Harlem Renaissance poet - Claude McKay.

Claude McKay: A Harlem Renaissance Poet

Claude McKay, a Harlem Renaissance poet, was a strong believer in equality and utilized his poetry to address issues of discrimination and inequality in American culture. McKay's writings, including "If We Must Die," "Harlem Shadows," and "America," all depict the hardship of African people in the nineteenth century. The poems educate the audience on the elusive equality proclaimed in American culture, as well as the hardship of people who are subjected to injustices. McKay's poetry address issues of equality, ranging from gender discrimination to economic inequality. Through his poems, a sense of commitment to the purpose of gaining freedom and true equality can be seen in the manner in which he articulates all his works.

Analysis of Bait and Switch Equality

In this paper, the theme of bait and switch equality will be analyzed in light of McKay's works, his life and other influencing factors which led him to his strong belief for the economic, gender and racial emancipation of Black people. McKay's works were focused on the plight of women; the belief in freedom and emancipation of Black people and the right to equality. The themes highlighted above will be discussed within the historical context within which McKay lived and derived the inspiration for his work from. Moreover, external influences from other places which he travelled to will be used to enhance an understanding of the motivation and philosophy behind his assertions and the belief in equality. McKay, living at a time when slavery had already been abolished; however noticed that freedom and equality for Black people was not guaranteed due to economic and other social factors which hindered their enjoyment of freedom.

If We Must Die

The poem was published in 1917 under a pseudonym: Eli Edwards. If we must die was not only an inspiration for Black people to maintain their tenacity and willpower of fighting against racial discrimination but was meant to serve all oppressed persons worldwide. It was a call to action for those who feared to stand up against injustices which occasioned gross violations of human rights. For Black Americans, it was meant to be an acknowledgement of their efforts as well as an inspiration to maintain their struggle for true equality. To Anglo Americans who perpetuated the discrimination against Black people despite the abolition of slavery. The Jim Crow Laws, for example; were in existence at the time and as such, despite Black people being considered human beings, an assertion which should not have been recognized only after a determination by courts.

McKay meant to give heart to Black people who were facing oppression and chose to speak out against it rather than suffer in silence. At the time, freedom of speech was one of the rights which were reserved for white people only. Davis, for example articulated the plight of Black people around 1919 to 1930s who attempted to question the laws on equality at the time (Davis 477). Lynching was a common practice by white people who sought to ‘tame’ Black people by repressive means. The author asserts that the people who carried out the lynching at the time opined that Black Americans were animals as opposed to fellow equal men. The article posits that the common reference to black men was “black beast rapist”; a term that was used to justify the killings which in some instances were aimed at maintaining the status quo by instilling fear into the hearts of Black people.

It was in light of the historical injustices and the lack of equality at the time that McKay penned the poem If We Must Die. “If we must die, let it not be like dogs” (Line 1). The imagery of dogs used to describe Black people was no coincidence but a reference to the manner in which they were perceived by white people. The poet then asserted the need to die brave deaths rather than dying cowards. “Though far outnumbered let us show as brave and for their thousand blows deal one death blow” (McKay Lines 10-11). McKay espoused non-pacifist methods of attaining equality. He opined that due to the violence faced by Black people; they had justification to fight back in order to achieve equality. “Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack, pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back! (McKay Line 14). The line is important in showing the bait and switch inequality which was espoused at the time which further hindered the freedoms of Black American people. Although they were no longer slaves; they lived in similar conditions just as before slavery, striving for the elusive equality while enjoying only the mirage of it. Other poems in which McKay analyzed similar conditions faced by African Americans were: Trial by Lynching and Negroes in America (Zumoff).

Harlem Shadows

McKay had first-hand experience of racism when he worked in Kingston at age seventeen. Kingston at that time was predominantly white and as a result, Black people, however educated, were considered less intelligent and inferior and were thus given servile tasks. He himself worked as a woodworker despite being learned. When he later moved to the United States, he was also forced to work menial jobs despite his education and being a talented and published writer. As a result, McKay learnt of the discrimination that Black people faced all over the world despite the abolition of slavery and the recognition of Black people as equal human beings as opposed to chattel.

Harlem Shadows therefore came about as a response to the extreme cases of inequality and oppression which were faced by Black people.

Harlem Shadows depicts the social and economic degradation that was rampant in the Black American society in the 1920s. The poem shows the economic disparity in Black America and the resulting decadence that arose from the lack of means to earn an honest living that could sustain the families of Black Americans. The menial jobs that were paid in meager wages after the abolition of slavery could not sustain the families of Black people. Women who were most vulnerable in the economic setup therefore explored prostitution in places like Harlem in order to sustain themselves and their children.

