Contemplating the title of this collection of poems by a negro, I am reminded of a negro playwright whom I met in Chicago writing to ask me if I would not come "into the shadows" to see him—"out of that wider world in which you live and move." He was afraid that my respectable landlady would object to a "nigger" calling to see me.
When nature places an agile, sensitive brain in a skull over which a black skin is stretched she creates one of her most ironical situations. For the possessor of that brain, to the average white man, will never be in any wise different from George the Pullman porter. He will be synonymous with crap games, razors and good-natured, deferential inanity.
Claude McKay has tasted fully of the irony, the sheer tragedy, of such a situation. An authentic singer, his head full of music and sensuous imagery, his heart of nostalgia for his native Jamaica, he has been compelled to earn a living in America by doing everything from "pot wrestling" in a boarding-house kitchen to waiting on dining-car patrons.
Usually, as in the sonnet "America," he is brave and defiant. Occasionally, as in the title poem, he becomes bitter. At his best he produces the sort of instinctive lyricism that is found in folk-songs. At his worst—and the worst poem in the book is probably "When Dawn Comes to the City"—he comes perilously close to doggerel.
It is no use looking in this book for elaborate nuances or a subtle music.
What does exist in it is a natural lyricism.