Claude McKay's Catholic Poetics and Politics

Bananas ripe and green, and ginger-root,
Cocoa in pods and alligator pears,
And tangerines and mangoes and grape fruit,
Fit for the highest prize at parish fairs,

Set in the window, bringing memories
Of fruit-trees laden by low-singing rills,
And dewy dawns, and mystical blue skies
In benediction over nun-like hills.

My eyes grew dim, and I could no more gaze;
A wave of longing through my body swept,
And, hungry for the old, familiar ways,
I turned aside and bowed my head and wept.
—Claude McKay, “Tropics of New York”

To read the opening lines of Claude McKay’s poem “Tropics in New York” is to find oneself confronted with the force and beauty of what could pass as a grocery list. The words are lush in two senses. First, in the vibrancy of the names themselves. To read the list is to luxuriate in vowels, consonants, and metered syllables. I find it hard to say “bananas” the same way anymore. The word just seems different now. There is also the lushness of the things described—something we can forget in an era of perpetually present produce. These beautiful things are suddenly brought before our eyes without embellishment because embellishment is unnecessary. There is just the ripe particularity of what is.

But then McKay adds the slightest pivot—one he no doubt experienced in Harlem. The particularities of these fruits are fit for the highest prize at parish fair. Suddenly, he is remembering what I cannot—the awards given at fairs in Jamaica when McKay was young. As the poet follows the concourse of time back to Jamaica and his youth, he startles not only because the memory (for me) is unfamiliar but because he brings me along into his memory. What seems so familiar—fruit in a window—becomes unfamiliar in the homesickness of a member of the black diaspora. And yet, McKay ably brings one along because his close attention to the particular is an insight into a shared experience: to be away from home and to see a reminder and suddenly find oneself transported. It is an experience of what the philosopher William Desmond calls the intimate universal in which the “particular as intimate might be understood as an opening to the universal that is immanently at work in it.” It is intimate because specific to the things and the person speaking of them. Universal because revealing a shared reality to the things and to the persons hearing about them.

These elements of the familiar and unfamiliar, the intimate and the universal shape Claude McKay’s brilliant collection of poems Harlem Shadows. Originally published in 1922, the collection was republished last year by Angelico Press with an excellent introductory essay by James Matthew Wilson and also republished this year by Penguin with a different and also excellent introduction by Jericho Brown. Harlem Shadows was the dynamic beginning of the Harlem Renaissance and a key moment in 1922 as a breakthrough year in modernist literature. Upon its hundredth anniversary and with its republication, the poems and the man deserve renewed attention. It is time for McKay to be rediscovered, especially in the world of Catholic literature.

The experience of reading McKay can depend on the perspective of the reader. I am a white man in the twenty-first century. No doubt a Jamaican in Harlem reading these poems in 1922, or 2022, would experience them differently. And yet McKay makes both of us feel and see into his poems. Their poems connect because they make present the realities around us that have been covered over by the everyday. They connect because they do not ignore the gaps between us. But they do not predetermine these gaps as unbridgeable. They are spaces of poetic communication. As Desmond puts it “the gap keeps open a between space where passage from one side to the other can continue.” McKay writes this communicative between to overcome the barriers that white supremacy placed around him his whole life.

To make the gap communicative requires that the poet help the reader see. Aristotle, in The Rhetoric, described the power of poetic metaphor as its capacity for “bringing-before-the-eyes.” McKay succeeds in doing precisely this. Bringing before the eyes of his readers the things themselves and the meanings that things bring with them. This bringing-before-the-eyes makes present even what is alien. That he succeeds in doing this for me as much as for his African American readers in 1922 is a testimony to the continuing greatness of him as a poet. McKay succeeds in avoiding two parallel dangers for a writer. To write only the intimate is to fail to communicate; to write only of the universal is to say nothing in particular.

The union of the intimate and the universal in poetry expresses how there are no ideas but in things and that there are no things without ideas. Our everydayness makes both things and ideas hard to attend to. Racialized everydayness makes seeing the realities of others impossible. A poet’s task is to bring ideas and realities before our eyes when we are resistant to seeing what is. This is especially when “what is” includes injustice, injustice that the reader may be complicit in.

McKay makes present realities because of his powerful combination of eros and attention. I mean this in the sense that his poetry evidences a powerful love for life, for the things that are, and the way that they are. This is expressed in his poems of eros, poems recalling nights of intercourse with lovers who remain unnamed and yet still encountered in the lingering embrace of verse. Poems like “A Memory of June” or “A Red Flower” bespeak this lingering embrace but also the ways in which these transient erotic encounters leave McKay, and the reader, longing for more, for an embrace that does not leave us cold.

