Frustrating Duality: An explication of Claude McKay’s “America”
Love and hate are two of the most profound emotions that a person can experience during his or her time on Earth. On the surface, these emotions are extremely different as they are polar opposites, but a deeper analysis yields some haunting similarities as well. These emotions are two of the most raw and consuming feelings which a person can experience throughout his or her lifetime. Both of these feelings can drive a man or woman to behavioral extremes. Many have been killed in both the name of love and hate. Therefore, while these emotions are wholly different regarding the connotation that they purvey to the person experiencing the affection, the depth and breadth of these emotions are eerily similar. In the poem “America” by Claude McKay, the reader is treated to the beautiful expression of both of these emotions in a poem full of frustrating duality and an extremely strong statement about society.
The piece is a standard sonnet composed of three quatrains and a couplet written in iambic pentameter featuring the traditional English rhyming scheme. Throughout the poem, McKay ferries back and forth between his intense positive and negative feelings of both America and the American societal norms of the period. This particular poem was originally published in 1921. This was a very exciting time for many Americans as the roaring twenties were coming into full swing and society was celebrating the decade of carefree decadence, but there was a dark underbelly to America as well at the time. Blacks in the South, where McKay resided after emigrating from Jamaica, were being heavily discriminated against and Jim Crow’s ugly hands were clutched firmly around many of the supposed “rights” that were given to blacks. This bitter dichotomy of mixed emotion, which was the dominant attitude portrayed by blacks at the time, reigns supreme within this poem.
In the first quatrain, McKay begins by expressing his disdain for America; however, he also expresses his dependence on the country as well. When he states “Although she feeds me bread of bitterness” (1), the speaker is telling the reader that he or she depends on America for his or her bread as a child depends on its mother. This leads the reader to believe that the speaker in McKay’s poem recognizes the fact that America is the source of his or her provision, although the food that is being provided is that of bitterness. This particular statement also might lend itself to the underlying feeling that many black Americans were experiencing at this time regarding their limited rights in the South. The country was responsible for seeing that blacks were given equal rights, but these rights were restricted unless the man could reach very unreal expectations. This led to bitterness among the Southern blacks.
McKay felt as if America were draining the life from his spirit which is evidenced when he states, “[America] sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth, / Stealing my breath of life, I will confess” (2-3). This is another commentary on the how the unequal treatment of blacks at the time had the effect of slowly draining the spirit from the proud people. The speaker now introduces a conflicting idea that the reader might not expect. “…I must confess, / I love this cultured hell that tests my youth!” (3-4). Although the speaker began the piece with strong negative feelings for American society, he or she signifies his strong positive feelings for America in this line. This is the first outright evidence of the strange mixed feelings that the speaker expresses throughout the poem. Even in this line, though, the speaker uses the phrase “cultured hell” (4) which is another indication of negativity within the more positive spirit of the line further making an example of the dichotomy that exists throughout the piece. It seems as if McKay relishes the challenges, both physical and intellectual, that American society presented to him during this time period.
The second quatrain takes on a more positive focus, seemingly leading the reader to see some of the reasons that the speaker does, in fact, have positive feelings for America. “Her vigor flows like tides into my blood, / Giving me strength erect against her hate” (5-6). These lines indicate that the strength of the burgeoning country was the energy that fueled the speaker’s life. The most interesting interaction within this piece of text is the insurgence that the speaker brings out within the conflicting nature of the prose. While the speaker is boldly proclaiming that America is the source of his or her strength, he or she is rebelling against the provider of that strength and using it to stand up against the racial hate that was prevalent during this time period in America. Although the speaker is standing in strength against the bigotry and injustice within America, he or she seems to feel as if his or her personal stand might be insignificant within the larger picture of the struggle for equality. “Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood” (7). It is impossible for a single person to resist the mighty rushing waters of a flood as it rolls over the land. Perhaps, the speaker is expressing the futility of one person standing against the bigoted history of a nation alone. However, just because the speaker stands alone in futility, it does not preclude him from taking that stand.
“Yet as a rebel fronts a king of state, / I stand with her walls with not a shred / Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer” (8-10). Nothing good normally comes for a rebel that has to stand before a king. Generally speaking, when this did occur it was because the king was either handing down or carrying out a judicial sentence. This is another example from within this body of prose where McKay perverts the perceived societal norm and leads the reader down another less traveled avenue. The speaker is standing in confidence before the racist ideals to which society held, as a rebel would stand full of pride before the king. Interestingly, it is the reaction from the “king” that breaks down the expected barrier within the interaction between the two parties. He does not strike out, nor does he express ill-will or coarse words to the upstart standing in his court. The rebel stands boldly before the king within his walled fortress, because the rebel is protected by the law. This is another metaphor for the true divergence of the American ideal and the reality that existed within America at the time.
Free speech is guaranteed by the first amendment of the Constitution. Therefore, the speaker within this poem can stand before the governing body of American society in confidence because he knows that his or her speech is protected by the law. However, the antonym presented to this concept is the fact that many in society, especially Southern society, did not believe in the ideals of the king, and would bring hate and malice against the speaker for his or her stance regardless of what the king decreed. This is exhibited in places where discrimination and racism were running rampantly throughout society although the government stated that all men were created equal and should be afforded equal rights under the law.
The poem concludes on a melancholy note as the speaker gives his or her prediction for the future of America. “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” (11-14). Traditionally in the United States, in order to pay homage to a noteworthy citizen, group of people, or a historically significant event, a stone monument is erected in order for the generations of the future to remember the deeds of those who have come before. In this passage, the speaker is mentally surveying the statues that have been constructed as a reminder of great deeds and people in American history. The speaker then states that America will eventually fade away under the non-stop pressure posed by the unending press of time. It is interesting that the speaker uses the phrase “sinking in the sand” (14). This leads the reader to believe that the speaker believes that American society will eventually fade away in the same way that so many great civilizations ebbed into extinction or anonymity without fanfare.
The strong use of metaphor and duplicity within this poem lead the reader down an emotionally charged path. The stark duality that McKay presents within the piece is the purpose behind the prose. This is representative of the duality that many blacks felt during this time period. Although there are some technical errors within McKay’s sonnet structure, the point of the prose is clear. McKay is defining the strange place in which blacks found themselves in the early 20th century. They were technically free under the law, but were oppressed as a result of societal stigma and the prejudice tradition that endured in America following slavery. The confused cry that McKay issues from the lines of this poem are the echoes of a generation stuck between true equality and false hope.
McKay, Claude. “America.” The Norton Anthology: American Literature. Shorter 7th Edition. Ed.
Nina Baym. New York: Norton Company, 2008. 2147.