Black Consciousness Poet

Black Consciousness Poet


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



His sympathy for the criminals, whom he often considered the victims of an unjust

colonial order, could not allow him to work as a police constable beyond a year. 



Books by and about Claude McKay

Home to Harlem  / Banjo  /  Banana Bottom  / Gingertown  /  A Long Way from Home  / Harlem: Negro Metropolis  /  Selected Poems 

Complete Poems / Harlem Glory: A Fragment of Aframerican Life / The Passion of Claude McKay

The Fierce Hatrded of Injustice: Claude McKay’s Jamaican Poetry of Rebellion

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Lloyd D. McCarthy, In-Dependence from Bondage: Claude McKay and Michael Manley

Defying the Ideological Clash and Policy Gaps in African Diaspora Relations. (2007)

Edourad Gissant. Caribbean Discourse (2004)  /  Barbara Harlow. Resistance Literature (1987)

Penny M. Von Eschen. Race Against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937-19 (1997

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Black Consciousness Poet—Claude McKay

By  Arthur Edgar E. Smith

Claude McKay is mostly known by his much-quoted sonnet: “If we Must Die” which was popularized during World War II by British Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill.

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, O let us nobly die

O that our precious blood may not be shed

In vain;  then even the monsters we defy

Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!

O Kinsman!  We must meet the common foe!

Though far outnumbered let us show us brave

And for their thousand blows deal one death blow!

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.

Though the poem seems to suggest McKay as  much as “Negro Speaks of Rivers” does Langston Hughes, much of McKay’s best poems are characterized unlike this patriotic call for courageous action in defence of nationhood or cherished ideals by a racial hatred or even a challenge of the most violent kind for Blacks.  His verse on Negro suffering in the States won for him immediate recognition.  Coming from quite a different kind of experience of Negro degradation in Jamaica, McKay’s imagination was fired by what he saw in the States and this helped to give to African-American poetry a distinctively different voice.  It is the virility of a Caribbean poet who has been shocked by what he discovers in America,

For McKay’s early years there coincided with crucial years for the Black cause.  The virility of his verse was therefore in keeping with the prevailing atmosphere there then.  But such virility is based on more than mere bitterness.  It includes and depends on a certain resilience – or stubborn humanity.  This in turn is to be traced to McKay’s capacity to react to Negro suffering not just as  Negro, but as a human being.  For as he maintains, the writer must always retain this capacity for larger and more basic reaction as a human being to maintain his humanity.  He would  thus avoid stunting his emotional growth and his stature as a human being.  By identifying himself with his own community or race, a writer can proceed to that greater and more meaningful identification based on his humanity, thus qualifying him to handle “racial” material.  McKay always had this qualification imparting to his verse a certain universal significance.

Thus the “If We Must Die” sonnet was written after and relates to the Washington race riot of 1919.  But because it remains essentially a cry of defiance from the human heart in the face of a threat to man’s dignity and civilization, British War Time Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill was able to whip up defiant courage from Britons to stoutly face the war.

Claude McKay was born in September 15, 1889, as the youngest of eleven children of his peasant parents in Jamaica.  Raised in Sunny Ville, in Clarendoon Hills Parish by a compassionate mother and a stern father who passed on to his children much of the Ashanti customs and traditions of Ghana where he hailed from. His poetry demonstrates his undying attachment to his roots and a deep affection for Clarendon.  Such later pieces as “Flame Heart” and “The Tropics in New York” reveal his nostalgia for Jamaica when abroad.  His early dialect verse makes nostalgic references to the Clarendon Hills.  His father, Thomas McKay had always shared with his children the story of his own father’s enslavement seeking thus to instill in them a suspicion of whites that would become particularly evident in the writings of his son, Claude McKay.  McKay’s profound respect for the sense of community encountered among rural Jamaican farmers and a somewhat skeptical attitude toward religion encouraged by his older brother, an elementary school teacher, left an indelible mark on his literary work.

At seventeen, McKay through a government sponsorship became apprenticed to a cabinet-maker in Brown’s Town,  At nineteen, moving on to Kingston, the capital city, he joined the Police Force where his gentle disposition received its first great jolt.  For, then, West Indian policemen were recruited more for their brawn than their brain which fact they were expected to celebrate and honour every hour whilst on the beat.

