A Harlem Mans Yearning
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A Harlem Mans Yearning
The Harlem Renaissance was a time in our nations
history when a new kind of insurgency developed. In this era, African Americans were for the first time considered artists, not just Negroes. In the midst of all of this was Claude McKay. Born and raised in the tropics of Jamaica, Claude grew up in a very accepting society. However, moving to America he experienced first hand the harsh realities of racism. In McKays time, people loved his poems; he was adored by Blacks and Whites alike. However, his likeability can be attributed to his style of poetry. His writings express a yearning he feels for something that has yet to be fulfilled. This yearning is expressed in a plethora of ways, from longing to be back in Jamaica, to social reform; McKay wants something that simply is not happening.
Claude McKay was born in Jamaica in 1889. It was not until 1912 that he came to the United States, and at that time had already published two books of poetry written in the Jamaican language. He eventually settled in New York where he became part of what is now known as the Harlem Renaissance movement, a movement which consisted of an emergence of new black cultural ideas, arts, and music. At the same time, he was involved in Greenwich Villages white radical circles. McKay was not actually in Harlem for most of the 20s, because actually spending time in England, Soviet Russia, France, and northern Africa before he returned to the United States in 1934. He died in Chicago in poverty and obscurity in 1948.
One of McKays most blatant forms of yearning was expressed in his poem “Tropics of New York”. This poem begins with McKay listing certain foods, “Bananas ripe and green, and ginger root CocoaFit for the highest prize at parish fairs (lines 1-4)” In saying this, McKay is indicating just exactly what hes missing from Jamaica, in this case the food and the scenery. In the last stanza, he writes “A wave of longing through my body swept/ and, hungry for the old, familiar ways I turned aside and bowed my head and wept (lines 10-11).” This longing was rooted from the inordinate amount of racial prejudice he received while attending the Tuskegee Institute. This first hand racism McKay received, not only spurred his longing and yearning to be back home in Jamaica, it also spurred a hatred and resentment towards whites.
In one of McKays more popular poems, “If We Must Die” McKay is talking back to his community in response to a series of “race riots” which consisted mainly of whites persecuting and assaulting blacks. In this poem McKay suggests that a radical change occur. Here, McKay is sick of himself and his kinsmen being treated like subordinate creatures “If we must die–let it not be like hogs…mad and hungry dogs (lines 1-2).” McKay resents the fact that his community be subject to unnecessary injustice just because of their skin color. This resentment quickly turns to hostile anger when McKay says “If we must die…honor us through dead (lines 5-8).” In this poem, McKay is suggesting that his kinsmen (blacks) have no reason to be treated with such injustice. In retaliation to unfair treatment the only noble and righteous thing to be done is fight back, even if resulting in death it is their honor at stake. It is doubtful that McKay wants to see his fellow brothers die, but he claims it is worth while for their cause as said through out this entire poem. Without question McKay is tired of this unjust treatment, as a result he clearly is yearning for better, just days.
During McKays life he and his community were subject to an inordinate amount of callous treatment.