Adherly’s Post

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?

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4 Responses to Adherly’s Post

  1. I agree with the comments bellow: I think that using a female pronoun for America, is a societal convention. The homeland is associated with the females because they that tend traditionally would tend to the home. Still, the question is very interesting. Women and mothers specifically (i.e. the phrase “motherland”) is traditionally considered to be the caregivers, the loving ones, the ones baring unconditional love. If America was a “he” I think the sound of the poem would be less of a conflict between love and pain, and mostly focus on the painful aspect. The father figure is associated (traditional stereotypes) as the strict enforcer of rules and justice, as the one that can determine if the child is in trouble or not. If the country was a “he”, I feel that Kay may feel that there was no real place for African Americans, because the justice and harshness that America had enforced for a more then a century was corrupt. I think specifically America being a “she”, a compassionate figure, a mother figure that loves its children, is there hope for a less oppressive future.

  2. I agree with the comments bellow: I think that using a female pronoun for America, is a societal convention. The homeland is associated with the females because they that tend traditionally would tend to the home. Still, the question is very interesting. Women and mothers specifically (i.e. the phrase “motherland”) is traditionally considered to be the caregivers, the loving ones, the ones baring unconditional love. If America was a “he” I think the sound of the poem would be less of a conflict between love and pain, and mostly focus on the painful aspect. The father figure is associated (traditional stereotypes) as the strict enforcer of rules and justice, as the one that can determine if the child is in trouble or not. If the country was a “he”, I feel that Kay may feel that there was no real place for African Americans, because the justice and harshness that America had enforced for a more then a century was corrupt. I think specifically America being a “she”, a compassionate figure, a mother figure that loves its children, is there hope for a less oppressive future.

  3. Rahul Roy says:

    McKay’s referring to America as a “her” is not an unusual concept. But in the case of this poem it does have its strategic advantages. The phrase “motherland” or “mother-country” can often be used to identify one’s homeland or country of background. Since America ended up becoming this bucket of people from mixed European lands and former slaves, the country can be referred to as its inhabitants mother-land. Although McKay expresses this “love-hate” relationship with America, it can be resembling of more of a relationship of an adolescent and their mother. Mothers are not always right nor the ideal image of perfection. But for the most part, most mothers do their best to look over their children and that comparison can be seen as McKay writes his first 5-6 lines. He expresses his distaste but ultimate satisfaction with his treatment by America. A male pronoun would have appeared much different; it would run away from the norm for starters. Secondly, father and son relationships are fundamentally deemed less rooted than mother and son relationships. As it is said often, nothing is greater than motherly love.

  4. I think you can look at the use of America in the female pronoun in two ways. One is convention. Often people use the female pronoun (for whatever weird reason) when talking about big, traditionally masculine objects like a ship. But I think using “her” here is key to one of the messages of the poem. America isn’t an “it.” It’s (no wordplay intended) a living, breathing, dynamic entity. I think that is part of what McKay is trying to convey.

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