Poems from “The Cycle” (1943)
These poems, distilled from my experience,
Exactly tell my feelings of today,
The cruel and the vicious and the tense
Conditions which have hedged my bitter way
Of life. But though I suffered much I bore
My cross and lived to put my trouble in song
– I stripped down harshly to the naked core
Of hatred based on the essential wrong!
But tomorrow, I may sing another tune,
No critic, white or black, can tie me down,
Maybe a fantasy of a fairy moon,
Or the thorns the soldiers weaved for Jesus’ crown,
For I, a poet, can soar with unclipped wings,
From earth to heaven, while chanting of all things.
. . . 2
The millionaire from Boston likes to write,
His letters scintillate the daily news.
He wrote a Left-ish paper to indict
My thoughts of Negroes – and oppose my views.
He has a Negro friend and thinks, therefore,
Himself authority on the Negro race,
And whites and blacks who disagree are poor
Damned fools who know their sole not from their face.
Our millionaire was once a Socialist,
But thought his party wrong on World War Two,
So liberal turned, like many who enlist,
In this grand fight for good old life or new.
I will not hint it was safer for his money,
For that would neither be polite or funny.
. . .
Where the Bostonian lives – I’m not aware,
Perhaps Waldorf or Astor shelters him,
In New York or some good place of lesser fare,
But Harlem’s out of bounds – dismal and grim.
And he is one of those who like to parrot
The popular song of Negro segregation,
His features lengthen and redden like a carrot,
When he pours all into his agitation
Of Negro separation from the white.
It is this thing that offers us no hope,
That understanding whites with blacks unite
To make the slogan of the Negro group.
In these times when means are sufficient to ends,
My prayer to God is: Save us from our friends!
. . . 4
In Southern states distinctions that they draw
Are clear like starshine in the firmament,
But in the North we’re equal under the law,
Which white men make their plans and circumvent.
What law can hold whites in a Northern street,
When blacks move in? They flee as from the devil,
As if God quickly energized their feet,
To take them far from the impending evil.
Meanwhile the ghoulish landlords rents inflate,
To save them from the inevitable slump,
For banks down Negro homes to lowest rate,
And soon the street becomes a Negro dump.
Oh Segregation! Negro leaders bawl,
And white liberals join them at the wailing wall.
. . . 5
I wonder who these wealthy whites are fooling
– themselves, the poor whites or the poor black folk?
To imagine that their smooth, infantile drooling
Will make the poor whites shoulder black men’s yoke.
Why should poor whites aspiring to those things
Their rich possess by black men be encumbered,
Pay heed to hypocrites who are pulling strings,
Merely among the “leaders” to be numbered?
Were I a poor white I would never surrender
My privilege to advance as other whites,
But let the powerful group be the defender
Of decency and progress – people’s rights.
Their wealth and privilege and education
Should teach them how to serve the entire nation.
Our boys and girls are taught in Negro schools
That they are just like other Americans,
And grow up educated semi-fools,
And ripe for spurious words of charlatans.
The group from which they spring they all despise,
For they imagine that if not for it,
They’d have a better chance in the world to rise,
Instead of being branded as unfit!
Thus they are ready for any crazy scheme
That carries with it an offer of escape,
Although elusive as a bright sunbeam,
Or empty as the cranium of an ape.
But thus we’re educated, friends and brothers,
To the American way of life – just like the others.
. . . 9
There is a new thing, pretty and dime-bright,
Which subtly they are peddling through the states:
That Negro people have turned anti-white,
With trembling whites afraid within their gates!
The Cracker grabbed the Negro by the neck,
And New York’s Irish fought him tooth and nail,
But neither ever cried to him: By heck!
You must love us white people without fail.
This new thing started out in New York City,
With one main object: To hum-bug the nation,
And rob the Negro of all human pity,
And multiply his harsh humiliation:
To make blacks anti-white and anti-semitic
Is just a damnable oriental trick!
. . . 10
Now I should like to ask for illustration
– why should blacks be overwhelmed with love of whites?
Does the Jew waste love on the German nation
for dooming him to mediaeval nights?
There are German thousands who are not anti-Jew
– more than friends of blacks in the U.S.A., perhaps –
But all are blamed for what the Nazis do,
And must take the righteous world’s unfriendly raps.
