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The poem “America” by Claude McKay is about both how America is portrayed to be versus America’s actual attitude and the negativity shown towards African-American’s. Mckay wrote this poem to express how he, as a Jamaican immigrant, feels about America. Many African-Americans came to America in hopes of achieving the American dream, instead, they were met with closed arms due to the color of their skin. There is this facade that has been created and accepted across the world that America is the land of the free and more importantly, opportunity. But, McKay highlights the flawed and corrupt system that crushes the dreams and aspirations of countless African-Americans. Yet there is a duality, McKay believes that even with the racism and hardships African-Americans face in America, the American dream is something worth fighting for. Mckay uses figurative language such as; personification, metaphors, and imagery to highlight the ambivalent relationship of America within the Black community during the 20th century.
The poem starts with the word “Although” setting the readers up for the ambivalence that’s to come later in the poem. McKay goes on to personify America as a “she”, by portraying America as a female it creates a parallel to the idea of being a real mother. A mother’s role is to protect her young, clothe her young, and to nurture her young. Yet in McKay’s poem the mother country only feeds her young the ‘bread of bitterness” and “sinks” “her tiger’s tooth,” into the speaker’s neck “stealing” his or her “breath of life,’ (line 1-3). McKay creates this metaphor of America being this predatory animal to highlight the violence the nation inflicted on to African-American’s. The metaphor is furthermore used to question white American’s self-concept of being the only people that have the right to inhabit America by comparing America to a foreign animal. This image suggests that white Americans are the real outsiders due to the way they treat African-Americans as it does not align with the morals of a true American. It also goes against the basic American principle of welcoming those from beyond the seas with open arms.
Despite the discrimination, the speaker declares his/her ‘love’ (line 4) in the first four lines of the poem even though directly before he says ‘I will confess’ suggesting some uncertainty. This line highlights the inner conflict the speaker is facing because though the speaker is aware that he/she is unwanted in America as the speaker describes it as “hell” (line 4) he/she quickly undermines this statement saying that this abuse is just America “testing” (line 4) him/her. This stoic remark symbolizes this idea within the speaker’s mind that this abuse is a rite of passage for the speaker to earn his/her rightful place in America. The end of this remark is accompanied by an exclamation mark showing the passion the speaker has for the American dream creating even more of a paradox between his/her thoughts. America clearly exploits the speaker yet, he/she uses this to combat racism and as motivation.
As the poem continues, McKay continues to expand on the relationship between America and the speaker. In the first few lines of the first quatrain, the speaker says that America sucks the blood from him/her thus sucking the life out of him/her. But in lines 5-7 the speaker now says America’s strength flows into his/her “blood” and brings him/her back to life. The speaker then goes on to say that although the strength given to him/her from America is within his/her blood it is used to stand “erect against her hate,” (line 6). So, while the speaker expresses America is the root of his/her strength, he/she is rebelling against America and using the strength it has given him/her to stand up against racism that white American’s imposed on African-American’s. In line 7, McKay writes “Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood”. McKay compares America’s power to a flood to express that while the speaker is standing up to the bigotry of America it is an almost impossible battle to fight alone as white Americans hold great power like those of a flood. But this does not mean that a fight should not be made. In lines 9-10 the speaker says, “I stand within her walls with not a shred/ Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.” so while this is a lone fight, it is a fight the speaker is unafraid to endure. The final quatrain opens with the speaker saying ‘Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,’ (line 11) which suggests that America’s future is a dark and gloomy one. The speaker goes on to say, “And see her might and granite wonders there,/ Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,” (line 12-13) this creates an image of monuments and statues in the reader’s mind. In America monuments and statues are used to represent America’s hardships or achievements. In lines 12 and 13, the speaker references to time to convey that these monuments and statues are timeless reminders of American achievements. But the speaker then says ending the poem, “Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand” (line 14) so, while these monuments are priceless sentimental treasures, none of that will matter if America ceases to exist.
By ending the poem this way, McKay tries to convey to readers that if America continues to expel hate onto others more specifically African-Americans then it will be the cause of its demise. The duality shown in this poem represents how many African-American’s felt during this period of time. They were often faced with mistreatment but they needed to persevere because if no fight was made, a fight could never be won. Through writing “America”, McKay helps explain a strange gray area that African-American’s found themselves in the early 20th century. They were legally free, but were still oppressed due to racist ideologies internalized within society. The confusion and inner fight McKay creates within the speaker represents the feelings felt by generations before us, stuck in a place of hope and despair.
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