Claude McKay's Early Poetry (1911-1922): A Digital Collection

Max Eastman, Introduction to Harlem Shadows

These poems have a special interest for all the races of man because they are sung by a pure blooded Negro. They are the first significant expression of that race in poetry. We tried faithfully to give a position in our literature to Paul Laurence Dunbar. We have excessively welcomed other black poets of minor talent, seeking in their music some distinctive quality other than the fact that they wrote it. But here for the first time we find our literature vividly enriched by a voice from this most alien race among us. And it should be illuminating to observe that while these poems are characteristic of that race as we most admire it – they are gentle-simple, candid, brave and friendly, quick of laughter and of tears – yet they are still more characteristic of what is deep and universal in mankind. There is no special or exotic kind of merit in them, no quality that demands a transmutation of our own natures to perceive. Just as the sculptures and wood and ivory carvings of the vast forgotten African Empires of Ifé and Benin, although so wistful in their tranquillity, are tranquil in the possession of the qualities of all classic and great art, so these poems, the purest of them, move with a sovereignty that is never new to the lovers of the high music of human utterance.

It is the peculiarity of his experience, rather than of his nature, that makes this poet’s race a fact to be remembered in the enjoyment of his songs. The subject of all poetry is the experience of the poet, and no man of any other race in the world can touch or imagine the experience of the children of African slaves in America.

Claude McKay was born in 1890 in a little thatched house of two rooms in a beautiful valley of the hilly middle-country of Jamaica. He was born to the genial, warm, patient, neighborly farmer’s life of that island. It was a life rich in sun and sound and color and emotion, as we can see in his poems which are forever homeward yearning – in the midst of their present passion and strong will into the future, forever vividly remembering. Like a blue-bird’s note in a March wind, those sudden clear thoughts of the warm South ring out in the midst of his northern songs. They carry a thrill into the depth of our hearts. Perhaps in some sense they are thoughts of a mother. At least it seems inevitable that we should find among them those two sacred sonnets of a child’s bereavement. It seems inevitable that a wonderful poet should have had a wise and beautiful mother.

We can only distantly imagine how the happy tropic life of play and affection, became shadowed and somber for this sensitive boy as he grew, by a sense of the subjection of his people, and the memory of their bondage to an alien race. Indeed the memory of Claude McKay’s family goes back on his mother’s side beyond the days of bondage, to a time in Madagascar when they were still free, and by the grace of God still “savage.” He learned in early childhood the story of their violent abduction, and how they were freighted over the seas in ships, and sold at public auction in Jamaica. He learned another story, too, which must have kindled a fire that slept in his blood – a story of the rebellion of the members of his own family at the auction-block. A death-strike, we should call it now – for they agreed that if they were divided and sold away into different parts of the country they would all kill themselves. And this fact solemnly announced in the market by the oldest white-haired Negro among them, had such an effect upon prospective buyers that it was impossible to sell them as individuals, and so they were all taken away together to those hills at Clarendon which their descendants still cultivate. With the blood of these rebels in his veins, and their memory to stir it, we cannot wonder that Claude McKay’s earliest boyish songs in the Jamaica dialect were full of heresy and the militant love of freedom, and that his first poem of political significance should have been a rally-call to the street-car men on strike in Kingston. He found himself by an instinctive gravitation singing in the forefront of the battle for human liberty. A wider experience and a man’s comprehension of the science of history has only strengthened his voice and his resolution.

Those early songs and the music he composed for them, were very popular in Jamaica. Claude McKay was quite the literary prince of the island for a time – a kind of Robert Burns among his own people, as we can imagine, with his physical beauty, his quick sympathy, and the magnetic wayward humor of his ways. He received in 1912 the medal of the Institute of Arts and Sciences in recognition of his preëminence. He was the first Negro to receive this medal, and he was the first poet who ever made songs in the quaint haunting dialect of the island. But nevertheless it was not until he came to the United States that Claude McKay began to confront the deepest feelings in his heart, and realize that a delicate syllabic music could not alone express them. Here his imagination awoke, and the colored imagery that is the language of all deep passion began to appear in his poetry. Here too he conceived and felt the history and position of his people with mature poetic force. He knew that his voice belonged not only to his own moods and the general experience of humanity, but to the hopes and sorrows of his race.