McKay’s eros and attention are haunted. The poems of this collection delight in locations—Harlem especially, but also New Hampshire and even America itself—but the delight is shadowed by sorrow, poverty, homesickness, and pervasive racism. We see this in his poem “The Barrier” where McKay writes of unattainable desire. The poem reads initially like any unrequited, yet still joyful love. Reading it one might expect a barrier overcome or a barrier that becomes a source of inspiration, a modern Beatrice. These hopes last until the end “for there’s the barrier of race / You’re fair and I am dark.” The barrier is nothing romantic; it is one that elevates (fair) and degrades (dark). The poem ends on a hard beat, cut-off like the possibility of the relationship. What felt erotic becomes eros blocked. Harlem shadows indeed.

Consider this in his poem “Alfonso, Dressing to Wait at Table.” McKay writes of Alfonso with his eros and attention. We find in him a figure rich with delight, a figure of life itself.

Alfonso is a handsome bronze-hued lad
Of subtly-changing and surprising parts;
His moods are storms that frighten and make glad,
His eyes were made to capture women's hearts . . . 

Alfonso's voice of mellow music thrills
Our swaying forms and steals our hearts with joy;
And when he soars, his fine falsetto trills
Are rarest notes of gold without alloy.

The very figure of life, the reader cannot but glory with Alfonso. Singing richly, both Alfonso and the poem steal our hearts with joy. But the verse, like so many in this collection, is trapped by race and class.

But, O Alfonso! wherefore do you sing
Dream-songs of carefree men and ancient places?
Soon we shall be beset by clamouring
Of hungry and importunate palefaces.

The rich timbre of the opening verses is canceled out by the sudden work. Alfonso must serve table. This is no degradation itself. The degradation comes from the palefaces who, because of their race, can lord over him. A lord of life degraded by petty men demanding more water. This pettiness is captured in the ugly word: importunate, a word with none of the beauty of bananas. Its ugliness bespeaks the way black life is canceled out by pale-faced racism. And yet, amid the shadows, the celebration of Alfonso is not forgotten. The closing dig at palefaces is a kind of counterattack, a sign of McKay’s sense of justice. Neither he nor Alfonso could have called out the demanding whites, but his poem can. The palefaced racists are forgotten; Alfonso sings on.

We see the shadows most painfully in McKay’s poem “The Lynching.” It was written amidst a wave of racial violence in which whites from Tulsa to Montgomery brutalized black bodies in the late teens and early twenties. They often did so to punish veterans, whom our country claims to honor. They didn’t want black veterans getting “uppity.” You may have served and sacrificed but don’t think that changes anything. The poem pains:

His spirit in smoke ascended to high heaven.
His father, by the cruelest way of pain,
Had bidden him to his bosom once again;
The awful sin remained still unforgiven.
All night a bright and solitary star
(Perchance the one that ever guided him,
Yet gave him up at last to Fate's wild whim)
Hung pitifully o'er the swinging char.
Day dawned, and soon the mixed crowds came to view
The ghastly body swaying in the sun:
The women thronged to look, but never a one
Showed sorrow in her eyes of steely blue;
And little lads, lynchers that were to be,
Danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee.

What to write. How to speak. The image shocks and disturbs. Well-dressed whites gathered around a burnt body left hanging through the night. The women are untouched by sorrow in the markedly blue eyes. The poem depicts a perversion of religion, in a holocaust that sends up smoke to a closed heaven. This is the liturgy of racism. In the midst, is a moment of religious despair. The star of Bethlehem lets down this Black man, leaving him pitifully swinging amidst the dying embers. This is no redemptive action. The lynched man is summoned home by the father, our palefaced sins remain unforgiven.

It is the last couplet that is most terrible. In the poem, McKay sees no end to racial violence. Delighting around the mutilated body, little boys dance with glee. They are lynchers in a catechumenate, altar servers at the altar of white supremacy. This perverse liturgy shows the ways racism degrades and perverts all, including the white beneficiaries of it. Violence breeds in its offspring future waves of violence. The poem is an agonizing portrayal of the liturgical introduction of the young into a racism that lives on.

If “The Lynching” presents few options for resistance, his most famous poem “If We Must Die” offers a path forward. No longer will McKay or African Americans die in lynchings quietly. The Harlem Renaissance was the artistic beginnings of the ongoing Civil Rights movement. The Civil Rights movement was, in a sense, born in this poem. For Desmond, “true art is faithful witness.” True art is thus a kind of martyrdom.

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 accursèd lot.
If we must die, O 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!
O kinsmen! 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!

In these two poems—one a cri de cœur and the other an appeler aux armes—McKay succeeds through force of language to bring his reader along, even this palefaced reader. Bringing-before-the-eyes is often painful; we might want to turn away, but we must not.

