Claude Mc Kay And The Harlem Renaissance
Claude McKay and the Harlem Renaissance
The Harlem Renaissance was a cultural movement in 1920s America during which black art, literature, and music experienced renewal and growth, originating in New York City’s Harlem district. Racism, discrimination, segregation these were all factors of an American African’s life during the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance was a racial consciousness, a time where people of color were allowed to speak their minds through their literature, art, and music. Claude McKay, a Jamaican immigrant, came on New York at the age of 25 and here he became part of the Harlem Renaissance by joining a group of black radicals. “If We Must Die”, a poem written by McKay in 1919 and “The Tired Worker”, written in 1922 contributed to the Renaissance by portraying an African American’s life as a worker. McKay is a direct connection to his poems through that Harlem Renaissance by him living through it and writing his poems based on the people’s lives living in Harlem during that time period.
During the Harlem Renaissance there was no particular literary style. However, some commons themes existed, one of these being a strong sense of ethnic pride and longing for public and political parity. With this being a popular theme Claude McKay based his poem, “If We Must Die,” on self-importance, not just for a single person but also for the African American community as a whole. During these times of the early 1900’s, racial equality was nonexistent. Racism was an everyday encounter for a black person whether they were looked down upon on the streets or at work, African Americans were inferior and treated like dogs. “If we must die, let it not be like hogs,” (If We Must Die line 1). Let it not be like hogs, this shows how African Americans were seen as, animals. Claude McKay, having come to New York during the start of the renaissance, had been treated unfairly since day one. He grew up in this community where people were prejudice. This poem’s theme he chose from a fact of his everyday life. Even though this poem is only 14 lines, it is able to show the readers a part of a black man’s life. A feeling that they constantly have and are given by the whites, all they want is to be honored and treated like men. “If we must die, O let us nobly die,” (line 5). Everyone dies however all these people are asking is to be treated equally and die peacefully, die as men. Only wanting to be respected. The Harlem Renaissance was what led up to the freedom and civil rights in the mid 1900’s. Claude McKay, living through the Harlem Renaissance was able to speak through his words, express his feelings through his poems. Throughout this short poem McKay speaks in first person, showing that he is talking about the African American community as a whole and how they must stand up and fight back. “Shall be constrained to honor us through the dead,” (line 8). During the 1910’s, McKay and a group of other African American men fought for their freedom, the founded the semi secret revolutionary organization called the African Blood Brotherhood. This was a group who fought for their culture and race. This directly connects to the poem, which says that they will have their honor. During his childhood, Claude was taught who his ancestors were and how they were brought from Madagascar in chains. They were to be sold on the auction blocks, but they began a death strike,
saying that if they were to be sold to different families they would intentionally kill themselves. McKay’s’ parents told him this because they wanted their son to be proud of where he came from and never forget his culture. For this he and others fought, through literature. By writing this poem, McKay was able to express feelings of not only his, but others as well and speak freely. “If We Must Die” was only one poem written by McKay having a direct connection to the Harlem Renaissance, another was “The Tired Worker”.
“The Tired Worker” is a poem based on the hardships of an African American working in New York City. It talks about the racism by the whites, working conditions, and how painful it is both inside and out. “Be patient, weary body, soon the night; Will wrap thee gently in her sable sheet,” (“The Tired Worker” line 5-6). This shows how they worked all day waiting till night. Their bodies ached, their mind swelled, and exhaustion was hovering over them. However, even with these poor conditions there was nothing they could do about it, nothing they could do to change the conditions. They were desperate for the money and they only way to receive it was to work in these poor and harsh settings. McKay wrote this poem based on the everyday life of an African American working in the city. Not only was he one of these men, working on the railroads, his father in Jamaica was also a peasant. Even though his father was not one in New York City, the same conditions applied to his father and how he could do nothing about it because money for the family was needed. “The wretched day was theirs, the night is mine,” (line 9). Not only does this poem express the suffering of their work, it also shows how African Americans were looked down upon and forced to work in
prejudice environments. Even with publishing poems and novels, McKay didn’t make enough money to support his family and was forced to work in the shipbuilding yard. The conditions and racism from this poem is a direct link to the experiences he encountered during his day job. “Weary my veins, my brain, my life! Have Pity!” (line 13). They are exhausted, physically and mentally. The African Americans in Harlem are tired. Tired of the working conditions, tired of the treatment, tired of the racism, they just want time, time for themselves to recover and rest. “To rest thy tired hands and aching feet,” (line 8). The life in New York during the Harlem Renaissance, and even before that, was not easy for an African American. Even though these jobs were ruthless, they needed them and the job needed labors. The black people needed the money to survive, many not being given a proper education, this was there only chance in receiving money for their families, and without it they would starve. The jobs were hard and cruel, they were horrible for the people, all the workers wanted out, however this was their only option, there was no other way. That is why, even though they jobs available were horrible, they were needed. Times during the Harlem Renaissance were not easy for a black person trying to survive; it was tough for McKay and others around him.
Harlem Renaissance was a period of change, coming out of the darkness. People were beginning to obtain hope, hope for a future, hope for freedom, hope for a better life. Times were difficult for McKay, as shown in his two poems, times were difficult for almost all African Americans at this stage. However, things were changing and that was known. Black people were reaching out for a better place in society, wanting a chance to be seen as men and women, not as animals. This was the beginning of the for many and within 30 years after the Harlem Renaissance, the African Americans had reached what they had been searching for all along, they had reached what they deserved, equality.
Claude McKay. Wikepedia. 13 March 2006.
McKay, Claude.“Tired Worker”. Poem Hunter. 13 March 2006
—.“If We Must Die.” University of Washington. 13 March 2006.
Woloch, Nancy. “The Harlem Rennaissance”. The Americans Reconstruction through the
20th Century. Evanston, Illinois: McDougal Little Inc., 1999, 470-475.