While patriotism, nationalism, and fireworks are on full display in the country today, I thought it was the perfect time to consider the interpretation of Americanness through the eyes of one of my favorite poets, Claude McKay. If only to give us something to think about and ponder during these chaotic times.
Today, we are going to look at his sonnet “America,” which offers insight into the duality of the Black American in the United States, as his experiences manifested in the forms of both the Harlem Renaissance and the reality that racism was a pervasive, violent thorn in the side of his class (as it still is).
In understanding the sonnet more conceptually, Donna Denize and Lousia Newlin state in their article “The Sonnet Tradition of Claude McKay” that McKay “feminizes” North America, which perhaps creates a loving, yet tumultuous, relationship between the speaker and the country.
They write: “One can’t help but notice how images keep shifting, as by the means of the sonnet form, the speaker negotiates the tension between conflicting emotions—passions invoked by the great promise of equality and innovation, patent traits of the American Dream” (Denize).
I hope you enjoy the poem if you haven’t read it because I love it; and, if you are feeling emboldened after this reading, perhaps try “If We Must Die,” which was the first McKay poem I read, as I feel like it compliments “America” well.
“America” by Claude McKay
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.
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate,
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
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.
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.
Denizé, Donna E. M., and Louisa Newlin. “The Sonnet Tradition and Claude McKay.” The English Journal, vol. 99, no. 1, 2009, pp. 99–105. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40503338. Accessed 1 July 2021.
McKay, Claude. “America by Claude McKay | Poetry Foundation.” Poetry Foundation, 1 July 2021, poetryfoundation.org/poems/44691/america-56d223e1ac025.