“America” by Claude McKay, 1921
Although she feeds me bread of 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.
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate,
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet, as a rebel fronts a king in state,
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,
Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.
Claude McKay was born in Jamaica in 1889. From birth, he was steeped in a deep racial pride, which can be seen in most of his work. Early on, he was interested in the English style of poetry, and studies all of the greats like Milton and Pope. When he first came to the United States in 1912, he enrolled at Tukegee Institute, but quickly realized that university wasn’t for him and moved to New York City where he worked various odd jobs. It was during his time in New York that he began to understand the deep-seated racism of his new country, and it was then that he reverted back to writing in a Jamaican dialect style. Using his homeland for reference and inspiration, McKay became one of the most famous Harlem renaissance poets. He used his success as a platform for his race pride and for his crusade against racism in America. He published a number of collections of poems, including Harlem Shadows, which contains his poem “America.” Though his poetry received much praise from the Harlem crowd, he never gained enough momentum to secure a comfortable future. Ultimate, McKay died in a relative state of poverty and illness while working as a teacher in Chicago.
McKay’s poem “America” provides insight not only into his own thoughts on America and American racism, but also those of most blacks living in Harlem in the 1920s. “America,” though not written in dialect, has an obvious voice. McKay is not careful when describing the pitfalls of American society. He shares the hellishness of being a black man in a white world, calling life in Harlem the “bread of bitterness.” However, McKay is quick to turn around and praise the potential of a better future, claiming no feelings of terror or malice, but rather capturing the spirit of American optimism.
“America” was originally published in The Liberator in 1921.