by Claude McKay, Presented by Mehul, Sagar, Nathan

Claude McKay

  • Claude McKay was born in Jamaica, West Indies, in 1889. He was educated by his older brother, who possessed a library of English novels, poetry, and scientific texts.
  • In 1917, he published two sonnets, "The Harlem Dancer" and "Invocation," and would later use the same poetic form to record his reactionary views on the injustices of black life in America.
  • During the twenties, McKay developed an interest in Communism and travelled to Russia and then to France where he met Edna St. Vincent Millay and Lewis Sinclair.
  • Losing faith in Communism, he turned his attention to the teachings of various spiritual and political leaders in Harlem, eventually converting to Catholicism.


This poem was published during Harlem Renaissance, an African American cultural movement that attempted to push people away from negative stereotypes by showing prowess in the creative arts. During these roaring 20s, other Americans were becoming more carefree, but America did have a dark side. Blacks were heavily discriminated in the South and denied rights through the Jim Crow laws. Mckay is trying to show the hardships that the blacks faced, but he also explains that these hard times made African Americans stronger as a whole. During this time period, many blacks had mixed feelings about their country, and this is the dominating theme in the poem.
Big image


Line 1
Mckay expresses his disdain for America at the same time as his dependence on it. He depends on America for his bread just like he would from a mother, but the bread is bitter. So, the country was responsible for equality, as decreed in the constitution, but it was very hard to obtain.
Line 2 & 3
He feels like America is draining his life away. Mckay is claiming that when blacks are not treated equal, the spirit of the country is taken away.
Line 4
Mckay introduces contradictory ideas by praising America. When he says “cultured hell”, he sees a flaw in the otherwise positive characteristics of the country. It seems that he is thrilled at the challenge that society has presented to him.
Line 5 & 6
The source of his strength is provided by America, but he is using that strength to enthusiastically stand up for himself and rebel against the racial hate.
Line 7
Mckay is explaining that the discrimination is so widespread, that one person standing against it will not do anything, just like one person trying to stop a flood is futile.
Line 8 - 10
Nothing good normally comes for a rebel that has to stand before a king. McKay describes standing in confidence before the racist ideals to which society held, as a rebel would stand full of pride before the king
Line 11 - 14
McKay analyzes how statues or monuments are made for those who commit memorable feats for the country, and how they are remembered. The speaker then states that America will eventually fade away under the non-stop pressure posed by the unending press of time. It seems as though the author believed that American society will eventually fade away in the same way that so many great civilizations went into extinction without praise.
Big image

Tonal Analysis

  • Tone 1 - Critical & Bitter

  • Tone 2 - Dreamy & Passionate

  • Tone 3 - Brave & Proud

  • Tone 4 - Somber & Ominous

  • Tone 5 - Appreciative but Worried

Start the first tonal segment off slowly by speaking in a disappointed manner because it is talking about how America harms the people, and put emphasis on the words bitterness, sinks, and stealing, which are words that indicate the position of the narrator. Then, in a teasing tone, say I will confess, as if you are letting a well kept secret out. From “I love” start to pick up speed, speaking in an enthusiastic tone because the author is naming all the things he loves about his country. At the next segment, speak a little softer but louder at “not a shred” and “not a word”, which indicate self pride in the poem. Next, at “darkly” speak in an eerie tone as if foreshadowing some dark event, and in a lower pitch than before. In the last piece, change your tone of voice to hopeful in the first line as the author is seeing potential in America to become good. Then, gradually get softer and more somber to the end because “the wonders” turn out to be slowly disappearing over time.

Big image

Sonic Analysis

This piece is a normal sonnet composed of three quatrains and a couplet at the end. It is written in iambic pentameter; there are 10 syllables per line and emphasis is placed on each alternating syllable. The rhyme scheme is a typical of a Shakespearean sonnet: ABABCDCDEFEFGG. The alternate accents on syllables hints at the alternating views blacks had about America in this time period.

The words that are incorporated into this poem describe how it is difficult to live in a country filled with racism, but the speaker still loves America because it made him grow to be a stronger person. Words like “bitterness”, “throat”, “tooth”, “hell”, “malice” and “vigor” all give off a very strong, impactful meaning to the overall poem; the almost violent diction allows the author to convey the disappointment and harm that he felt during this time in America. As the poem is read out loud, these words seem to thunder against the meaning of the initial part of the poem.

On the other hand, when the author slips into a more serene state, he uses “love”, “gaze”, “wonders”, “unerring”, and “treasures” to depict a much more peaceful, almost placid aspect of America. By the use of this new assortment of words, America’s good side seems to shine through the storm, and show readers that the author looks forward to the future of the country, and it will soon prosper as it evolves.

Big image

Artistic Connection

This poem makes the reader think of “America” as a very stringent, cruel mother. The “mother” as described in this story is a harsh one, as the speaker describes her “Stealing my breath of life.” However, a mother-like emotional appeal still applies with “America”, because after the tone shift in that same line, the speaker seems to respect the harshness and cruelty of the “mother”, for these negative factors lead to positive strengths.

Sculpting and architecture are both forms of art that can be connected with the thematic sense of this poem. They can both be used to represent a vivid image in the reader’s mind while reading the poem. These two forms of art also give literal meaning to the poem, as exemplified by the lines: “I stand within her walls with not a shred” and “And see her might and granite wonders there.” The walls that are indicated represent a literal architectural connection and the granite wonders can represent that a sculpture is made out of granite. These two forms of art both create a vivid literal image in the reader’s mind of what the author is trying to describe. These descriptions can be interpreted in various ways, depending on what different readers view as the symbolic meaning behind these illustrations.

Big image
Big image

Thematic Connection

  • On a worldwide perspective, people can consider the poem as a symbolization of how one appreciates the struggles and hardships of a situation, for these struggles make them stronger. As an individual, depending on personal experiences, a motherly description could be portrayed, or a personal connection could be made that shows the similarity between the author’s description and someone in the real world that the reader knows.

Other Literature

  • William Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130” shares the same thematic shift in tone. Although McKay’s poem is more of a portrayal of a maternal figure and Shakespeare’s sonnet has describes a mistress, both see the shift in idea between negatively describing a person to the positive aspects that come out of these negatives.
Sonnet 130:
  • Many adventure books can also represent this type of thematic shift. For example in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, the main character, Bilbo, feels as if he is not fit for the quest. He feels that he has no purpose in the adventure and is a burden to the entire crew of dwarves. However, later he realizes that he learns a lot about himself and the world from the quest, and he appreciates his opportunity for the adventure. Other examples of these kinds of ideas can be found in other adventurous series’ and novels.
Big image