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Historical Analysis

A Poem by the Pre-Harlem Claude McKay

In July 1912, twenty-one-year-old Claude McKay moved from his home in Jamaica to study at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. In the same year, he had published Songs of Jamaica, a collection of poems that celebrate peasant life in his homeland. “Old England,” like many of McKay’s early poems, features Jamaican Creole, and thus seems grounded in the poet’s familial roots. At the same time, however, the speaker of the poem expresses a patriotic, nostalgic fondness for “de homeland England” (McKay 5). “Old England” thus offers a space in which two distinct cultures and ideologies interact, a space that suggests favoritism towards neither. This ambivalence presents a stark contrast to most works from the Harlem Renaissance, which seek to promote a distinct Negro identity untainted by white traditions. Though McKay remains famous for the later poems he produced in Harlem, “Old England” reflects his experiences prior to the United States and conveys his willing embracement of Western tradition.

As a leading artist of the Harlem Renaissance (c. 1918-1937), McKay contributed work that helped to forge a new African identity. George Hutchinson notes that contemporaries of McKay sought to “reconceptualize ‘the Negro’ apart from … white stereotypes, … Victorian moral values and bourgeois shame.” Artists sought native African, rather than Western, traditions as inspiration for their work. New publishers encouraged a departure from British literary traditions (Hutchinson). Works produced during the Harlem Renaissance were thus characterized by a defiance and rebellion against white and Western thematic and formal conventions.

On the other hand, “Old England,” published a few years before the Harlem Renaissance fully blossomed, does not reject, but rather celebrates, British literary tradition. McKay’s familiarity with English literature is evident: the speaker in his poem imagines seeing “immortal Milton an’ de wul’-famous Shakespeare, / Past’ral Wordswort’, gentle Gray, an’ all de great souls buried dere” (19-20). These descriptors, “immortal,” “wul’-famous,” “past’ral” and “gentle” all indicate a devotion to the British authors, who, though dead by 1912, still exert near-divine influence on the speaker. Growing up in British-colonized Jamaica, McKay found himself subject to the ideals promoted by British imperialism—and accepted them willingly. In Claude McKay: A Black Poet’s Struggle for Identity, Tyrone Tillery explains the thematic focus on British culture prevalent in McKay’s poems. Under British imperial rule, Jamaica had adopted the English language, government, and monarchy (14). Children were taught to become “little black Britons,” and slaves were told that freedom came from Queen Victoria (Tillery 13). McKay himself, under the mentorship of his older brother Uriah and his English patron Walter Jekyll, pursued his intellectual interests by reading the works of European authors (Tillery 11-12, 14).

The poem’s romantic vision of English culture treats even the reality of working-class poverty with respectful curiosity. “[D]e famous sights” which the speaker is so eager to see are evidence of industrialization and social stratification (McKay 6). “[D]e fact’ry chimneys pourin’ smoke up to de sky” serve as a reminder of an economy built upon labor and hard work (McKay 7). “[D]e matches-children,” or match sellers, he has heard about demonstrate the hard lives of children in the streets (McKay 8). Yet for the speaker, these sights have been often talked about and spoken of, and he now longs to experience them first hand.

While McKay preserves distinctly Jamaican characteristics in “Old England,” these characteristics do not undermine the value he places on English tradition. The conspicuous use of Creole and the reference to “my own native shore” at the end reflect the poet’s background (McKay 28). Yet ultimately, McKay seems to identify more closely with the colonizer than the colonized. In Claude McKay: The Literary Identity from Jamaica to Harlem and Beyond, Kotti Sree Ramesh and Kandula Nipura Rani note that McKay wrote his poems in Creole not so much out of his own desire, but under the pressure of Jekyll, his English patron (35). Modeling his works after those of English authors he respected, McKay even seemed to adopt colonial ideologies (Ramesh and Rani 35).

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May Pen Town Center, Clarendon, Jamaica, by Leppus, 10 May 2008, Wikimedia Commons

Without understanding McKay’s life in Jamaica, however, our reading of his poems would not be as well informed. As Winston James notes in “Becoming the People’s Poet: Claude McKay’s Jamaican Years, 1889-1912,” McKay’s childhood and upbringing in Jamaica inspired his concern for justice and equality, women’s rights, race and social class, and advocacy for the black populace (19). While his own family was considered quite prosperous and respectable, he witnessed economic struggles of his fellow Jamaicans. The sugar economy had collapsed, and heavy taxation afflicted the poor (James 20-21). Furthermore, McKay would have experienced issues of race differently in Jamaica than he would have in Harlem. Whereas individuals of color constituted neither the majority nor a minority of the American population, they were certainly the majority in the Caribbean islands (Ramesh and Rani 41). The distinction between blacks and whites was economic in the Caribbean, but “ontological” and “psychological” in the New World (Ramesh and Rani 41). As a member of the minority, the white person in the Caribbean thus appeared less threatening to the black majority. As demonstrated by the admiration of English culture in “Old England,” the poems McKay wrote in Jamaica do not seek to distance themselves from Western influence as works of the Harlem Renaissance do.

The year 1912 for Claude McKay was a transitional year in which he left his Jamaican home and settled in the United States. “Old England,” published not long before this liminal period of his life, presents his pre-Harlem perspective towards cultural differences—a perspective not commonly attributed to him. The poem features identifiably Jamaican characteristics as well as admiration for Western tradition. Unlike works of the Harlem Renaissance, which encourage a return to one’s primitive ancestral roots and dismissal of white influence, “Old England” celebrates the culture brought by the English colonizer.

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

Hutchinson, George. “Harlem Renaissance.” Britannica.com. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2014. Web. 5 Apr. 2014.

James, Winston. “Becoming the People’s Poet: Claude McKay’s Jamaican Years, 1889-1912.” Small Axe 13 (2003): 17-42. Web. 2 Apr. 2014.

McKay, Claude. “Old England.” Norton Anthology of English Literature. 8th ed. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. Vol. F. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006. Print.

Ramesh, Kotti Sree and Kandula Nirupa Rani. Claude McKay: The Literary Identity from Jamaica to Harlem and Beyond. Jefferson: McFarland, 2006. Print.

Tillery, Tyrone. Claude McKay: A Black Poet’s Struggle for Identity. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992. Print.

 

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