Now I do love the United States, so grand
In bigness, frankness – and brutality,
Love it because this great amazing land
Is so free from the Old World’s hypocrisy:
But this new Negro anti-white-ism rumour
– why? has America no sense of humour? 12
The Communists know how Negro life’s restricted
To very special grooves in this vast land,
And so pursue and persecute the afflicted,
Hiding betimes their bloody Levantine hand.
From futile propaganda they have turned
To welfare work and local politics,
Where plums are big and sweet and can be earned
By playing hard the game with devilish tricks.
For the Negro people, for so long plaything
Of elephant and ass the C.P. has a role,
They seek to tie their leaders with a string,
And thus over the Negroes get control.
And they use means foreign to our Western way,
That should make the elephant roar and the donkey bray.
. . .
When I go out into the crowded street
And a white person smiles – I return the smile,
Stop not to ask the motive, for my feet
Are busy like thousands in the usual style.
I want not to find out what whites say “nigger”:
I have never been curious to know,
Nor do I want to waste my time to figure
How many are anti-black, how many pro!
I do not wear a chip upon my shoulder,
As I go elbowing among the crowd,
I do not feel I am the perfect holder
Of my race’s honour, arrogantly proud.
I’m only a human being – if you will let me –
Taking a sidewalk jaunt with naught to fret me.
. . . 19
Whichever way the whites may writhe and squirm,
The fact remains that Negroes are suppressed,
Kept underfoot as far down as a worm
– Jews under Nazis are not more unblest.
If Hitler ever gets Jews to their knees
– as abjectly as Negroes in these States –
Then baiting of the Jews at once will cease,
For they’ll be of all bereft without the gates!
So expect me not a hypocrite to say
Some other people is worse off than mine,
For facts remain in war and peace to flay
The falsehoods from the propaganda line.
If I tell the truth, it may not be in vain,
To another suffering group it may bring gain.
. . . 23
Lord, let me not be silent while we fight
In Europe Germans, Asia Japanese,
For setting up a Fascist way of might
While fifteen million Negroes on their knees
Pray for salvation from the Fascist yoke
Of these United States. Remove the beam
(Nearly two thousand years since Jesus spoke)
From your own eye before the mote you deem
It proper from your neighbour’s to extract!
We bathe our lies in vapours of sweet myrrh,
And close our eyes not to perceive the fact!
But Jesus said: You whited sepulchre,
Pretending to be uncorrupt of sin,
While worm-infested, rotten stinking within!
These intellectuals do not want to face
Our problems here: Europe is Fascist but
– why fifteen million Negroes in their place
Know that it’s Fascism keeps them in the rut!
The Fascist white South rules this land again,
Its sons are dominant in the armed forces,
(Its daughters marry powerful Northern men)
And incontestably shape the Negroes’ courses.
The South completely rules in Washington,
In industry takes all the better jobs,
The nation tells what with “niggers” should be done,
And set the paces for our Northern snobs!
Oh, go to Russia, my lily-white writer friend,
And leave the South our liberties to defend!
. . . 29
Of course, we have Democracy but it
Is plain Fascist Democracy for whites,
Where fifteen million blacks are not thought fit
To partake of Democracy’s delights.
The fact is we are not considered human
By our rulers who control from birth to tomb,
Are not considered children born of woman,
As whites who issue from their mother’s womb!
Since Colour is the most expressive brand
Of American Fascism and forms its basis,
Europe, of course, we cannot understand,
Where Fascism thrives on differences of races.
So Europe we must conquer, educate
The World by mark of colour to separate.
. . . 34
America said: Now, we’ve left Europe’s soil
With its deep national jealousies and hates,
Its religious prejudices and turmoil,
To build a better home within our gates.
English and German, French, Italian,
And Jew and Catholic and Protestant,
Yes, every European, every man
Is equal in this new abode, God grant.
And Africans were here as chattel slaves,
But never considered human flesh and blood,
Until their presence stirred the whites in waves
To sweep beyond them, onward like a flood,
To seek a greater freedom for their kind,
Leaving the blacks still half-slaves, dumb and blind.
. . . 35
This is the New World that we left the old
To build, here in America, they say.
