpness of steel. The poem focused on the biases the American law had. McKay encouraged the colored people to unite for them to be heard. One man alone cannot fight for the freedom and equality desired by the whole race.
Thus McKay urged the colored people to be wise enough to join forces. They must not give in to their hatred, and they must not accomplish things through violence but settle things lawfully.
“Oh, I must search for wisdom every hour,
Deep in my wrathful bosom sore and raw,
And find in it the superhuman power
To hold me to the letter of your law!” (Harper and Walton)
Though Claude McKay came to the United States as a foreigner, he grew to be very passionate with the country and fought for the rights of African Americans during a time when racial discrimination was prominent in the country. His works depicted the tragedies that occurred during his stay in the country. Racial violence was common against black people, and American law did nothing to protect the abused.
Harper, Michael S., and Walton, Anthony, eds. The Vintage book of African American Poetry. Michigan: Vintage Books, 2000. Print.
McKay, Claude. A Long Way from Home. New York: Mariner Books, 1970. Print.