As an influential Harlem Renaissance poet, Claude McKay explored the difficulties African Americans face living in America. In his poem, “America”, he discusses a love-hate relationship with America. This poem is comparable to a love sonnet, in which McKay voices his struggle living in a segregated society but simultaneously having an appreciation for his home. In “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” Langston Hughes is concerned with the racial issues during the 1920s, urging black Americans to embrace their heritage in their art . Similarly, W.E.B. DuBois’ “Criteria of Negro Art” urges poets to emphasise racial stratification by using art propaganda as a means for social change (11). “America” reflects the ideas of both DuBois and Hughes, as McKay embraces his identity and heritage through the use of personification, metaphor and unique diction.
McKay focuses on the duality of the African American experience. He juxtaposes the love and hate, and the despair and pleasure, which reflect the experience of many people. In the first stanza, McKay personifies America, and the diction reveals his feelings of contempt when “she feeds him bread of bitterness” (1). The personification of America as a woman, and more precisely a mother, informing the reader of a dependency despite all the obstacles the country presents. Given that America provides this source of bread, McKay alludes that the bitterness is a representation of the pent-up feelings up African Americans at this time and their restricted rights. Furthermore, the diction in line 2 when she “sinks into his throat” suggests America is trying to silence the black voice. While McKay is doing the opposite; he is vocal about his struggle a black American. He derives strength from it, and it fuels his drive to continuing combatting racial injustices (McKay 6). Hughes built on the idea of having a voice and using art to break down the walls of racism.
Hughes is vocal in his concern for African American poets who have said, “they want to be a poet–not a Negro poet,” and those who also write with a conscious or unconscious effort to not be black (Hughes). These writers shy away from African American heritage to immerse in white culture instead. Furthermore, he critiques the upper and middle class of African Americans who distance themselves and in turn, embrace the artistic and cultural ideals of the white folk. The “low-down folks” are praised for supporting the African American legacy by incorporating it into their works. Standardization has led African Americans to consider white culture superior to their own. This belief of supremacy creates the “racial mountain”, or obstacle, that hinders black Americans from introducing and establishing their heritage into the American society. DuBois also argued that the “white public” consider education, culture and art to be superior, and encouraged black Americans to reject their heritage and in turn appreciate white culture (33).
The first stanza of “America” highlights the negative emotions that are a result of the widespread racism. The metaphor of America “stealing his breath of life,” suggests how exhausting it is to struggle with the segregation; so much that it drains the spirit (McKay 3). This is not just a subtle line, but it delivers a clear and blatant message that is difficult to ignore.
DuBois firmly encourages the use of art as propaganda to challenge social norms and racial stereotypes (29). Art is pivotal in securing people’s rights. It can be used to sway public opinion and define a new image for African Americans. The second stanza of “America” indicates the speaker’s reluctant embrace of his home despite the difficulties. The speaker compares himself to a rebel that stands up against a king (McKay 8). As DuBois advocated the use of art in racial politics, McKay uses this metaphor to challenge racist ideas and show his support for social change.
McKay’s work manifests DuBois’ belief that artists should depict the effects of racial inequalities to make a political statement by producing a clear image of this darker aspect of society. Despite McKay’s disdain, the speaker “loves this cultured hell that tests his youth”, which shows the mixed emotion (4). The issues were not clear-cut. Long after the abolition of slavery, the prejudice tradition was still prevalent in society. Black Americans find themselves stuck in a society with false hope of true equality and opportunity. “Cultured hell” in line 4 presents the dichotomy of simultaneous appreciation for America and contempt for the imposed limitations.
DuBois stresses that art produced by blacks is not inferior, but rather just as good as that which is created by the white folk when he argued,
I not doubt that the ultimate art coming from black folk is going to be just as beautiful, and beautiful largely in the same ways, as the art that comes from white folk, or yellow, or red; but the point today is that until the art of the black folk compells sic recognition they will not be rated as human. (DuBois 37)
For this reason, he firmly held that all art is propaganda, and an artist that did not follow this should be dismissed (DuBois 29). Similarly, Hughes asserts that everything is a racial issue for the black, and not writing about heritage and identity means giving into societal standards and immersing in white culture (Hughes).
The Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement, was a period of social change because prominent civil rights activists like Claude McKay, W.E.B. DuBois and Langston Hughes firmly believed art must be used to challenge social order. DuBois and Hughes held that racial inequalities should be the core subject of artists’ work. In “America,” McKay presents the tone of how black Americans felt living in a society with a false promise of justice and equality. He expresses the mixture of emotions; anger at the social stratification, but also gratitude for his home in America.