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

McKay's "America" in 2015

In this particular sonnet, McKay expresses deep ambivalence about his experience in the United States, to which he had immigrated in 1912 (see Biography). This poem speaks to a thriving time in the Harlem Renaissance, a time where there was a beautiful and intense merging of cultural, social and political movement. At the same time it was a period of deep struggle.

Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth!
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate.
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.

McKay personifies America, as a violent female figure who “steals [his] breath of life” through social and racial inequality. Yet, the speaker develops the strength to not only survive and endure her torture but to also transcend against “her hate.” He acknowledges that he is one rebel willing to stand against the nation’s injustices, he is “a rebel fronts a king in a state.” He does not plan to be the only one as he challenges his Black brothers and sisters of the diaspora to join him in this fight (see “Exhortation: Summer 1919”).

The speaker is willing to work towards the justice that America so desperately needs, despite the constant “bread of bitterness” that she continues to feed her Black children. America not only feeds her people of color bitterness but she sinks her teeth into their throat, “stealing my breath of life,” and yet he is determined to fight against the oppression. He loves this cultured hell that tests his youth because ironically she builds him up in her attempt to break him down. America is a motherly figure who is afraid to claim and care for her black children. She doesn’t simply neglect the speaker and the black people he represents, but she has a violent drive that “sinks,” “steals,” and “sweeps” him. Yet the speaker does not feel malice towards her. He appreciates that she tests his youth and claims that, “Her vigor flows like tides into my blood.” He feeds off of her strength, for it too runs inside of him. Black rage is a product of this nation’s failure, but so is Black strength and resilience. Despite this constant war against him, he speaks with passionate hope of what this country could be. He “darkly [gazes] into the days ahead” where real progress is made for America’s Black children because these “treasures” can no longer afford to be malnourished.

America continues to sink her teeth into the throats of African Americans and marginalized people. After Trayvon Martin’s murder there were organized marches across major cities in America where countless of us stood in solidarity with him and his family against the criminal justice system that failed to convict his murderer. These tensions only increased as we learned of the grand jury’s decision not to indict the white police officer who killed Michael Brown in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. America witnessed the riots that ignited that very night.

Mainstream media covered the violence that erupted in the streets displaying homes, stores and cars left damaged as a result. So much so that the average passive consumer failed to understand the rage and desperation that this community was and is still feeling. This rage stems, not from a singular moment, but from the system of racial oppression that outlived Jim Crow only to reestablish itself as the New Jim Crow.

We can look to McKay’s “America” for strength against her current form of bitterness and draw inspiration to organize against the injustices. McKay’s work can be an entry point for teachers who want to teach students historical context and bridge the gap between then and now. Activists can use poetry to imagine new ways of rebelling and resisting white supremacy. People and communities can use his poetry to begin a healing process both individually and collectively. We must stand within America’s walls and begin her healing process as well.

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