There is a humanism in McKay’s poems, but it is not a humanism assumed. How could it be when his humanity was denied? It is a humanism achieved by the poet and summoned out of the reader. It is not just that I am human and so nothing human is alien to me. Good writing, like McKay’s, makes that claim a reality. Great poetry overcomes the denial of this humanity and insists on it. Without papering over alienation, it insists that this story is not alien to me, that I am implicated in it, that the lynched man is my brother. Crushed by reading his poem about lynching, I find hope that we may “show us brave.” What overcomes the shadows is always the light. The babe born under the star ended up swinging from a tree too. His death—in solidarity with all the lynched—offers the hope that we are never given up to “Fate’s whim.” In this poem, we find the light of courage and a foreshadowing of the Christ that McKay ultimately turned to. In this collection, the celebration of life and the condemnation of death are acts of resistance against “the enemies of decency and truth.”

Those words come from a poem McKay wrote after his conversion to Catholicism. This conversion was seen by many in his time, and subsequently, as a betrayal of those early poems of eros, attention, and resistance. It was not. As he writes in the same poem, “I turned to God for greater strength to fight.” McKay saw a continuity from his youth to his conversion. To understand this is to see why we can consider McKay’s overall work as a part of the canon of Catholic literature.

McKay was a writer and a person deep into the search. Like Walker Percy, McKay felt the urgency of the search, of “what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.” But this search does not take one away from the world and oneself; one attends to these things more closely. James Matthew Wilson writes of McKay that he had “an intuition that the sacramental aesthetics of Catholicism holds the sensuous beauty of this world as a worthy image of the uncircumscribed beauty of the next.” This is exactly right. A simple list of fruits in a window summon us deeper in. McKay is searching in his poems, finding traces of God before he even knew they were traces. As he puts in later in his novel Romance in Marseille, “Even though the sordidness of Quayside was stinking, there were broken bits of color in the dirt.” These broken bits of color are traces of God, traces that set McKay searching for justice and goodness, searching for home.  

In Harlem Shadows, McKay primarily finds these bits of color as experiences of nostalgia. Nostalgia can be a kind of pre-evangelization by one’s own affects. To feel a longing for a lost home, is to know that one is not at home. It is to awaken to the restlessness of our heart. We can—as writers like Percy and Kierkegaard argue—anesthetize these feelings, seek to resolve them in various homes of our own construction. McKay did seek to do this in erotic embraces and in his short embrace of Bolshevik Russia. But his nostalgia did not abate. He stayed restless.

Why? Why did he hold to this “wave of longing” even if it caused him sorrow? His longing for a past home was already suffused with a yearning for a home that lasts. This is already present in “Tropics in New York” where his memories call forth a sense of the benedictions he once experienced in the mystical blue skies of Jamaica. The traces of color, the beauty of bananas, the sense of homeliness are signs of a desire for the eternal. We see this trace of the eternal in his poem “After Winter.”

Some day, when trees have shed their leaves
And against the morning’s white
The shivering birds beneath the eaves
Have sheltered for the night,
We’ll turn our faces southward, love,
Toward the summer isle
Where bamboos spire the shafted grove
And wide-mouthed orchids smile.

And we will seek the quiet hill
Where towers the cotton tree,
And leaps the laughing crystal rill,
And works the droning bee.
And we will build a cottage there
Beside an open glade,
With black-ribbed blue-bells blowing near,
And ferns that never fade.

McKay, and his lover, are the shivering birds, huddled under eaves. Amidst the ever-changing seasons of Harlem, they find only a rough shelter. Once again eros and its attention sustain the poem amidst its leaves and lovers, snow and birds, bamboo and orchids. Just as in “Tropic in New York,” this attention summons forth nostalgia. But this nostalgia points not only backward as retention of memory. It simultaneously reaches towards the future in a protention of longing. Like Augustine in his memory, McKay reaches back and so reaches forward. To be is to reach.

What does he reach for? A home. How is this hoped-for home different from the cold and harsh and changing shelters he shares with his lover? He longs for a cottage in a garden with “ferns that never fade.” This speaks to the climate of “the changeless southern isles.” Deeper in, this home with ferns that never fade is a space filled with life beyond death and mutability. All ferns will fade; McKay wants a home and a love that won’t. As Wilson argues, the sense of these beauties here summon McKay and his readers to the truer beauties there. “By way of nostalgia,” McKay is called “upward to someplace transcendent.” Years before his conversion, McKay hears this calling, the way the reality of things clamors that God made us, the way that their beauty summons us in and through the transient into the eternal.

