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Claude McKay


Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1921

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Summary and Study Guide


Claude McKay’s sonnet “America” was first published in The Liberator in December 1921. It was reprinted in McKay’s collection Harlem Shadows in 1922. The poem’s autobiographical first-person speaker, a young Black man in America, is ambivalent about a country that oppresses him and his race. McKay was born in Jamaica but moved to the United States, settling in Harlem in 1914. He became a leading figure in the 1920s Harlem Renaissance movement, and this poem is one of many that express his feelings about the racism that so characterized his contemporary American society. McKay didn’t adhere to the literary Modernism prevalent in the early 20th century; he preferred traditional verse forms, the sonnet being one of his favorites.

Poet Biography

Claude McKay, whose full name was Festus Claudius McKay, was born in Sunny Ville, Jamaica, on September 15, 1889. His parents were farmers. When McKay was nine, his parents sent him to live with his brother, Uriah Theophilus McKay, who was a schoolteacher. Uriah, as well as an Englishman named Walter Jekyll who lived nearby, awakened the young boy’s interest in English literature, including such writers as John Milton and Alexander Pope. McKay also read some of the European philosophers, such as Arthur Schopenhauer, and became interested in writing poetry.

In 1906, McKay began a two-year apprenticeship to a cabinet maker, then became a police constable in Kingston, Jamaica’s capital. However, he was upset by the racism in majority-white Kingston, and within a year, he returned to Sunny Ville. He then took a serious interest in writing poetry, and in 1912 he published his first collection, Songs of Jamaica. These poems, prompted by a suggestion from Jekyll, used Jamaican dialect. McKay published Constab Ballads that same year.

McKay received an award for Songs of Jamaica from the Jamaican Institute of Arts and Sciences, which he used to travel to the United States to attend Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and then Kansas State College. In 1914, he left the college without a degree and moved to New York City and settling in Harlem. In that same year, he married Eulalie Lewars, a longtime friend from Jamaica. The marriage was short-lived, and within six months Eulalie returned to Jamaica, where she gave birth to their child.

By 1917, McKay’s poetry was in literary magazines. Much of it was a passionate protest against racism, and advocacy for African American civil rights. He joined the socialist organization Industrial Workers of the World and got to know some Black activists. In 1919 he traveled in Europe and worked in London as a journalist, the next year publishing Spring in New Hampshire and Other Poems. After returning to the United States, in 1922 he visited the Soviet Union and took part in the Fourth Congress of the Communist International in Moscow. He also traveled to Paris and elsewhere in Europe, as well as to areas of northern Africa.

During the 1920s McKay established himself as a leading light in the Harlem Renaissance movement. His poetry collection Harlem Shadows (1922), which included “America,” was well received and contains some of his best-known poems; his first novel, Home to Harlem (1928), depicted life in Harlem and received the Harmon Gold Award for Literature. A year later came his second novel, Banjo: A Story Without a Plot, about a Black drifter living in Marseilles, France. The search for a Black cultural identity was the subject of McKay’s third novel, Banana Bottom (1933), in which a young Jamaican girl is adopted by white missionaries. McKay also published the short story collection Gingertown (1932) and two autobiographies, A Long Way from Home (1937) and My Green Hills of Jamaica (1979).

McKay traveled widely in the 1920s and 1930s, returning to the United States in 1934 and becoming a US citizen in 1940. McKay’s health deteriorated in the 1940s, and he died of heart failure on May 22, 1948, in Chicago, where he had been teaching at a Catholic organization. The Selected Poems of Claude McKay was published in 1953, and the Complete Poems in 2004. Two other novels were discovered and published many decades after McKay’s death: the satire Amiable with Big Teeth, written in 1941 and published in 2017; and Romance in Marseille, written around 1933 and published in 2020.

Poem Text

McKay, Claude. “America.” 1921. Poetry Foundation.


Lines 1 to 4 consist of one sentence in which the speaker, a young Black man in America, explains his complex feelings about the country. He makes it clear that the country does not treat him well, which leaves him feeling bitter (Line 1). He likens it to being attacked by a tiger that would kill him (Line 2). Nevertheless, he confides to the reader that he loves the country, even though it tests him in such extreme ways that he calls it a hell (Lines 3-4). The next three lines elaborate on why he has both positive and negative feelings about America. America is large and has great energy, which flows into him and gives him the strength to deal with the hatred he endures as a Black man (Line 5-7). In Lines 8-10, he reflects on his feelings. Although he feels like a rebel confronting a king (Line 8), he does so with equanimity; he is unafraid and has no bad feelings toward the oppressor (Line 10). Line 11 begins a new thought: He looks into the future and sees that all of America’s power, including its hugely impressive buildings—he is likely thinking of New York City—will eventually be lost to the inexorable passage of time, as America with all its treasures will no longer exist.