The Harlem Renaissance, which emerged in the early 1920s, represented the dawning of a new black aesthetic self-consciousness. It was a movement through which African American artists established a distinctive and newly-confident voice through poetry, literature, music, art, dance and the theater. McKay’s poetry and fiction from this period has traditionally be seen by literary historians as central to the Harlem Renaissance, and he himself seemed to embrace the connection, using the word "Harlem" in titles several times in his career (even though McKay only lived in New York for a limited time, and may not ever have actually lived in Harlem!).
Claude McKay's writing is also notable because it speaks truth to power today. Claude McKay may be somewhat overlooked in by literary scholars in academia, but his words march with us in Ferguson, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and beyond. His spirit and his words have the ability to breathe life into our generation and our youth fighting against systematic and institutionalized oppression.
McKay was a poet who embodied the meaning of the personal being political and the political being personal; one cannot be separate from the other when engaging in such work. One of his most well-known poems, “If We Must Die”, speaks truth to power for many activists today who are on the front lines of the Black Lives Matter movement, and many other struggles against white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.
This poem is a call for liberation, and its relevance endures because racial violence in 2015 is a similar reflection to the violence in 1919. The poem continues to have power because racism continues to be real. “If We Must Die” was written in the middle of "Red Summer," a time of great distress for African Americans and leftist activists. During the summer of 1919, race riots spread through multiple cities, both in the North and South. McKay's interpretation of those conflicts in “If We Must Die" is a powerful testimony to the passion and commitment of activists in the midst of those struggles.
Poetry and art such as McKay’s is important because it narrates and expresses sentiments of a targeted community. During this time of postwar racial violence mainstream media and newspapers exaggerated black crime as a justification for violent acts against African Americans. We can draw parallels to the ways the mainstream media portrays black criminality in an attempt to justify police brutality directed against African Americans and other people of color today.
The murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012 was a crucial and reflective moment for a self-proclaimed colorblind society. Black Lives Matter as a movement officially emerged after his tragic murder. It continued to gather steam in 2013 and 2014 with a series of further incidents involving police violence and the deaths of unarmed black men and women.
These tragedies aren’t separate moments but they are evidence of the broken criminal justice system that preys on people of color. The murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland and countless others have continued to inflict pain on the communities affected by these ongoing injustices. Today people of color continue to face police brutality, mass incarceration, deportation, broken educational systems, and gentrification. Scholar-activist Michelle Alexander claims that we are living in the era of the "New Jim Crow," an emerging, highly stratified racial caste system. Scholars, activists, students, and communities have come together in many different events across this nation to demonstrate that America has a suffocating grip on marginalized people: we can't breathe. BLM has been instrumental in the organization of these voices. Many of these principle voices are artists and poets who refuse to be silenced.
BLM collaborates with other groups such as Black Poets Speak Out, who are committed to asserting that Black lives, do in fact, matter. Black Poets Speak Out lends itself out to the public with the use of YouTube as a digital and accessible platform. Poets can record their performance and upload to the website or simply upload it to a personal website with the hashtag #BlackPoetsSpeakOut and become part of the growing archive. This digital platform gives poets an outlet to express themselves but it also allows artists to use their art to resist oppression and liberate themselves and their community. McKay’s 1921 poem “America” wrestles with the double consciousness that many of the Black Poets wrestle with today.
Poem Interpretation McKay’s “America” in 2015
Poem Interpretation McKay’s “Exhortation: Summer 1919” in 2015
McKay understood that the struggle for a more equitable society could be approached within an intersectional framework; he was known to work through the context of both class and race. McKay had a willingness to represent the oppressed masses of black workers in America. He looked to Russia as an example for the Negro movement in the U.S and believed that if Black Americans joined other oppressed minorities abroad and became active in international affairs then their cause would also be brought upon the international spectrum (Tilley, 74). While McKay was actively involved in Communism, and felt strongly about the capitalist exploitation of workers, his passion about racism was perhaps even stronger: “It was much less dangerous to be a Communist, he went on, than to be a Negro in America…”(Tilley, 71).
The Black Lives Matter movement promotes and engages with the intersectional identities of marginalized people. McKay’s work is an extension of this line of work because it speaks to the Black experience but it also speaks to an audience overwhelmed by the inequity we face today. The movement does not conform to popular modes of leadership. It is not led by a messiah figure instead it has remained a collective and collaborative effort. Likewise, McKay’s work speaks on the power of a collective as seen through “If We Must Die”, “America”, and “Exhortation: Summer 1919.” In these poems we can reinvent the idea of America and find “strength erect against her hate,” and “meet the common foe” as we work towards a “new world” collectively with one another. How can we engage his poetry with our efforts for social justice? McKay wrestles with the same problems we struggled with decades ago. How would Claude McKay engage with #BLM if he were with us today?
Poetry and other forms of art have always played an integral role in various social justice movements. Poetry is a powerful instrument of voice. In secondary schools we are taught the dominant narrative of America but when you have a poem such as McKays “America” or Langston Hughes “I, Too” then we begin to learn the entire story and come to learn other narratives that are often silenced. McKay’s voice calls for militant action in the name of self-defense and social justice. His work has social and cultural impact, the kind that can be used to teach people how to think critically about issues concerning the world today. There is importance in reading McKay’s work and reading other authors outside the Eurocentric literary canon. The practice of reading African American authors and poets in the context of American culture and history enables activists, students and communities in analyzing the ramifications of systematic oppression. We must first educate ourselves and bring awareness to these repressive structures in order to dismantle them.
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
Baker, Houston A. “Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance.” American Quarterly 39.1 (1987): 84-97. Print.
Forster Chris, and Roopika Risam. “Harlem Shadows: An Electronic Edition.” Harlem Shadows: An Electronic Edition. N.p., n.d. Web. O5 Oct. 2015.
Tilley, Tyrone. “The Problems of a Black Radical.” Claude McKay: A Black Poet’s Struggle for Identity. Amherst: U of Massachusetts, 1992. 38-75. Print.