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Claude McKay’s “The Harlem Dancer” is a poem immersed in the rich cultural aesthetic of a cultural renaissance that is unable to conceal its somber song of oppression, even in an atmosphere trying relentlessly to exorcise those sour notes. The infected atmosphere in question is a Harlem nightclub, in which a beautiful, black female dances away her hardships as “laughing youths,” “prostitutes,” and the speaker watch. Using the speaker’s unique perspective, and the strict sonnet form, McKay illuminates both the beauty of resilience and degradation of the African American “self” perpetuated by racial oppression.
Initially, a division is drawn between the speaker and the rest of the audience because of a difference in race and perhaps morality. Critic Beth Palatnik agrees, stating that the speaker “identifies himself and the dancer with blackness” (Palatnik). According to her analysis, the speaker assumes a position of moral superiority over the rest of the audience that sexualizes the dancer’s “half clothed body” (McKay 2). She notes that the speaker is more preoccupied with the woman’s “swaying palm” than he seems to be with her scantily clad figure.
Though Palatnik seems to believe that this evidence alone proves the speaker’s moral superiority, the speaker is nevertheless an audience member himself in the nightclub, watching this sexualized dance. Therefore, it seems hypocritical to suggest that he is morally superior to those around him who are watching the same show. However, perhaps the difference involves not what the speaker sees, but what the audience does not see during the performance. The other audience members are described as “laughing,” “eager,” and “passionate”; diction that alludes to their unburdened enjoyment of the performance. The speaker is separate from these “boys” and “girls,” and the slow, deliberate meter of this sonnet, antithetical to the raucous atmosphere of the nightclub, allows the reader to infer that the speaker is a more reserved and thoughtful presence. Critic Eugenia W. Collier confirms that the “slow, measured, dignity of the sonnet” form, contrasts with the “wild world” of Harlem (Collier). The speaker’s demeanor contrasts with those around him just as the structure of this poem contrasts with its setting. Maybe, as Palatnik suggests, his behavior is derived from his repudiation of the audience-projected eroticism, which she labels as “cultural rape”or maybe, as Collier speculates, he behaves differently because of the age disparity between him and the other audience members (Palatnik). Yet, it is a third explanation that best defends the critical assertion that the speaker of this poem is morally superior to those around him. In the ending heroic couplet following this sonnet’s volta, the reader learns that the speaker sees the dancer’s “self” as well as her body, creating a psychological connection rather than just a corporeal fascination. The audience and the speaker are both voyeurs, enjoying the aesthetic pleasure of watching the dancer, but unlike the audience the speaker sees the dancer as a fully actualized being, spiritually separated from her body and gender, if not race. The speaker sees her as a person as well as the attractive subject of his voyeurism, particularly a person similar to himself because of their shared ethnicity. He recognizes the intersection of beauty and pain that both define her humanity and, as the speaker implies, the African-American race.
Using the dancer as an archetype, the speaker and poet illuminate the codependence of beauty and adversity in relation to the African-American woman, and the black community in general. In accordance with the philosophy of this poem, adversity begets beauty and this is emphasized through McKay’s use of a storm as an extended metaphor for the hardships faced by the black population through the course of American history. The poem states that the dancer had “grown lovelier for passing through a storm” (McKay 8). Palatnik is correct in her assertion that this storm is a metaphorical storm of racial oppression, supported with the emphasis on race in this poem and exemplified in the euphonic phrase “blown by black players,” the description of the dancer’s neck as “swarthy”, as well as through McKay’s other works that focus on race (ie: “Mulatto”). Critic Cary Nelson argues that the dancer’s beauty and pride, epitomized through her graceful movements and “proudly swaying palm,” represent the gains black people had made from overcoming adversity (McKay 5-7). Still, while the dancer may seem beautiful and triumphant, the description of her as “falsely-smiling” in the final heroic couplet implies that the resilient “self” that she projects to the audience may be as much of a performance as her dance.
Although analysis of the speaker establishes his recognition of the dancer’s “self,” further examination of the last phrases of this poem suggests that what the speaker is seeing is not the “self” but the absence of the “self,” resulting from the dancer’s continued experience of racial subjugation. The speaker states that he knew the dancer’s “self” was not in the “strange place” of the nightclub. This line contains two metrical deviations from standard iambic pentameter; a pyrrhic followed by a spondee that emphasize the words “strange place”. This spondee’s function is to separate “strange place” from the rest of the line, creating a division between itself and the word “self” and therefore a thematic separation of the dancer’s internal self from her external environment. This tactic conveys that the dancer has overcome adversity through adaptation, protecting the “self” through separating it from her body, which exists in an environment of racial oppression and sexual exploitation.
The music playing in the Harlem nightclub fades with a final somber note. Though triumph is found at the beginning of this poem, it is only a triumph of adaptation. In this poem, McKay insinuates that the oppressive conditions African Americans endured for centuries still persist into his current era and that any projected contentment on the community’s behalf is as much a facade as the dancer’s “falsely-smiling” face.
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