An English subject, being born and growing to manhood in Jamaica, Claude McKay, a pure blood Negro, was first discovered as a poet by English critics. In Jamaica, as early as 1911, when he was but twenty-two years of age, his Constab Ballads, in Negro dialect, was published. Even in so broken a tongue this book revealed a poet—on the constabulary force of Jamaica. In 1920 his first book of poems in literary English, Spring in New Hampshire, came out in England with a Preface by Mr. I. A. Richards, of Cambridge, England. Meanwhile, shortly after the publication of his first book, he had come to the United States.
Here he has worked at various occupations, has taken courses in Agriculture and English in the Kansas State College, and has thus become acquainted with life in the States. He is now on the editorial staff of the Liberator, New York. There has been no poet of his race who has more poignantly felt and more artistically expressed the life of the American Negro. His poetry is a most noteworthy contribution to literature. From Spring in New Hampshire I am privileged to take a number of poems which will follow without comment:SPRING IN NEW HAMPSHIRE Too green the springing April grass, Too blue the silver-speckled sky, For me to linger here, alas While happy winds go laughing by, Wasting the golden hours indoors, Washing windows and scrubbing floors. Too wonderful the April night, Too faintly sweet the first May flowers, The stars too gloriously bright, For me to spend the evening hours, When fields are fresh and streams are leaping, Wearied, exhausted, dully sleeping. [source] THE LYNCHING His spirit in smoke ascended to high heaven. His Father, by the cruelest way of pain, Had bidden him to his bosom once again; The awful sin remained still unforgiven: All night a bright and solitary star (Perchance the one that ever guided him, Yet gave him up at last to Fate's wild whim) Hung pitifully o'er the swinging char. Day dawned, and soon the mixed crowds came to view The ghastly body swaying in the sun: The women thronged to look, but never a one Showed sorrow in her eyes of steely blue, And little lads, lynchers that were to be, Danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee. [source] 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. [source] IN BONDAGE I would be wandering in distant fields Where man, and bird, and beast live leisurely, And the old earth is kind and ever yields Her goodly gifts to all her children free; Where life is fairer, lighter, less demanding, And boys and girls have time and space for play Before they come to years of understanding,— Somewhere I would be singing, far away; For life is greater than the thousand wars Men wage for it in their insatiate lust, And will remain like the eternal stars When all that is to-day is ashes and dust; But I am bound with you in your mean graves, Oh, black men, simple slaves of ruthless slaves. [source]
Distinction of idea and phrase inheres in these poems. In them the Negro is esthetically conceived, and interpreted with vision. This is art working as it should. Mr. McKay has passion and the control of it to the ends of art. He has the poet's insight, the poet's understanding.
Perhaps the most arresting poem in this list, and the one most surely attesting the genius of the writer, is The Harlem Dancer. It is an achievement in portrayal sufficient by itself to establish poetic reputation. The divination that penetrates to the secret purity of soul, or nobleness of character, through denying appearances—how rare is the faculty, and how necessary! Elsewhere I give a poem from a Negro woman which evinces the same divine gift in the author, exhibited in a poem no less original and no less deeply impressive—Mrs. Spencer's At the Carnival.1 Here I will companion The Harlem Dancer with one from Mr. Dandridge, for the comparison will deepen the effect of each:ZALKA PEETRUZA (Who Was Christened Lucy Jane) She danced, near nude, to tom-tom beat, With swaying arms and flying feet, 'Mid swirling spangles, gauze and lace, Her all was dancing—save her face. A conscience, dumb to brooding fears, Companioned hearing deaf to cheers; A body, marshalled by the will, Kept dancing while a heart stood still: And eyes obsessed with vacant stare Looked over heads to empty air, As though they sought to find therein Redemption for a maiden sin. 'Twas thus, amid force-driven grace, We found the lost look on her face; And then, to us, did it occur That, though we saw—we saw no her.
Returning to Mr. McKay, we may assert that his new volume of verse, Harlem Shadows, confirms and enhances the estimate of him we have expressed.