Monday, October 27, 2008

Claude McKay, Poet Extraordinaire-2

I stated in my last post that Claude McKay is an important poet. Let me now clarify how so.

First of all he is a treasure to us Jamaicans. Anyone who can immortalize a simple Jamaican pass time such as gig throwing (the live ya Jamaican never calls them tops), or enshrine so much of the beloved landscape as Mckay does in this poem, is bound to be idolized.

by: Claude McKay (1890-1948)

O much have I forgotten in ten years,
So much in ten brief years! I have forgot
What time the purple apples come to juice,
And what month brings the shy forget-me-not.
I have forgot the special, startling season
Of the pimento's flowering and fruiting;
What time of year the ground doves brown the fields
And fill the noonday with their curious fluting.
I have forgotten much, but still remember
The poinsettia's red, blood-red in warm December.

I still recall the honey-fever grass,
But cannot recollect the high days when
We rooted them out of the ping-wing path
To stop the mad bees in the rabbit pen.
I often try to think in what sweet month
The languid painted ladies used to dapple
The yellow by-road mazing from the main,
Sweet with the golden threads of the rose-apple.
I have forgotten--strange--but quite remember
The poinsettia's red, blood-red in warm December.

What weeks, what months, what time of the mild year
We cheated school to have our fling at tops?
What days our wine-thrilled bodies pulsed with joy
Feasting upon blackberries in the copse?
Oh some I know! I have embalmed the days
Even the sacred moments when we played,
All innocent of passion, uncorrupt,
At noon and evening in the flame-heart's shade.
We were so happy, happy, I remember,
Beneath the poinsettia's red in warm December.

But Claude McKay is probably more important to African Americans (and by extentsion African Hyphen Anyones) because he was a leading figure in the Harlem Rennaisance. The Harlem Renaisance was, similar to that other Renaisance, a proliferation of all kinds of art and literature (I'm not sure about science) by African Americans. This came at a time when African Americans were just coming into a sense of themselves, and so it made sense that they should find expression in art. He is also important to African Americans because of the voice he gave to their cry against racism and injustice. He was a communist for some time but abandoned his views after visiting Russia and experiencing Communism first hand. A working class man himself, and a negro at that, living in the early nineteen hundreds, one is not surprised that (in his own words) this sonnet exploded in his head:

If We Must Die

If we must die--let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die--oh, let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
Oh, Kinsmen! We must meet the common foe;
Though far outnumbered, let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

The work of Mckay and others influenced the birth of a new movement among Black writers, called Negritude, which was a sort of consciousness and acceptance of their blackness. Chief among these writers were Leopold Senghor, former president of Senegal and Aime Cesaire of Haiti . Not all blacks suscribed to this movement, notably Wole Soyinka, one of Africa's Nobel Laureates who remarked that "a tiger does not shout its tigritude" , instead, "it acts". Ouch, not a bad point at all. It's this belief that preoccupation with blackness only reinforces prejudice that informs Denzil Washington's rejection of the idea that he's one of the best black actors of all time. I feel the same way. I'd rather be remembered as one of the best actors of time. But were Negritude not lost on so many negroes, like these women in this video at Stunner's, maybe we would save ourselves some emotional energy not to mention, money, which we could then expend toward bettering our lot.
If we were to look at the evolution of thought about black identity, we start with the Harlem Renaissance (of which Claude McKay was a leading figure), progress to Negritude then on to Wole Soyinka's idea that we should simply be. We have that right.


Jacqueline Smith said...

Correction; actually, Aime Cesaire was born in Martinque, not Haiti.

Ruthibelle said...

oh my gosh! I have been away from blogoshere for so long.. i feel like a starved addict... had to come get my crack!

Anyway, you know who I love from the Harlem Renaissance? Mr. Langston Hughes!! His poems are simply heavenly... talking about the dream like it's life's most precious element. You should do a little commentary on him!!

From I was little I know Claude McKay had to be somebody great, because his poems kept appearing on CXC papers! He really does spend a lot of time describing simple Jamaican pleasures... how can you not love that??

Jacqueline Smith said...

Hey Ruthi,
I hope you're feeling high enough now! Girl, your passion is infectious, all bloggers should blog for the love of it!

You're right Langston Hughes is an artistic genius, his forte is putting abstract ideas to pictures using words alone, and this is worth celebrating.

Yep, Claude McKay was a great poet, I'm remembering him in one more post.

Daisy Soap Girl said...

You go on Jackie Girl!! You've said it all for me!! And that poem still makes me, a daughter of the South, cry at the injustice that he felt too.