The police force was therefore not the best place for one like McKay who was always upset  by human suffering.  His second volume of poems of dialect verse Constab Ballads accurately records such experiences  His first  volume of  poems Songs of Jamaica was written only to relieve his feelings while in the force.  He calmly keeps reprimanding those responsible for social injustices to his people.  T o relieve his feelings, he sought  to write of redeeming features in the dark picture.  His gentle nature led him to pity his people’s suffering and to protest against it.  He was thus compelled to relieve himself by celebrating their cheerfulness and other such qualities.  Their interest and vitality as human beings are enriched by their cheerfulness and good humour which  vibrate in spite of dispiriting conditions.  His sympathy for the criminals, whom he often considered the victims of an unjust colonial order, could not allow him to work as a police constable beyond a year. 

During the ensuing two years back at Clarendon Parish he was encouraged to write Jamaican Dialect Poetry by Walter Jekyll, an English collector of island folklore with whom McKay had forged a close relationship.  Jekyll had introduced him to English poets such as Milton and Pope.  In 1912 McKay published two volumes of poetry Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads. Songs of Jamaica with an introduction and melodies by Jekyll celebrates the unpretentious nature and the simplicity of the Jamaican peasants who are closely bonded to their native soil.  Constab Ballads centres more on Kingston and the contempt and exploitation suffered there by dark-skinned blacks at the hands of whites and mulattos.  These books made McKay the first black to receive the medal of the Jamaican Institute of Arts and Sciences with a substantial cash award which he was to use to fund his education at Booker T  Washington’s Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, the United States.

Poems from Songs of Jamaica celebrate the sense of duty characterizing the labourer’s resignation. “Quashie to Bucra” sings of the toil and sweat the “naygur man” (the black labourer) must put into his field, toil and sweat unknown to and unappreciated by the “buccra” (the white man).  “Buccra” attempts to cheat “quashie” of his due reward starts the poem off:  

You want a basketful fe quattiewut,

‘Cause you ne know how ‘tiff de bush fe cut

And returns to this theme in his last verse:

You tas’e petater an’ you say it sweet,

But you no know how hard we wuk fe it.

Yet still de hardship always melt away

Wheneber it come roun’ to reapin. Day

With the peasants’ resignation and pride in his work looming over the protest, the poem ends appropriately referring to the joy in the rewards of labour which is what McKay here makes of the old habit of the New World Negro of forgetting his hardships on pay-day in a bout of rollicking fun.

In  ‘Whe Fe Do?” and “Hard Times” there is a note of resignation. After complaints about taxes, poverty, sickness, nakedness and the daily hassle to meet growing domestic commitments:

De picknies hab to go to school

Widout a bit fe taste,

And I am working like a mule,

While buccra, sittin’ in the cool,

Howe ‘nuff nenyam re waste

Then come the key verse in “Hard Times” –

I won’t gib up.  I won’t say die,

       For all de time is hard;

Although de wul soon en, I’ll try

My wutless best as time goes by

     An’ trust on in me Gahd

His complaint  about unequal distribution of wealth is tempered by his determination to try against all the ordained odds.  So too in “Whe Fe Do?” as he mourns the hard lot of the Negro and notes the social injustice inherent in the polarization of the world into black and white, he sees it as the way of the world and celebrates instead  the imperturbable cheerfulness of the socially victimized Negro:

And though de wul is full o’ wrong,

Dat can prevent we sing we song

All de day as we wuk along –

        Whe else fe do?


We happy in de hospital;

We happy when de rain deh fall;

We happy though de baby bawl

Fe food dat we no hab at all;

We happy when Deat’ angel call

Fe full we cup of joy wid gall:

Our fait’ in this life is not small –

          De best to do.

These various attitudes in McKay’s verses may well have been only commonly held views and attitudes which he was articulating as part of the volume’s appeal.  Thus there is self-denigration when in “Hard Times” he writes:

De peas won’t pop, de corn can’t  grow,

       Poor people face look sad;

Dat Gahd would cuss de lan’. I’d know,

       For black naygur too bad.

Or there is the pervasive fatalism and the paradoxically concomitant reliance on God in such poems as this and ‘Whe Fe Do?’