A great many foolish things are said even by wise people upon the subject of racial inferiority. They seem to think that if science could establish a certain difference of average ability as between the whites and blacks, that would justify them in placing the whole of one of these races in a position of inferior esteem. The same fallacy is committed in the discussions of sex-inferiority, and it is worth while to make clear the perfect folly of it. If any defined quantitative difference is ever established between the average abilities of such groups, it will be a relatively slight one. The difficulty of establishing it, is a proof of that. And a slight difference in the general average would have no application whatever as between any two individuals, or any minor groups of individuals. The enormous majority of both races, as of both sexes, would show the same degree of ability. And so great is the factor of individual variation that we could not even be sure an example of the highest ability might not arise in the group whose average was “inferior.” This simple consideration of fact and good logic should suffice to silence those who think they can ever appeal to science in support of a general race or sex prejudice.

But in so far as the problem arises between a dominant and a subjected race, it is impossible for science to say anything even as to averages. For a fair general test is impossible. The children of the subjected race never have a chance. To be deprived at the very dawn of selfhood of a sense of possible superiority, is to be undernourished at the point of chief educative importance. And to be assailed in early childhood with a pervading intimation of inferiority is poison in the very centers of growth. Except for people of the highest force of character, therefore, to be born into a subjected race is to grow up inferior, not only to the other race, but to one’s own potential self. We see an example of this kind of growth in the bombastic locutions of the traditional “darkie” who has acquired a little culture. Those great big words and long sentences are the result of a feeling of inferiority. They are a pathetic over-correction of the very quality of simple-heartedness which is carried so high in these poems of Claude McKay. It is carried so high, and made so boldly beautiful, that we can not withhold a tribute to his will, as well as to his music and imagination. The naked force of character that we feel in those two recent sonnets, “Baptism” and “The White City,” is no mere verbal semblance. Its reality is certified by the very achievement of such commanding art in the face of a contemptuous or condescending civilization.

Claude McKay came to the United States in 1912, having been offered an education here by a friend in Jamaica who believed in his abilities. His intention was to learn scientific farming, and return to the island to offer practical wisdom as well as music to his people. He went at first to one of our established philanthropic institutions for the training of colored people. He stayed there a few months – long enough to weary of the almost military system of discipline. And then he went to the Agricultural College of Kansas, where he had learned that a free life and a more elective system of education prevailed. He studied for two years there, thinking continually less about farming and more about literature, and gradually losing away altogether the idea of returning to live in Jamaica. He left the college in 1914, knowing that he was a poet – and imagining, I think, that he was a rather irresponsible and wayward character – to cast in his lot with the working-class Negroes of the north. Since then he has earned his living in every one of the ways that the northern Negroes do, from “pot-wrestling” in a boarding-house kitchen to dining car service on the New York and Philadelphia Express. But like all true poets, he failed to take the duty of “earning a living” very seriously. It was a matter of collecting enough money from each new job to quit for a while and live. And with each period of living a new and a more sure and beautiful song would come out of him.

The growth of beauty and sureness in these songs would be apparent if they were arranged in the order of their creation. As it is, the reader will observe occasional lapses of quality. One or two of the rhythms I confess I am not able to apprehend at all. Perhaps they will be picked up by receivers who are attuned to a different wave-length. But the quality is here in them all – the pure, clear arrow-like transference of his emotion into our breast, without any but the inevitable words – the quality that reminds us of Burns and Villon and Catullus, and all the poets that we call lyric because we love them so much. It is the quality that Keats sought to cherish when he said that “Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into the soul, and does not startle or amaze with itself but with its subject.” Poetry with this quality is not for those whose interest is mainly in the manufacture of poems. It will come rather to those whose interest is in the life of things. It is the poetry of life, and not of the poet’s chamber. It is the poetry that looks upon a thing, and sings. It is possessed by a feeling and sings. May it find its way a little quietly and softly, in this age of roar and advertising, to the hearts that love a true and unaffected song.


​Page author, proofreading: Jenna Casciano

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