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Day seven of commemorating the last moments of George Floyd’s life.

 

 

America

by Claude McKay

 

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.

 

 

Sonnets are elegant and sturdy things, holding in all manner of ideas and imagery safely behind glass, the curio cabinet of poetry forms. Claude McKay’s “America” uses the sonnet’s tidy structure to carry his righteous anger and the load nearly causes a collapse.

 

The racism in America that McKay encountered after emigrating from Jamaica shocked him, stealing my breath of life, as he says in this poem. He calls America a cultured hell, a beast intent on killing him with her tiger’s tooth. Still and all, he loves the bigness and energy of his adopted country and feels no terror, malice, not a word of jeer towards it. Which is why the turn he makes at the end of this sonnet comes as a shock—

 

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

 

I can’t read that without thinking about another sonnet, Shelley’s “Ozymandius” —

 

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

 

So goes, we hope, we pray, the way of boastful, abusive power. Into the sands of time, wrecked and buried.

 

*

 

Claude McKay (1889-1948) was born in Jamaica, the youngest of seven in a family of farmers. He began writing poetry early, under the encouragement of an older brother.

 

After apprenticing as a cabinetmaker in Jamaica and finding success with poems written in a Jamaican dialect, he moved to the United States to attend Tuskegee Institute. He left after two months, disliking the militarism and segregation he found there, and transferred to Kansas State University. He studied agriculture for two years and then moved to New York, working as a bartender, longshoreman and waiter. He briefly married his high school sweetheart, with whom he had one daughter.

 

Mckay was a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance, and his poem “If We Must Die” is sometimes considered the movement’s inaugural poem. Besides poetry, McKay wrote four novels, a collection of short stories, two memoirs and a non-fiction history of Harlem.

 

A bisexual, McKay was an early advocate of gay rights and acceptance. He visited the Soviet Union several times, leading to him becoming the first black writer tracked by the FBI. Later he would renounce Communism and the repression it bred. In the last ten years of his life he became an American citizen and a Catholic convert. He moved to Chicago to work for a Catholic service organization and died a few years later of died of congestive heart failure at age 58.

 

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