All these greatly contribute to the humour.  There is the verbal humour and the humour of situation arising  out of the West Indian’s capacity for making fun of himself.  But it is also part of his way of subtly criticizing the white man and those responsible for his people’s suffering.  For belonging as he does to the victimized segments of society, he has carried the right to make fun of their views.  By contrast, the “buccra” has not.  So he accomplishes this criticism by stating the superficial position of “buccra” and contrasting this with his more authoritative voice.  Thus he criticizes “buccra” for wanting to cheat “quashie” but he dismisses buccra and goes on to sing of the hard-working quashie.  Or he criticizes the tourist who is intrigued by the water-carrier but who doesn’t give a thought to the suffering and hard work involved.

De pickny comin’ up de kill,

           Fighting wid heavy gou’d

Won’t say it sweet him, but he will

            Complain about de load;

            Him feel de weight,

             Dem watch him gait;

It’s so some of de great

High people fabour t’ink it sweet

Fe batter in de boiling heat

But McKay goes on to celebrate the joy of the water carrier.   McKay then goes on to criticizing those responsible for the people’s suffering or those who ignore it.  Then, without inconsistency, he goes on to sing of the cheerfulness and glory of their victims.  This conflict between suffering and cheerfulness is always resolved in the unstated authority of the poet to sing of both, having shared in both.  This right to complain and rejoice is denied the “buccra” and the tourist who have not shared in their suffering and have no deep knowledge of their life.  Whereas in earlier poems this  right is merely implied arising out of the conflict which heightened the interest, it becomes explicit later:

Only a thorn – crowned Negro and no white

Can penetrate into the Negro’s ken’

Or feel the thickness of the shroud of night

Which hides and buries hin from other men,

The Negro’s Tragedy

McKay always evinces a sensitive identification with his people, both in their sufferings as well as in their joys.  Proud of his race, the wrongs they suffer hurts him.  But in his early work there is no strident racial protest except for two poems “Jim at Sixteen”  and “Strokes of Tamarind Switch.”  “Jim at Sixteen” shows the raw wound McKay’s tight handcuffs make on the wrist of the arrested lad.  But with patience, he kept saying that he knew he could not help it, confessing how sad and ashamed he felt even though it was accidental.  “Strokes of Tamarind” is written in reaction to a judicial flogging he had witnessed;  “I could not bear to see him – my own flesh – stretched out over the bench, so I went away to the Post Office near by.”  The boy who had cried during the flogging broke down later while talking to McKay who was so moved that he gave him tickets for his train journey.  Such gentleness of spirit for a policeman is softness, unmanliness, and sentimentality.  But this brings about the finer verse based on an instinctive feeling of sympathy for a suffering people, and no less for an individual.

In Constab Ballads, McKay faces his personal dilemma more squarely without the question of self-pity arising, since he recognizes that his dilemma does not exist in isolation.  For his displeasure with the Force may derive from the suffering which as a policeman he has to inflict on his own people and which will lead to his forfeiture of their love:

Tis grievous to think dat, while toilin’ on here,

       My people won’t love me again,

My people, my people, me owna black skin –

De wretched t ought gives me such pain 

The Heart of a Constab

Or it may arise from the insults to his dignity and what this does to him as a human being:

‘Tis hatred without an’ tis hatred within,

     An’ I am so weary an’ sad;

For all t’rough de tempesto’ terrible strife

     Dere’s net’ in’ to make poor me glad.

But it is largely due to chagrin occasioned by a variety of disillusioning experiences.  For these ballads represent a wide variety of moods, and as the poet catalogues the different kinds of suffering which the policeman encounters, it is as though he is recording his disappointed hopes for mankind. His human pity is what directs  him from his personal dilemma to a more universal one. When in 1912 McKay left Jamaica for the U.S.A., it was inevitable that this should lead to an eruption of Negro verse from his pen.  For here was a man with a proud sense of his race, who had seen his people suffering in Jamaica and had

. . . fled a land where fields are green,

Always and palms wave gently to and fro,

And winds are balmy, blue brooks ever sheen,

To ease my heart of its impassioned  woe.

To Winter

And he goes to America to meet unimaginable Negro suffering.  But rather than return to the less demanding life of Jamaica, he felt a compulsion to remain and join the struggle, for he was –

. . . bound with you in your mean graves

O black men, simple slaves of ruthless slaves.

In Bondage

And no wonder.  For McKay’s early years in New York was a time of growing racial bitterness, with the stiffening of the South; Negro disillusionment with Booker T. Washington and a consequent adjustment of the Negro attitude; the increase in white hysteria and violence, which was to become even harsher after the war which had been fought  by them as well as in defence of democracy and the rise of Garveyism and the hostility between Garvey and the N.A.A.C.P. and others – all of which factors and others combined to bring about the Negro Renaissance.

