"A Man's Song (Review of Harlem Shadows)."

by Clement  Wood

James Weldon Johnson, in the sound and aggressive foreword to his collection, "The Book of American Negro Poetry," says that the negro is the creator of the only things artistic that have yet sprung from American soil and been universally acknowledged as distinctive American products. The four exhibits that he cites are the Uncle Remus folk tales, the spirituals or slave songs, the cakewalk and negro dancing, and ragtime. Let him grant to the Caucasian Walt Whitman's polyrhythms, and to the Amerind basket weaving and blanket designs, and the list is complete. In all fields artistic the negro is leaving a proud mark, the present volume being one of the best of his contributions to the awkward poetry of today.

Claude McKay was born in the island of Jamaica, in 1890. Before he was twenty-two he had composed many songs in the haunting dialect of the islanders; he is said to have been the first poet to have written in this dialect. In 1912 the medal of the Institute of Arts and Sciences was awarded him, in recognition of his preeminence; he was the first negro to be awarded the medal. That same year he came to the United States, and since then has earned his living in all the jumbled ways that working-class negroes of the North turn to. But his main goals were life and song, and to these he has paid his chief allegiance. He is one of the editors of The Liberator, and is yet young in his singing.

Mr. McKay is highly effective as a propagandist. Upon those racial themes which demand so clarion a voice and so impelling a music he is not lacking: ENSLAVED Oh, when I think of my long-suffering race, For weary centuries despised, oppressed, Enslaved and lynched, denied a human place In the great life line of the Christian West; 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. 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! [source] "The Lynching" has power and majesty, from its momentous opening to the sardonic throb at the end— And little lads, lynchers that were to be, Danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee. [source] "If We Must Die" is a powerful call to battle; this trinity of sonnets is one of the most effective things ever done upon the theme. It compares favorably with Du Bois's "Litany," with James Weldon Johnson's "Brothers"; it is superior to William Ellery Leonard's "The Lynching Bee."

As stark realist, such poems as "On the Road," a reminiscence of his dining car days, and the title poem and "The Harlem Dancer" for another phase of life, are vivid and gripping. Nor is he too close to the writhing to achieve the poet's penetrating detachment, as evidence in a line like this from "In Bondage": O black men, simple slaves of ruthless slaves. [source] He is both doer and seer in "America": Although she . . . . . . sinks into my throat her tiger's tooth . . . I love this cultured hell that tests my youth! [source] His tributes to his mother, especially the one with the line "The best of me is the but the least of you," are finely thought, and wrought as well. If he sometimes strays into an experiment as weak as And the tethered cow is lowing, lowing, lowing, And dear old Ned is braying, braying, braying, And the shaggy Nannie goat is calling, calling, calling, [source] this is forgiven for the loveliness of his love songs, "Romance," "Flower of June," "The Snow Fairy," "A Memory of June," and especially the bird-like opening of "The Barrier": I must not gaze at them although Your eyes are dawning day; I must not watch you as you go Your sun-illumined way; [source] I hear but I must never heed The fascinating note, Which, fluting like a river reed, Comes from your trembling throat. [source]

Mr. McKay is a lyric poet of strength and grace, with many varied keys to his playing. He is not an innovator in technique; Fenton Johnson and Anne Spencer, among negro poets, have gone much further in the newer modes of singing. But modernness is more than method. Mr. McKay's verse is free of the stilted pseudo-poetic vocabulary of the Amaranth-Asphodel poetlings, as of the inversions and verbal circumambulations of the What Time sonneteers and the Like As lyricists. His verse is modern in its directness and simplicity, its vigor and variety.


Wood, Clement. "A Man's Song (Review of Harlem Shadows)." Literary Review of the New York Evening Post. (October 21, 1922.).


Harlem Shadows (1922)

Additional Poems by Claude McKay

Contemporary Reviews

Supplementary Texts