“Ah stern harsh world, that in the wretched way Of poverty dishonor and disgrace, Has pushed the timid little feet of clay, The sacred brown feet of my fallen race! Ah, heart of me, the weary, weary feet In Harlem wandering from street to street” (McKay Lines 13-18). The lines propound the plight of the prostitutes who are found in Harlem. The tone of the poet is empathetic and somber due to the fact that Black women; having no other means to survive due to rampant poverty; were forced into selling sex in order to survive. The prostitutes only took part in prostitution because of the inequality which existed in the society at the time.

Pinkard posits the intersectionality that existed during the Harlem Renaissance. The author delves into the inequality that was already faced by Black people at the time due to being unable to access gainful employment despite their education. As a result, they were forced to do odd and menial jobs. In some instances, men abdicated their role as the breadwinner in their families because they were unable to provide for their families and as such felt that their masculinity was tested in such instances. Women were therefore left to care for the families and in Harlem, for example, some opted to become prostitutes in order to make money to feed their families. McKay’s Harlem Shadows therefore went further than his earlier poem’s depictions of the racial inequality to showing the inequalities faced by women in the Harlem Renaissance. Due to intersectionality of race and gender, they faced more discrimination and were more disadvantaged when it came to economic empowerment than their male counterparts.


Having been born in Jamaica before later moving to America; McKay was in a position to objectively assess the American dream which was espoused and believed beyond the borders of the United States. America was written as an observation of a Black person’s experience of the American dream. Although the dream was propounded as being accessible to all, there was no equality in reality and as such, only the white Americans enjoyed the economic and social benefits of the ‘American Dream’

“Although she feeds me bread and 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!” (McKay Lines 1-4). The poem, which is titled America is symbolized through a feminine persona which the poet used to illustrate the allure and appeal that the ‘American Dream’ had on outsiders. However, the author notes that despite the charm that America holds, all he receives from it is oppression which can be seen from lines such as “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” (Lines 9-12). The poet’s assertion is that of a man who is oppressed and his voice suppressed in a manner that he fears speaking out against the oppression. The author’s observation about the place of the Black people in the future is correct as can be seen through the continued discrimination towards Black people despite other people in America, who are predominantly white; enjoying the economic success and social freedoms that came with the American dream.

The poem ends by the observation that the inequality faced by Black people would continue to manifest despite the success of America in establishing itself as a global economic power. Black people would only be denied the American dream in that future due to racism. The resolve and persistence of Black people within the culture that is set up against them can be seen from the assertions: “Giving me strength erect against her hate” (Line 6) and “Yet as a rebel fronts a king in a state” (Line 9). The author notes that Black people remain optimistic of becoming successful and gaining freedom and equality despite the discrimination they were faced with; thereby denying them equal opportunities that could lead to their economic empowerment.

Miller assesses and reiterates the sentiments of Claude McKay concerning the African American experience of the American dream. He corroborates the position on the persistence of inequality for Black persons which resulted in economic prejudice and the lack of equal opportunities to advance themselves. Despite the progressive laws at the time which were aimed at recognizing the equality of all men; African Americans were seen as being inferior to White people and therefore undeserving of the same opportunities that the latter had. The author further asserts that there are many similarities between the experiences in the 1920s and the current state of America.


Claude McKay’s works were aimed at fighting for equality for all persons within the society despite the existing prejudices such as race. The works of McKay remain relevant in modern America in which Black people still face similar challenges to those faced during the times of McKay. The poems therefore provide a wakeup call to persons who are afraid to speak up against inequality or the mirage that there is equality when some people in the society are unable to access similar opportunities to others in the economic, educational, health and justice systems in the country.

Works Cited

Davis, David A. "Not Only War is Hell: World War I and African American Lynching Narratives." African American Review 42.3-4 (2008): 477-491.

McKay, Claude and Alan Lindsey McLeod. The Negroes in America. Associated Faculty PressInc, 1979.

McKay, Claude. Harlem Shadows: The Poems of Claude McKay. Harcout: Brace, 1922.

—. "If we must die." The Liberator 2.6 (1919).

Miller, Nathan. New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America. Simon and Schuster, 2010.

Pinkard, Michelle J. I am the woman with the black black skin: Mapping intersectionality in Harlem Renaissance Women's Poetry. Arizona: Arizona State University, 2013.

Zumoff, Jacob A. "Mulattoes, Reds and the Fight for Black Liberation in Claude McKay's "Trial by Lynching" and "Negroes in America"." Journal of West Indian Literature 19.1 (2010): 22-53.

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