From kings and lords and gentlemen bad and bold,
We turned to follow life the Indian way.
From oppressive priests and creeds to find release,
And feel the air around us really free,
To found a place where man may live in peace,
And grow and flower and bear fruit like a tree.
But from the beginning the Old World’s hand
Was heavy on the movement of the new,
Though wars and revolutions shook the land,
The grip remained and even tighter grew,
Until the New World opened up its gates
As an outpost of the Old World’s feuds and hates. 40
Oh can a Negro chant a hymn
And say, My task is yours
Oh fill my glass up to the brim,
This war, white man is ours.
Oh can he feel as white men do,
He’s fighting over there,
To save some precious thing and true
From dire destruction here?
Oh Lord, help us to understand,
For us, can it be sin
Not to feel smart and over grand
When battles white men win?
Oh Lord, grant us a ray of light,
For this we surely need,
Black children groping in the night
Of Christian chaos and greed.
WE want to live as white men live,
Oh even as they do –
But let us not ourselves deceive
“To thine own self be true.”
In wartime there are basic rights,
We can’t give up, oh Lord,
So help us to discern the lights,
According to thy word.
. . .
No lady of the land will praise my book.
It would not even be brought to her attention,
By those advising where and how to look
For items which make favourable mention.
Because my writings are not party stuff,
For those who follow the old trodden track.
There are nothing of the tricks – the whine and bluff –
Which make politicians jump to slap your back!
Because I show the Negro stripped of tricks,
As classic as a piece of African art,
Without the frills and mask of politics,
But a human being cast to play a part.
A human being standing at the bar
of Life, with face turned upward to a star.
. . .
Claude McKay, (1889-1948, born in Clarendon parish, Jamaica), is remembered as one of the founding literary voices of The Harlem Renaissance, and as the foremost Left-wing, Black-American intellectual of the 1920s through ’40s. A militant atheist once he emigrated to Harlem in the teens, he would end his career as a poet with a series of intense declamatory poems after his conversion to Catholicism before his death. Inbetween times the discreetly-bisexual McKay would publish tender, non-gender-specific love poems, as well as Race and Class-conscious verse. The Harlem Renaissance’s seminal poem collection was McKay’s Harlem Shadows (1922), and he would also pen a novel and a volume of short stories: Home to Harlem (1928) and Gingertown (1932). In 2012, an unknown McKay manuscript from 1941 was authenticated via the Samuel Roth Papers in Columbia University’s archives: Amiable With Big Teeth: A Novel of theLove Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem. This unpublished work centres on ideas and events – such as Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia – that animated intellectually the Harlem of 1935-1936.
. . .
McKay’s 1943 “The Cycle” series of poems – 18 of which are reproduced here – consisted of 53 mostly sonnets which took as their subject matter a complex amalgam of The War Effort, Fascism/Communism/Democracy, Race Relations and Racism, plus Segregation in the U.S.A.
Biographer William J. Maxwell (Complete Poems, published in 2004) describes McKay as a “worker-intellectual” of the international Labour Movement whose oeuvre as a poet has been difficult to categorize – indeed he has been roundly criticized – because of his “form-content schizophrenia”. By this Maxwell means: a form of modified traditional (English or Shakespearean) sonnet – 14 verses structured as 8 and 6, in iambic pentametre – with a Black Intellectual Radical’s content. Yet though McKay was definitely not involved with the 20th-century’s high-Modernist experiments in poetic form, still he “inverts the sonnet form’s orthodox emotion” – even as he adheres precisely to the structure. McKay’s passion – idealistic yet bitter, and angry with ‘a clean hatred’, as Maxwell calls it – is everywhere in evidence, whether he decries the Negro bootlicker or the White false-Liberal. “Cycle” poems not included here include: #31, about Westbrook Pegler (1894-1969), a Right-wing journalist and champion of fake populism whom McKay describes as “the great interpreter of the American mediocre mind”; #45, about Sufi Abdul Hamid (born Eugene Brown, 1903-1938),
who was a Harlem religious and labour leader – nicknamed The Black Hitler; and #50, about Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), the Jamaican-born Black-nationalist / pan-Africanist orator, whom McKay rightly deems to be an underappreciated hero.