In his poem “America,” Claude McKay establishes the largest tension that existed in the United States in the 1920s: freedom and oppression. He states “Giving me strength erect against her [Americas] hate” (6). This presents the tension within the poem and in America at the time. What could he could possibly mean by saying that the same thing that hates him can give him strength against itself? McKay seemed to have a love-hate relationship with the country.
By the 1920s, African Americans were legally equal to whites, however, they were also legally segregated due to The Jim Crow Laws. These contradictory laws defined America at the time; The U.S was an arsenal of democracy, but was concurrently founded on racism and oppression. McKay portrays this deeply ingrained oppressive behavior when he states, “she [America] feeds me bread of bitterness” (1) and “[America] sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth” (2). America is harming African Americans and denying them the chance to pursue their goals: “Stealing my breath of life” (3). Nonetheless, McKay then quickly turns the poem to express his simultaneous love for America.
Despite the oppression and de facto inequality of the time: “Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood” (7), McKay seemed to think there was hope. He confidently believed that African Americans could attain true freedom and meet their full potentials. He states, “I love this cultured hell” (4). He seems to love America because it allows the oppressed to defend themselves, as their basic human right, despite the oppressions. He believes that it’s worth it to stick around to fight back for freedom rather than giving up: “Yet, as a rebel fronts a king in state/I stand within her walls with not a shred/Of terror […]” (8-10). He’s been taught by and strengthened by America to believe in freedom–now he is ready to fight for it. McKay’s positive and rather hopeful mood in the poem is indicative of the newly acquired mood African Americans had in the 1920s.
The 1920s was governed by The Harlem Renaissance, a period of literary, artistic and intellectual movement. It prompted blacks to adopt a new cultural identity and feel pride in their race. Rather than concentrating on the past or the present oppressive conditions, they looked into the future and saw positive change. McKay makes this view clear at the end of his poem, “Darkly I gaze into the days ahead, And see her might and granite wonders there” (11-12). He, as the others, seemed to believe they would receive “priceless treasures” (14) if they stuck around and fought through.
In regards to poetic conventions I also found something interesting (which also helps to reinforce the historical connection to the 1920s): the personification of America. McKay uses the pronoun “her” to personify America. I figured he wanted to make a connection to the relationship of a mother (America) and her child (African Americans). Perhaps “her” could represented a relationship between a female (America) and her lover (African Americans). A mother-child or love relationship is usually complicated. One must depend on a mother or lover for things we appreciate and look forward too, however, we might also become frustrated and want to rebel against them. It’s another kind of love-hate relationship.
-Why does McKay refer to America as “her”? Would it have been different/mattered if he used a male pronoun instead?
-Overall positive message to convey or a negative one? Do you think it conveys said message successfully? How do you think the readers (white/black) at the time responded to McKay’s carefully chosen contrasting words?