McKay however maintained for a  long time a sober reaction to his new and disturbing environment.  Determined to maintain the dignity of his poet’s calling, he refused to allow the quality of his reaction as  a poet to be warped.  He equally refused to allow his ambitions and status as a human being to be destroyed. This brought  about the apparent ambivalence in his love-hate relationship with America.

Having had no illusions about America and the experience of its Negroes, he could at the same time pay her the tribute she deserved:

Although she feeds me bread of bitterness

And sinks my throat her tiger’s tooth,

Stealing my bread of life, I will confess

I love this cultured hell that tests my youth. 


In paying her this tribute there is a triumph, however which lies in the successful resistance to the threat of spiritual  corrosion America’s ‘hate’ threatens to start within him.

Yet, as a rebel fronts a king in state,

I stand within her walls with not a shred

Of terror, malice, not a word of fear.

Or as in “Through Agony,” he refuses to meet hate with hate:

I do not fear to face the fact and say

How darkly dull my living hours have grown;

My wounded heart sinks heavier than stone

Because I loved you longer than a day

I do not shame to turn myself away

From beckoning flowers, beautifully blown,

To mown your vivid memory alone

In mountain fastnesses austerely gray.

Beyond its more personal and private application, this poem also refers on a symbolic level to McKay’s continued admiration for America despite the pain which she caused.

In “The Lynching” he approached the agonizing subject in a dispassionate and disciplined mood allowing him to see more than one painful aspect.  The subdued tone of the poem allows the terror to mount with the poem ending on a note of sheer horror.  This horror arises not only out of the deed, which is horrible enough, not only out of the hard inhumanity of the doers; but on top of all this, the dark prospects for the next generation.

And little lads, lynchers that were to be,

Danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee.

McKay thus sees not only the violence done to his own people, but that which the whites inflict on themselves as well.  McKay is touched by misery in “The Castaway” where, standing in a beautiful park, he is attracted not by the visible delight of nature but by “the castaways of earth,” the lonely and derelict, and turns away in misery.  And it is mot clear and does not matter if they are black or white.  In “Rest in Peace” his tender heart responds  to the suffering of his people as he bids farewell to a departed friend.

No more, if still you wonder, will you meet

   With nights of unabating bitterness,

They cannot reach you in your safe retreat

   The city’s hat, the city’s prejudice.

McKay meets America’s challenge as man and poet.  He meets the challenge which America’s hate sets for his humanity, and in his resistance he flings back his challenge to the forces of hate in AMERICA.  As poet and man he enforces self-discipline which gives to his pain a dignity through which his verse sometimes transcends racial protest and becomes human protest.

But however much McKay might,

. . . possess the courage and the grace

To bear my anger proudly and unbent

However much he must

. . . search for wisdom every hour,

Deep in my wrathful bosom sore and raw,

And find in it the super-human power,

To hold me to the letter of your law. 

The White House

The tide of violence and injustice  to the Negro was too insistent for him to resist hatred creeping in occasionally into his poetry. In “O Word I Love To Sing” he declares an undisguised “hatred for the foe of me and mine,” and regrets that the poem is an inadequate vehicle for his hatred into which racial bigotry and its violent inroads on human freedom could compel the gentlest of men.

But McKay’s poetry certainly reflects another aspect  of Negro reaction.  This reaction is a new consciousness of the African connection following Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa” appeal.  Intellectual Negro poetry was thus moving nearer to Africa spiritually.  Garvey’s call for a black man’s religion was paralleled in sophisticated verse.  So was his insistence on the past glories of the Negro race.  So was the new pride he encouraged in Negro beauty and indeed in everything black.  Garvey himself put some of his ideas into rather indifferent verse, romanticizing Africa and Africans,  In better verse McKay does the same. In “Harlem Shadows” black prostitutes fetch from the poet this cry:

Ah, stern harsh world, that in the wretched way

    Of poverty, dishonour and disgrace,

Has pushed the timid little feet of clay,

    The sacred brown feet of my fallen race.

The Harlem dancer in “Harlem Dancer”

…seemed a proudly swaying palm

Grown lovelier for passing through a storm.

