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Claude McKay, born Festus Claudius McKay, was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, a key to the literary movement of the 1920s. A Jamaican American poet, McKay used the point of view of the outsider or a ‘persona’ as a reoccurring theme in his works. This is best saw in poems such as ‘Outcast’, ‘America’, and ‘If We Must Die’. In these poems, McKay portrays the African American as the outsider of western society and its politics, laws, and overall state of living.
The Black-American literature possesses a community of themes and subject matters that best express the social, economic, and political situations of the Blacks in America. These themes are served as the background of Black American lives. Not to mention the protest literature which takes on the form of racial themes like racial oppression, the deprivation of a black individual, family, and community, rightful liberty, and many more. These serve as the main bulk of African American writing from the slave era up until now.
‘If We Must Die’ is an aggressive militia poem in which the persona calls black men in America to arm against racial oppression and lynching. He demands black men to go against all evil forces and meet violence with violence in ascertaining their ethical dignity in their struggle for social, economic and political emancipation regardless of all odds. The persona reveals the unbreakable dignity of Black Americans. Even if they die as a result of the suffering and oppression they undergo, they should not die like ‘hogs’ and should rather die “a nobly death”. “If we must die let it not be like hogs. Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot”.
The persona vividly shows the proudness of his motherland Africa in him, boasting about the beauty of blackness loud and clear in the presence of the whites who see themselves as superior beings. While round us bark the mad hungry dogs making their mock at our accursed lot If we must die, o let us nobly die So that our precious blood may not be sheet.
In the poem “Outcast” the persona sulks in his sorrow while talking about the experience as an alien from another land. McKay’s ‘Outcast’ is the poem which the ‘outsider’ theme is most apparent. He creates a vivid picture of the alienation to which the African American community is subjected to. He also talks about his root, Africa, a land that breeds peace, love and tranquility. He talks about losing contract with his culture only to embrace alien gods. He regrets ever being given birth to in a foreign land. The theme of alienation is evident in the poem. The persona is taken away from his natural roots in Africa and taken to a foreign land. He shows grievance in his remarks about his root; Africa. He weeps about the fact that he may never see it again in his life: “For the dim regions whence my father’s came My spirit, bandaged by the body, longs Words felt, but never heard, my lips would frame My souls would sing forgotten jungle songs”.
‘America’ is another poem written by McKay that delves deeper into the outsider theme in America. McKay voices his love hate relationship with America in this poem. He states that she ‘sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth, stealing my breath of life.’ He does however ‘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.’ This line indicates that while he struggles as an African American, it is America that keeps him going; that she gives him life even as she sucks it away. McKay is saying that he loves America not so much as an American but from looking on the outside, America is a place that has made him stronger against all odds. Another example of the theme of alienation is in the line ‘Yet as a rebel fronts a king in state I stand within her walls.’ McKay is once again using the point of view of the outsider rather than someone that feels ‘American.’
Through the poem titled” lynching”, McKay was able to reveal the bloody sight of the way the Blacks are lynched without being questioned. The Blacks mean nothing to them, and they look on them with disdain as if they are not the creation of God. The Whites take joy at the lynching of the Blacks while the young lads (whites) learn more about the act of lynching. The theme of death revolves around the poem when the persona talks about the spirit of the lynched Blacks ascending into heaven in smoke. “His spirit in smoke ascended to high heaven” will have final rest in the bosom of the Lord having suffered greatly on earth in the hands of his fellow white men. There is also the theme of pain and sorrow. Pain and sorrow in the mind of the deceased’s father who painfully witnesses the lynching of his son and could not complain or do anything because he too is in bondage. “His father, by the crudest way of pain Had bidden him to his bosom once again”.
Nearly all the literary works of African Americans reveal the hardships of being Black in America. Claude McKay’s poetry defined and defied the boundaries of the Harlem Renaissance. By creating a new perspective and challenging white authority in America, Claude McKay used generally straightforward tales of black life in America. From “Outcast”, “The Lynching” to “America”, McKay’s powerful writing and themes impacted Black Americans in the 1920’s.
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