By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘America’ is a 1921 poem by Claude McKay (1889-1948), a Jamaican-American poet who is often regarded as the first major poet of the Harlem Renaissance.
In ‘America’, McKay offers an ambivalent and deeply critical appraisal of the United States of America in the 1920s. Let’s go through the poem section by section to summarise its meaning before offering an analysis of its imagery and its context.
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.
In the first few lines of the poem, Claude McKay personifies the United States of America as a tigress: a predatory female who inspires him to feel bitter as she sinks her tooth into his throat. By doing so, America steals his breath from him, stifling and suffocating him.
Despite this, McKay’s speaker admits that he still loves America, which he describes using the oxymoron ‘cultured hell’: America may be hell on earth, but it is civilised and can offer a young poet like himself opportunities, as well as challenges.
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate,
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Indeed, as America-the-tigress sinks her teeth into his neck, she injects him with the vigour or energy America thrives on as a country. And McKay’s speaker can use this strength and vitality to stand tall (‘strength erect’) in opposition to the hate which America contains, especially white America’s hate of black Americans.
America is so vast that her size – much like a giant tiger enveloping a man – easily overpowers and covers the poet.
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.
McKay’s speaker tells us that he is not unlike a rebel standing before a king on his throne. He is within the walls of the king’s city, but feels no fear, nor yet to does he entertain such base feelings as malice or resentment.
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.
Instead, he tells us that he looks to the future, and sees an unnerving image of America’s ‘wonders’ decaying thanks to the ravages of time, like precious artefacts sinking underneath the sands of a desert.
How should we categorise Claude McKay’s ‘America’? Can we call it a patriotic poem? It’s certainly ambivalent towards America, but is also begrudgingly complimentary about the vastness of the United States and the country’s growing power and might. Claude McKay is widely seen as the progenitor of the literary movement that would become known as the Harlem Renaissance. Unlike earlier poems
written by and about black Americans, and reflecting their plight, McKay’s work does not seek to rouse sympathy among white readers or to gloss over the harsh reality of life for many black Americans living in the United States.
In one of his best-known poems, ‘If We Must Die’, McKay offers a searing criticism of the racial tensions between white and black Americans, viewing the white man as a predatory presence who has power over the black man. And in another poem, ‘Tiger’, he had described the ‘white man’ as a ‘tiger at my throat’.
In ‘America’, the tiger is gendered as female, adding a potentially sexual dimension to the poem’s imagery. This is reinforced by McKay’s use of the suggestive word ‘erect’ (‘Giving me strength erect against her hate’), and the visceral image of the female tiger penetrating the male’s throat in a reverse act of sexual dominance or violation.
Yet McKay’s ambivalence towards America is encapsulated in this image, too: the encounter with the tiger is an energising one, and although it initially threatens to sap the ‘breath of life’ from the poet, the tiger’s bite ends up instilling him with the same life force which provides the tigress with her own strength. The message is clear: black Americans are oppressed by American society and are inhibited by the power of the ‘white’ tiger, but they, too, can share in the opportunity and power which America has. However, they can only receive whatever (white) America deigns to give them: the tiger decides when, and how much, the black man will feed.
The closing lines of ‘America’ reveal a similar ambivalence. The poem is an example of a sonnet (of which more below), and the argument can be divided into two halves, or seven-line units. The second half of the poem compares the black American’s struggle in 1920s America with white Americans’ struggle for independence against Britain in the eighteenth century: the ‘king in state’ is a nod to King George III, the British monarch during whose reign America secured its independence from Britain.
Once again, the suggestion is clear enough: white Americans secured their independence in 1776, but black Americans still live like subjugated citizens. They must continue to live as the oppressed people in their own country. Or must they? Elsewhere in his work, most famously in ‘If We Must Die’, McKay urges his fellow black Americans to resist such oppression, and go down fighting at the very least.
The final few lines of ‘America’ portray a future time when America’s might and dominance will be in decline. The imagery here summons Percy Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, with its memorable image of the remnants of an ancient statue in the desert sand, representing the only remains of a once-vast civilisation. America, too, will enjoy such a fate, McKay argues, although there is no glee to be found in contemplating such a prospect: he looks upon it ‘Darkly’, and compares America’s monuments and achievements to ‘priceless treasures’.
‘America’ is an example of a sonnet: Claude McKay’s preferred verse form. This marks his poem out (and much of his poetry as a whole) as different from much later Harlem Renaissance poetry, such as Langston Hughes’ jazz-influenced free-verse lyrics. The tight, fourteen-line form McKay chooses to use focuses his passion and sense of injustice into a narrow plot.
And specifically, ‘America’ is an example of an English or Shakespearean sonnet, rhymed ababcdcdefefgg. This can be divided up into three quatrains (four-line sections) and a concluding rhyming couplet. However, we can also detect two somewhat distinct (although related) sections in McKay’s poem: the first seven lines form one unit, and the last seven lines form another.
This is suggestive of an Italian or Petrarchan sonnet (although the rhyme scheme would be different for such a sonnet form), where a ‘turn’ usually occurs at the beginning of the ninth line. We can discern such a turn, or shift, in McKay’s focus at the beginning of his eighth line (rather than the ninth) with the words ‘Yet as a rebel fronts a king in state’. Here, McKay leaves the powerful tigress image behind and instead turns to America’s own history, in order to suggest parallels with the lives of black Americans in the contemporary United States.