HON HUM 152
15 April 2011
Identity Struggles of Claude McKay
For many American immigrants, actually arriving in their new country is only half the battle; then begins the struggle to find a home, secure a job, and begin their lives all over again. American immigrants also struggle to achieve the balance of keeping their native culture alive, while adapting to their new country’s identity. This was especially hard for Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay, as he was born in Jamaica, strongly identified with African Americans, but wanted an American identity all at the same time. In addition to these inner struggles, American racial attitudes of the time also had a major impact on McKay, specifically the country’s opinions toward African Americans. Overall, McKay’s assimilation into American culture was heavily affected by his race. As a black man emigrating from Jamaica to America, Claude McKay was highly influenced by the concept of black double-consciousness, and the pressure and desire to have both a black and an American identity. Double consciousness, a term coined by W.E.B. Du Bois, describes the divided consciousness of African Americans and refers to the idea that an individual’s identity is divided into several facets, a concept that causes people to often see themselves through the eyes of others. Specifically, Du Bois applied the term to blacks in the United States who felt the contradiction between their social values and daily societal struggles. In the case of McKay, his black double-consciousness altered the way he identified himself in terms of race. While yearning to be accepted into American as a true citizen, he was also struggling to preserve his Jamaican heritage. Additionally, McKay was seemingly never able to fully remove himself from his childhood in Jamaica. His whole life was characterized by a sense of dislocation, and he never quite settled anywhere after his leave of his homeland. McKay lived in the United States, Europe, and Morocco, but never for prolonged periods of time, and always seemed “a long way from home,” which was in fact the title of his autobiography. In his book titled “Claude McKay: A Black Poet’s Struggle for Identity,” Tyrone Tillery uses McKay’s life as a vehicle for analyzing the larger problems of identity that confronted black intellectuals. In his analysis, Tillery discusses the major differences between Jamaican and American culture, values, and opinions on race, politics, and class, which he suggests are the deep-rooted causes of McKay’s lifelong inability to be content with his surroundings. McKay’s struggle between seeing himself as a black Jamaican and seeing himself as newly American made its way into his poetry at the time. For example, in his poem entitled “America,” McKay seems to be adhering to the white ideas and conventions of poetry, such as language and structure, even though the poem is strongly tied to black identity issues. The poem suggests that he is very much tied to America (“her vigor flows like tides into my blood”) but still acknowledges that America is his enemy (“sinks into my throat with her tiger’s tooth”). Additionally, the speaker of the poem refers to America’s “bread of bitterness”, referring to positive and negative aspects of being an American, with racial identity issues most likely being among the negative. The speaker “loves” America though, and tries to work with it; his sentiment of the poem is not hate but insecurity about America and the speaker’s place in a nation whose integrity has been compromised by racial hatred. The treasures McKay refers to in “America” as “sinking in the sand” are the potential contributions to American culture and society by black Americans. McKay feels these potential contributions are compromised by American attitudes toward African Americans at the time. He confronts the “double-consciousness” issue by aligning himself primarily with the blacks, and by viewing America...
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