In hearing this call and writing it into his poems, McKay articulates the restless and forward-thinking nostalgia that sets him on pilgrimage. His novels are depictions of bankrupt pilgrimage options, routes he traveled and found led him nowhere. He could not settle on a bohemian lifestyle (Home to Harlem), salvation in erotic embrace (Romance in Marseille), back-to-Africa hopes (Romance in Marseille again), or some combination of Black nationalism and communism (Amiable with Big Teeth). What McKay called the “roar and crash of pagan isms” all proved inadequate because too small for the God-shaped need in his heart.

Does all of this mean that McKay’s writing, particularly Harlem Shadows, should be added to the canon of Catholic literature? Let’s take this canon to be a loose constellation of features. Something more like a family resemblance than a strict canon. Some texts seem clearly in the canon—a Jesuit writing about Christ playing “in ten thousand places” (Hopkins). Others are harder—a bitterly-former Catholic from Dublin writing about leaving the Church and Ireland (Joyce).

The arc of McKay’s life is different from either Hopkins or Joyce. It is one traveled by many African Americans from 1920-1960, a story well told by historians like Cecilia Moore, Shannon Dee Williams, and others. Adrift in a society that denied them, they found homes in Catholic parishes and schools with names like St. Cyprian, St. Monica, and St. Peter Clavier. This is the story of Black Catholics in the United States, and it is the story of Claude McKay.

When we read the Confessions, we find a life lived almost entirely outside the Church. We read it to see Augustine stumbling towards the baptismal font. Why not read McKay’s searching-poems as a similar journey? His poem’s transcending immanence, their universal intimacy couldn’t but point to the ever parochial and ever catholic Church. McKay’s poems were poems of search, poems that in expressing the intimate universal set him on the road to Rome.

If we are to include him as a Catholic writer, we should not domesticate him. His writings should discomfort because they remind us of gaps in our literature especially when it comes to minorities and questions of political justice. Catholic literature often dwells on the powerful psychological struggle of sinners. Too rarely do these literary masterpieces dwell on racism, structures of injustice, and the demand for justice now. While some Catholic writers—Walker Percy and Toni Morrison in particular—write with a sense of social justice, most do not. We need the literary expressions of Catholic Social Thought in addition to the literary expressions of Catholic devotional life. We need truth, beauty, and goodness. But we need justice too and our literature should express that.

The richest commonality between McKay’s early poems and his later explicitly Catholic poems is his demand for justice. He turned to God for greater strength to fight. He saw in the Church the depth dimension of truth that undergirded that fight that provided the only humanism that could overcome our alienation. The lynched body of Christ is the only body that can offer solace to the body of the Black man found in “The Lynching.” But this does not mean McKay is comfortable with justice deferred. Weary and sick in his final years, he still fought the enemies of decency and truth. He never became a quietist content to light candles. What he discovered in the Church is the union of social justice and eternal life. He no longer needed to fear the lynchers who have “bamboozled simple men /To think that all life lies within their ken.” His home was with Catholic leftists, anti-fascist, and anti-racists who know that this life is not the full scope of human existence and so seek to light a fire for justice in this life. Catholic literature needs this fire too.

In 1922, amidst the growing horror of lynchings, amidst the dissipations of lust and liquor, amidst the steady attention to the beauty of bananas, McKay wrote two poems I would like to close with. “When I have Passed Away” imagined him dead and forgotten when “no one living can recall my face.” He hoped that “perchance a pensive youth . . . may light upon a little song of mine.” The young man would take and read:

And he may softly hum the tune and wonder
Who wrote the verses in the long ago;
Or he may sit down awhile to ponder
Upon the simple words that touch him so.

We owe a lot to those who are not letting his pages fade. McKay hoped to be read and remembered. I hope I have helped him with both. I remember him in my reading, in my writing, and in my prayers. You should too.

Twenty years before his conversion, McKay wrote his own prayer. It is the prayer of a wayfarer. To read it, to recite it, to pray it is to be filled with the hope that Claude McKay found his way and that we too might find our way. I leave you with that prayer.

‘Mid the discordant noises of the day I hear thee calling;
I stumble as I fare along Earth’s way; keep me from falling.

Mine eyes are open, but they cannot see for gloom of night;
I can no more than lift my heart to thee for inward light.

The wild and fiery passion of my youth consumes my soul;
In agony I turn to thee for truth and self-control.

For Passion and all the pleasures it can give will die the death;
But this of me eternally must live, thy borrowed breath.

‘Mid the discordant noises of the day I hear thee calling;
I stumble as I fare along Earth’s way; keep me from falling.

Featured Image: Grigory Zinoviev, Nikolai Bukharin and Claude McKay in 1923; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD.


Terence Sweeney

Terence Sweeney is Assistant Teaching Professor in the Honors Program and Humanities Department at Villanova University. His work centers on Augustine but extends to medieval thought, philosophical theology, and political theory.

Read more by Terence Sweeney