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Claude McKay was born in Jamaica in 1889 and then came to the United States in 1912. Upon his arrival in the United States, he enrolled at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He studied English-style poetry that was written by Milton and Pope. McKay soon ascertained that college was not the right path for him, so he then decided to move to New York City. There he worked many odd jobs, and through his experience in New York, he realized the racism that lived within the country. This was what inspired most of his writing and led him to return to writing in a Jamaican dialect style. As McKay and his writings began to receive the recognition he used his platform to speak up about racial injustice upon African Americans in the United States. Soon he became one of the most famous Harlem renaissance poets. On the surface, Claude McKay’s poem America is a poem that combines what America should be and stands for with what it is and the mentality it projects among the people.
Claude McKay’s poem America is written in the form of a sonnet. This indicated that the poem has fourteen lines and has a pattern of abab cdcd efef gg. McKay chose to write America as a sonnet for a specific reason. He felt like it was the best structure to be able to express his feelings. He did not see the rigid structure of a sonnet as a challenge, but he saw the restriction as to the only thing that could set his feelings free. He saw that it was best for his strong feelings to be exhibited by finding a way for his writing to be in a form that could be directed. Since sonnets are musical, McKay thought that his writing can be more memorable. Both the form of this poem and the meaning of this poem are very closely related.
The meaning that Claude McKay was trying to convey in the poem was as important as his form of the poem. There is a shift of tone throughout the poem between the love and hatred McKay has for America. The overall message of the poem is that McKay wants to express how it pains him that he and his people are being treated so harshly. Then he goes to speak about his hopes of what America can become. Ultimately America is his new home and he wants nothing but the best for it. Claude McKay used his platform to speak up about this injustice in America because the average African American was overlooked when it came to speaking their truth. The poem states, “ And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth”(Claude, line 2) and this explains that McKay has witnessed that within America was trying to silence the voice of African Americans so that their voice cannot be heard. This poem’s literal sense is about someone being put to the test by a force and admiring their struggle and experiences. It also discusses how difficult this person’s life is and the courage required to persevere in the circumstances in which they are forced to live. The word choice and McKays dictation elevate the profoundness of this poem.
Within the poem, McKay uses figurative language to express the truth of the feelings of his work. Throughout the poem, McKay refers to America as a woman. In a sense this shows that this is a traditional sonnet, addressing a female object of desire. Within the opening of the poem, McKay proclaims,
“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.” (Claude, lines 1-4)
This shows the bitterness that McKay has toward the country and it is apparent that America is not a place for growth.
“Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate,
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.” (Claude, lines 5-8)
This is the positive attribute to McKay’s feelings of America. This simile creates the tone that shows the strength of his will to fight against injustice.
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,” (Claude, lines 9-12)
This begins the shift into McKay’s narrative. With him using “I” it is forming the bases for a discussion. He explains to the reader that America is constantly building him up while also tearing him down, and besides this, he recognizes that America is a brilliant place. “Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand, Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.” (Claude, lines 13-14) The final two lines are allusions to Shelby’s Ozymandias, and that the beauty that is represented in things within America can be lost through time. For example, nature will outlive humans because even though humans do not appreciate its beauty will persevere. The balance of the poem shows that McKay is looking at this from an open point of view.
Claude McKay writes him his poem America to stand up for the rights of African Americans in the United States. McKay came to the United States from Jamaica in 1912, and he had many hopes and dreams ahead of him. From this, he was inspired by the American dream and English poetry. Soon he was let down by the saddening reality within America. From this, it inspired him to use the pulpit to speak up against the racial prejudice that was normal in the United States. This is something that aided the African American community because they did not have a voice, so having bigger personnel support makes all the difference. Even though McKay is saddened and disheartened by this unappealing truth, he had much hope that the country could get better and more promising for the African American community.
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