In “Outcast” he confesses his spiritual oneness with Africa:

For the dim regions whence my fathers came

My spirit, bondaged by the body, longs

Words felt, but never heard, my lips would frame;

My souls would sing forgotten jungle songs.

In “Africa” he strikes a balance between romanticizing Africa and realism.  In fine verse, he pays a tribute to Africa’s past glories, but he ends

. . . Yet all things were in vain!

Honour and Glory, Arrogance and Fame!

They went.  The darkness swallowed thee again

Thou art the harlot, now thy time is done,

Of all the mighty nations of the Sun.  

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Arthur Smith a Senior Lecturer of English, Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone and editor Sierra Leone PEN is available for public lectures as well as speaking tours. He also writes extensively. Visit him at his website at:

Arthur Smith: Why We Should All Love America?

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Arthur Edgar E. Smith was born and grew up in Freetown, Sierra Leone. He attended  Holy Trinity Boys Primary  and proceeded to the Prince of Wales Secondary School. He did his sixth form at Albert Academy and  went up further the hill to Fourah Bay College. He has taught English since 1977  at Prince of Wales, Milton Margai College of Education  and now at Fourah Bay College again he has risen to the rank of Senior Lecturer of English. Mr Smith is widely published both locally as well as internationally.  

He was one of 17 international scholars who participated in  a seminar on contemporary American Literature sponsored by the U.S. State Department from June to August 2006. His thoughts and reflections of this trip which took him to various sights  in Kentucky, San Francisco, Cincinnati, and Washington, D.C.can be read at His other publications include:  Folktales from Freetown, Langston Hughes: Life and Works Celebrating Black Dignity, and ‘The Struggle of the Book in Sierra Leone’. He holds a Masters in African Literature from Fourah Bay College.  A recent story of his could be read at .

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“American Girl” By Ta Nehesi Coates

Video: “South Side Story” —

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The Price of Civilization

Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity

By Jeffrey D. Sachs

The Price of Civilization is a book that is essential reading for every American. In a forceful, impassioned, and personal voice, he offers not only a searing and incisive diagnosis of our country’s economic ills but also an urgent call for Americans to restore the virtues of fairness, honesty, and foresight as the foundations of national prosperity. Sachs finds that both political parties—and many leading economists—have missed the big picture, offering shortsighted solutions such as stimulus spending or tax cuts to address complex economic problems that require deeper solutions. Sachs argues that we have profoundly underestimated globalization’s long-term effects on our country, which create deep and largely unmet challenges with regard to jobs, incomes, poverty, and the environment. America’s single biggest economic failure, Sachs argues, is its inability to come to grips with the new global economic realities. Sachs describes a political system that has lost its ethical moorings, in which ever-rising campaign contributions and lobbying outlays overpower the voice of the citizenry. . . . Sachs offers a plan to turn the crisis around. He argues persuasively that the problem is not America’s abiding values, which remain generous and pragmatic, but the ease with which political spin and consumerism run circles around those values. He bids the reader to reclaim the virtues of good citizenship and mindfulness toward the economy and one another.

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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Sex at the Margins

Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry

By Laura María Agustín

This book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work, that migrants who sell sex are passive victims and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest. Laura Agustín makes a passionate case against these stereotypes, arguing that the label ‘trafficked’ does not accurately describe migrants’ lives and that the ‘rescue industry’ serves to disempower them. Based on extensive research amongst both migrants who sell sex and social helpers, Sex at the Margins provides a radically different analysis. Frequently, says Agustin, migrants make rational choices to travel and work in the sex industry, and although they are treated like a marginalised group they form part of the dynamic global economy. Both powerful and controversial, this book is essential reading for all those who want to understand the increasingly important relationship between sex markets, migration and the desire for social justice. “Sex at the Margins rips apart distinctions between migrants, service work and sexual labour and reveals the utter complexity of the contemporary sex industry. This book is set to be a trailblazer in the study of sexuality.”—Lisa Adkins, University of London

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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updated 15 October 2007 




Home    Transitional Writings on Africa   Mau Mau Aesthetics  The African World   Inside the Caribbean

Related files:  Female Characters in Camara Laye  John Pepper Clark’s Raft Running Adrift   Wole Soyinka Kongi’s Harvest  Black Consciousness Poet–Claude McKay    In-Dependence from Bondage 

The Life and Times of Black Poet Claude McKay   

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