Two from Claude McKay (1890 – 1948), a Jamaican-born poet who moved to the United States as a young man. He lived in Harlem and became associated with the writers and political activists of the Harlem Renaissance. As a black man in the United States, he was of course forced to deal with racism; some of his poems deal directly with themes such as lynching, and others, such as the two sympathetic looks at Harlem women presented here, deal more generally with the hardships (but also beauties) of life. In the context of the poetry written during his life, his forms and vocabulary are traditional and downright reactionary, but in the racial context of his times, there is something deeply radical about a black man claiming his right to these European forms – demonstrating equality through mastery of the English-language tradition. (There is another, better known, tradition of racial subversion in African-American poetry, with Langston Hughes as its examplar, which draws inspiration from African-American cultural traditions such as the blues or jazz; I decided to use some poems by McKay here because he is not as well known.)
I took these poems from the Library of America anthology American Poetry: The Twentieth Century, Volume One: Henry Adams to Dorothy Parker.
The Harlem Dancer
Applauding youths laughed with young prostitutes
And watched her perfect, half-clothed body sway;
Her voice was like the sound of blended flutes
Blown by black players upon a picnic day.
She sang and danced on gracefully and calm,
The light gauze hanging loose about her form;
To me she seemed a proudly-swaying palm
Grown lovelier for passing through a storm.
Upon her swarthy neck black, shiny curls
Profusely fell; and, tossing coins in praise,
The wine-flushed, bold-eyed boys, and even the girls,
Devoured her with eager, passionate gaze:
But, looking at her falsely-smiling face,
I knew her self was not in that strange place.
I hear the halting footsteps of a lass
In Negro Harlem when the night lets fall
Its veil. I see the shapes of girls who pass
Eager to heed desire’s insistent call:
Ah, little dark girls, who in slippered feet
Go prowling through the night from street to street.
Through the long night until the silver break
Of day the little gray feet know no rest,
Through the lone night until the last snow-flake
Has dropped from heaven upon the earth’s white breast,
The dusky, half-clad girls of tired feet
Are trudging, thinly shod, from street to street.
Ah, stern harsh world, that in the wretched way
Of poverty, dishonour and disgrace,
Has pushed the timid little fleet 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.