African American Poetry (1870-1928): A Digital Anthology

Robert Kerlin, Chapter 2.9. Claude McKay

_IX. Claude McKay_

[Illustration: CLAUDE MCKAY]

An English subject, being born and growing to manhood in Jamaica, Claude
McKay, a pure blood Negro, was first discovered as a poet by English
critics. In Jamaica, as early as 1911, when he was but twenty-two years
of age, his _Constab Ballads_, in Negro dialect, was published. Even in
so broken a tongue this book revealed a poet--on the constabulary force
of Jamaica. In 1920 his first book of poems in literary English, _Spring
in New Hamp-Shire_, came out in England, with a _Preface_ by Mr. I. A.
Richards, of Cambridge, England. Meanwhile, shortly after the
publication of his first book, he had come to the United States.

Here he has worked at various occupations, has taken courses in
Agriculture and English in the Kansas State College, and has thus become
acquainted with life in the States. He is now on the editorial staff of
the _Liberator_, New York. There has been no poet of his race who has
more poignantly felt and more artistically expressed the life of the
American Negro. His poetry is a most noteworthy contribution to
literature. From _Spring in New Hampshire_ I am privileged to take a
number of poems which will follow without comment:


    Too green the springing April grass,
      Too blue the silver-speckled sky,
    For me to linger here, alas,
      While happy winds go laughing by,
    Wasting the golden hours indoors,
    Washing windows and scrubbing floors.

    Too wonderful the April night,
      Too faintly sweet the first May flowers,
    The stars too gloriously bright,
      For me to spend the evening hours,
    When fields are fresh and streams are leaping,
    Wearied, exhausted, dully sleeping.


    His spirit in smoke ascended to high heaven.
    His Father, by the cruelest way of pain,
    Had bidden him to his bosom once again;
    The awful sin remained still unforgiven:
    All night a bright and solitary star
    (Perchance the one that ever guided him,
    Yet gave him up at last to Fate’s wild whim)
    Hung pitifully o’er the swinging char.
    Day dawned, and soon the mixed crowds came to view
    The ghastly body swaying in the sun:
    The women thronged to look, but never a one
    Showed sorrow in her eyes of steely blue,
    And little lads, lynchers that were to be,
    Danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee.


    Applauding youths laughed with young prostitutes
    And watched her perfect, half-clothed body sway;
    Her voice was like the sound of blended flutes
    Blown by black players upon a picnic day.
    She sang and danced on gracefully and calm,
    The light gauze hanging loose about her form;
    To me she seemed a proudly-swaying palm
    Grown lovelier for passing through a storm.
    Upon her swarthy neck, black, shiny curls
    Profusely fell; and, tossing coins in praise,
    The wine-flushed, bold-eyed boys, and even the girls,
    Devoured her with eager, passionate gaze:
    But, looking at her falsely-smiling face,
    I knew her self was not in that strange place.


    I would be wandering in distant fields
    Where man, and bird, and beast live leisurely,
    And the old earth is kind and ever yields
    Her goodly gifts to all her children free;
    Where life is fairer, lighter, less demanding,
    And boys and girls have time and space for play
    Before they come to years of understanding,--
    Somewhere I would be singing, far away;
    For life is greater than the thousand wars
    Men wage for it in their insatiate lust,
    And will remain like the eternal stars
    When all that is to-day is ashes and dust:
    But I am bound with you in your mean graves,
    Oh, black men, simple slaves of ruthless slaves.

Distinction of idea and phrase inheres in these poems. In them the Negro
is esthetically conceived, and interpreted with vision. This is art
working as it should. Mr. McKay has passion and the control of it to the
ends of art. He has the poet’s insight, the poet’s understanding.

Perhaps the most arresting poem in this list, and the one most surely
attesting the genius of the writer, is _The Harlem Dancer_. It is an
achievement in portrayal sufficient by itself to establish a poetic
reputation. The divination that penetrates to the secret purity of soul,
or nobleness of character, through denying appearances--how rare is the
faculty, and how necessary! Elsewhere I give a poem from a Negro woman
which evinces the same divine gift in the author, exhibited in a poem
no less original and no less deeply impressive--Mrs. Spencer’s _At the
Carnival_. Here I will companion _The Harlem Dancer_ with one from Mr.
Dandridge, for the comparison will deepen the effect of each:


(_Who Was Christened Lucy Jane_)

    She danced, near nude, to tom-tom beat,
    With swaying arms and flying feet,
    ’Mid swirling spangles, gauze and lace,
    Her all was dancing--save her face.

    A conscience, dumb to brooding fears,
    Companioned hearing deaf to cheers;
    A body, marshalled by the will,
    Kept dancing while a heart stood still:

    And eyes obsessed with vacant stare
    Looked over heads to empty air,
    As though they sought to find therein
    Redemption for a maiden sin.

    ’Twas thus, amid force-driven grace,
    We found the lost look on her face;
    And then, to us, did it occur
    That, though we saw--we saw not her.

Returning to Mr. McKay, we may assert that his new volume of verse,
_Harlem Shadows_, confirms and enhances the estimate of him we have

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