Claude McKay (1889-1948)
Contributing Editor: Elvin Holt
Classroom Issues and Strategies
I suggest that teachers begin with McKay's love poems. This approach allows students to relate to McKay on a purely human level and prepares them for the discomforting racial themes that dominate some of the other poems.
Students respond to the persistent racism in American society. Some non-black students want to know why they have to read such poems. Many of them believe the poems are "for black people." Some students object to the eroticism of the love poems.
"Flame-Heart" evokes the romantic tradition of Wordsworth and Shelley, poets whose work McKay admired greatly. This finely wrought poem, which expresses the poet's deep longing for Jamaica, his beloved homeland, highlights McKay's interest in nonracial themes.
"A Red Flower," one of McKay's most striking love poems, features brilliant conceits similar to those found in the poetry of John Donne and other metaphysical poets. Identify the metaphor in the first and last stanzas of the poem.
In "Flower of Love," McKay presents another example of his passionate, yet controlled, love poetry. Like "A Red Flower," "Flower of Love" turns on an elaborate conceit, recalling the best work of Andrew Marvell. Describe the poem's central metaphor and explain the reference to the South.
"America" is one of McKay's best protest poems. Explain the poem's central theme and describe the prophecy the speaker relates in the final quatrain.
"The Lynching," a moving expression of McKay's outrage against the senseless killings of blacks that marked the early decades of this century, depicts Christ as the victim of the lynching. Is the Christ figure an effective image, considering the context?
McKay's best-known poem, "If We Must Die," urges blacks to wage war against their oppressors. Winston Churchill used McKay's poem to revive the spirit of his countrymen during World War II.
"The Harlem Dancer" focuses on a beautiful black woman performing in a nightclub. What is the central theme of the poem? Does the poet articulate a point of view with which black feminists might concur?
"Harlem Shadows" is the title poem from McKay's 1922 collection of poetry. Who or what are the "shadows" mentioned in the poem's title? What does the poem say about the plight of black Americans in general?
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
It is essential that students get a sense of what it was like to be black in America during the early decades of this century. Students must also realize that McKay's Jamaican background made him particularly sensitive to the plight of black Americans.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
It is important to give students a good introduction to the Harlem Renaissance. Students need to know what the writers (blacks) were trying to accomplish. Students should note McKay's dependence upon traditional British forms such as the sonnet.
I help students to understand the social history that shaped McKay's work and determined his first audience. Then I try to help students see why the poems remain fresh and vital to our own time.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Since McKay was influenced by important British poets such as Wordsworth, Shelley, and Donne, it is useful to compare and contrast his work with that of English romantic and metaphysical poets. Stylistic similarities are often evident.
James R. Giles's Claude McKay is a good book for teachers. The text is well organized, and the index makes it easy to locate specific information.