Harlem Renaissance of Claude McKay´s Poem “Enslaved”

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Creative and intellectual life flourished in African American communities in the North and Midwest regions of the United States in the 1920s, but nowhere more than in Harlem. The neighborhood of New York City, just three square miles away, is full of black artists, scholars, poets, and musicians. Some of the most prominent literary and cultural figures of the century have moved to or entered the ‘Black Capital of the World,’ helping to describe a time in which African-American artists have regained their heritage and ethnic pride in spite of systemic prejudice and discrimination. The origins of the Harlem Renaissance date back to the Great Migration of the early 20th century, when hundreds of thousands of black people migrated from the south to dense urban areas offering relatively more economic opportunities and cultural capital. It was, in the words of editor, journalist, and critic Alain Locke, ‘a spiritual coming of age’ for African American artists and thinkers who took advantage of their ‘first chances for group expression and self-determination.’ Harlem Renaissance poets such as Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Georgia Douglas Johnson explored the beauty and pain of black life, sought to define themselves and their community outside of white people stereotypes. Poetry from the Harlem Renaissance represented a variety of forms and topics.

Many authors, such as Claude McKay, used historically European forms—the sonnet was one—with a radical message of protest, as in ‘If We Must Die.’ Others, including James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes, specifically brought black cultural innovations into their writing, infusing their poems with rhythms of ragtime, jazz, and blues. Claude Mckay’s brief biography and his influence on the Harlem Renaissance movement Festus Claudius McKay, or commonly known as Claude McKay, was born at Sunny Ville, Clarendon Parish, Jamaica, on 15 September 1889. McKay mixed his African pride with his passion for British literature. He studied literature and philosophy with Walter Jekyll, an Englishman, who inspired the young man to begin producing poetry in his own Jamaican dialect. In 1912, McKay’s first verse novels, “Songs of Jamaica” and “Constab Ballads”, were published by the London publishing house. McKay used the funds he had obtained from the Jamaican Institute of Arts and Sciences to travel to the United States. For a minimum of two years, he studied at Tuskegee Institution (now Tuskegee University) and Kansas State College. He moved to New York City in 1914 to live in Harlem. During the Harlem Renaissance, he founded himself as a literary advocate for social justice. He is renowned for his books, essays, and poetry, including ‘If We Must Die’ and ‘Harlem Shadows.

In the twenties, McKay became interested in Communism and traveled to Russia and then to France. In 1934, McKay moved back to the United States and lived in Harlem, New York, and in 1940, he retreated entirely from Communism and turned his attention to the teachings of various spiritual and political leaders in Harlem. He eventually embraced Catholicism and officially became an American citizen. His experience working with Catholic relief organizations in New York inspired a new essay collection, “Harlem: Negro Metropolis,” which offered observations and analysis of the African-American community at the time in Harlem. McKay’s points of view and poetic achievements in the early part of the twentieth century set the tone for the Harlem Renaissance and earned the deep respect of the younger black poets of the time, including Langston Hughes. McKay died of a heart attack on May 22, 1948, in Chicago, Illinois. In this essay, we will know what poetry is talking about, and what the poem-based issue of black people are.

‘Enslaved’ by Claude McKay described culture as a tool of oppression and resistance. In this poetry, McKay reveals how they failed to achieve things like equality and attempted little by little to stop racism. The poem further revealed that the black race is capable of doing things that white people can do and of showing that they are human, too. The poem ‘Enslaved’ has a broader scope in time; from the time of slavery to the moment when the poem was composed. This poem begins with McKay’s contemplation of the fate of black people in America who have been ‘despised’ and ‘oppressed’ for centuries: Oh when I think of my long-suffering race,For weary centuries despised, oppressed, By this McKay wanted to give a brief description of the past of this race, which is unfortunately true. This race was oppressed and enslaved by white men, and by this time they had a little more freedom, but now they had to deal with racism.

Enslaved and lynched, denied a human place In the great life line of the Christian West; In verses three and four, McKay points out that the monoculture and the ethnocentric western party did not provide a place for black people. Western culture, which is presented as a ‘Christian West’ is more than likely to refer to the religious superiority typical of European colonizers.This verse serves to remind the reader that the racist tradition of the world that McKay has lived is not isolated to him, nor his neighbors, nor his country. It is a long tradition of hatred, oppression, and slavery that has stood for many ‘weary centuries’ at this point. Here we can see how power inequality can be maintained through culture. McKay later argued that Western invaders had caused blacks to lose their homes:

And in the Black Land disinherited,

Robbed in the ancient country of its birth,

My heart grows sick with hate, becomes as lead,

For this my race that has no home on earth.

McKay’s choice of words here is very cautious.

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“The Black Land disinherited” is a phrase with deep significance. In particular, the term “disinherited” refers to the injustices of colonial politics. Usually, to disinherit someone from the ownership of land, the disinheritor will personally own the land. Thus, to disinherit the “Black Land,” Western colonialism must claim ownership of it. McKay claims that the house of black people—whether in his native Jamaica, in countries across Africa, or wherever they may have migrated to Europe or North America—has been taken from them and the door locked forever. The grief for them has gone and is now sickened by the weight of intolerable hate. They are despised, they have developed contempt, and they feel it when they think about the house that was brutally and painfully taken from them.

Then from the dark depths of my soul I cry

To the avenging angel to consume

The white man’s world of wonders utterly:

Let it be swallowed up in earth’s vast womb,

Or upward roll as sacrificial smoke

To liberate my people from its yoke!

At the end of the ‘Enslaved’ verse, it starts to go from pure contemplation to frustration. We can see the passage of grief, and the speaker is capable of expressing their hate properly. The speaker also wants the existence of the oppressors to be completely destroyed by the earth’s ‘wombs’ or to evaporate as a ‘sacrificial smoke’ so that their citizens are released. He wants to help his people, to be heard, to give freedom and hope to his race. The voice of this poem is very demanding and gloomy, but it is not sad. There’s a change in the center of this verse because it began to be quiet and sad, and ended up demanding and furious.

Conclusion

The origins of the Harlem Renaissance date back to the Great Migration of the early 20th century, when hundreds of thousands of black people migrated from the south to dense urban areas offering relatively more economic opportunities and cultural capital.

Claude McKay was born in Sunny Ville, Clarendon Parish, Jamaica on 15 September 1889. After publishing his first books of poetry, McKay relocated to Harlem, New York, to develop himself as a literary advocate for social justice during the Harlem Renaissance. He is renowned for his novels, essays and poetry, including ‘If We Must Die’ and ‘Harlem Shadows.’ He died on May 22, 1948, in Chicago, Illinois. McKay’s poems are historical documents and witnesses to discrimination and oppression by one race against another. Such poems are loud voices against all forms of oppression, too. The interpretation of Claude McKay’s poetry often reveals methods to address racial discrimination and oppression. As the poem “Enslaved” demonstrates in particular, what is required is not only physical strength, but we must begin to question and battle the structures that make oppression happen, namely the ethnocentric discourse or thinking patterns and the excesses of the economic system of capitalism that make human beings like commodities. Racism and physical or mental slavery are unacceptable. But this is a problem that needs to be constantly challenged, predicted and discussed.

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