Monday, November 3, 2008

Claude McKay, Poet Extraordinaire-3

I digressed a bit from the series on Claude McKay, to muse about the day when the spectre of racism is a dim memory of the past, the day when a black man can offer himself for president of the USA and the colour of his skin is not a consideration. But in a sense I was still on topic, for another of McKay's seething sonnets, The White House, did not dare to anticipate the day a black man could possibly sit in the oval office, but here we are on the eve of November 4, wondering whether the door will open up to Obama's relaxed face. Much of the pain has eased, though much still remains.

The White House

Your door is shut against my tightened face,
And I am sharp as steel with discontent;
But I possess the courage and the grace
To bear my anger proudly and unbent.
The pavement slabs burn loose beneath my feet,
A chafing savage, down the decent street;
And passion rends my vitals as I pass,
Where boldly shines your shuttered door of glass.
Oh, I must search for wisdom every hour,
Deep in my wrathful bosom sore and raw,
And find in it the superhuman power
To hold me to the letter of your law!
Oh, I must keep my heart inviolate
Against the potent poison of your hate.


On the international scene Cluade McKay is remembered for his anthems of resistance, such as the sonnets If We Must Die, The Lynching, and Baptism. The Gleaner notes that other Harlem Renaissance poets such as Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson and Countée Cullen, cited him as a leading inspirational force. Winston Churchill, in a speech before British Parliament in the 1940s in which he issued a rallying cry for Britain to go to war against Hitler's Nazi Germany, borrowed the opening lines of If We Must Die.
In Jamaica we remember Claude McKay mostly for his for his poems of idyllic times, such as I shall Return, which PJ Patterson (yanking the meaning from its context) was qouting after he was banished from parliament over the Shell waiver affair. We have honoured Claude McKay by naming a high school for him. He was awarded the Silver Musgrave Medal of the Institute of Jamaica for Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads. In 1977 the Government on behalf of the people of Jamaica posthumously awarded Claude McKay the Order of Jamaica in respect and admiration for his great contribution to literature. I remember some years ago attending a celebration of his life and work at the Ward Theatre. Claude McKay died without ever returning to Jamaica, making this poem even more poignant:

I Shall Return

I shall return again; I shall return
To laugh and love and watch with wonder-eyes
At golden noon the forest fires burn,
Wafting their blue-black smoke to sapphire skies.
I shall return to loiter by the streams
That bathe the brown blades of the bending grasses,
And realize once more my thousand dreams
Of waters rushing down the mountain passes.
I shall return to hear the fiddle and fife
Of village dances, dear delicious tunes
That stir the hidden depths of native life,
Stray melodies of dim remembered runes.
I shall return, I shall return again,
To ease my mind of long, long years of pain.

11 comments:

the prisoner's wife said...

i am enjoying the Claude McKay retrospective. i'd never read "The White House" and i am amazed at how close Obama is to breaking through.

Ruthibelle said...

Aaah. I shall return. Another CXC classic.

Never realised how poignant and beautiful the poem was till I read it purely for pleasure and not for some literary analysis.

Jacqueline Smith said...

Obama just hit 284.
Oh My God. Oh My God!

Rethabile said...

Claude has always been one of my favoutite poets. I like the way he mastered form, the sonnet especially, and of course his subject matter, too. The Harlem Dancer is my all time favourite. I'd never read these, thanks for posting.

Stunner said...

Well Obama certainly broke through, creating history!

zooms said...

Time , perhaps, to rename The House.
I like what and how you write and the things you draw our attention too.

Jacqueline Smith said...

Re thabile, I absolutely love the translation of your (user?)name; We're Happy. You need to teach me how to say 'you're welcome'.

Stunner, Obama's win is a major leap toward that place in history when colour doesn't matter. The boos and nevers that came out of McCain's audience when he asked the almost all white audience to rally behind their new president suggest that we still have a long way to go. But the tears of joy (I know what they were feeling was more profound than that)on the faces of many others speak volumes about how far we've come.

Godspeed Obama.

Zooms, I'm delighted to meet you, I came over and peeped at your corn buck blog and I like you already. Thanks for your kind words, I hope this is the beginning of a fantastic blogship.

shoreacres said...

I've never read Claude McKay, and am enjoying this greatly.

As for re-naming "The House", that's one thing I'd vote against.
History is history, the White House wasn't named for a race (despite the levels and levels of meaning that can be associated with it), and I do believe I'm going to enjoy the deliciousness of watching some of my fellow citizens deal with the reality of a Black man in the White House.

In any event, the election was wonderful, and McKay's poetry is great. There are good things to look forward to!

Jacqueline Smith said...

Linda,
These are certainly exciting times.

Isn't it delectable that a black man in the white house is no longer an oxymoron?

Zooms has a valid concern. My take on it is that a change in the name of the home of the president would be cosmetic (and the significance of that is relative to how much you depend on make up, or how important you think image is).

The change that has come to The White house is by no means cosmetic; it is fundamental. It shatters some core beliefs blacks and whites hold about themselves and about each other.

One of the good things I look forward to is the cleansing of our psyche of the connotations we now have of the words 'black' and 'white'. When that happens the white in The White House will be as symbolic as red in The Red Room, and blue in The Blue Room, and the green in The Green Room. Visit the website of the White house to see what I mean:

http://www.whitehouse.gov/history/whtour/redroom-ipix.html

Daisy Soap Girl said...

Your posts are thought provoking. My ancestors (relatives & others) would be proud to know that all the work they've done...the poems, the speeches, the songs, the marches, the protesting, the arrests and the deaths...has brought us to such a moment in time. And that all they have done was not in vain.

Jacqueline Smith said...

Thanks Del. Your comment reinforces the understanding that it's been a long time coming; it was a long and painful road to get here. Thought provoking, yes. I've been reflecting on the idea of a change in the name of The White House. I read over at Abeni's that the PM of Greneda (I think)is planning on renaming a mountain for Barac. I think that's ridiculous. No comparison between the two things really, except that as momentous as the occasion is, we don't sentimentalize it by making rash decisions, or by messing with historical monuments.