September 15, 2006

Happy Birthday, Claude McKay

Claude McKay (September 15, 1889[1]May 22, 1948) was a Jamaican writer, humanist and communist. He was part of the Harlem Renaissance and wrote three novels: Home to Harlem (1928), a best-seller which won the Harmon Gold Award for Literature, Banjo (1929), and Banana Bottom (1933). McKay also authored a collection of short stories, Gingertown (1932), and two autobiographical books, A Long Way from Home (1937) and Harlem: Negro Metropolis (1940). His book of poetry, Harlem Shadows (1922) was among the first books published during the Harlem Renaissance. His book of collected poems, Selected Poems (1953), was published posthumously.

From Wikipedia

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Anonymous said...

He penned one of my favourite sonnets, "The Harlem Dancer", and with it made me vividly aware that identity can and should be written about. In this he was together with Langston Hughes and Chinua Achebe.

by: Claude McKay (1890-1948)

Applauding youths laughed with young prostitutes
And watched her perfect, half-clothed body sway;
Her voice was like the sound of blended flutes
Blown by black players upon a picnic day.
She sang and danced on gracefully and calm,
The light gauze hanging loose about her form;
To me she seemed a proudly-swaying palm
Grown lovelier for passing through a storm.
Upon her swarthy neck black, shiny curls
Luxuriant fell; and, tossing coins in praise,
The wine-flushed, bold-eyed boys, and even the girls,
Devoured her with eager, passionate gaze;
But, looking at her falsely-smiling face
I knew her self was not in that strange place.

From the first time I read the poem (and went on to read others, as well as his novel Home to Harlem) until today, I was struck by the vivacity and trueness of the images. One in particular would do me in:

To me she seemed a proudly-swaying palm
Grown lovelier for passing through a storm.

I tried many times to write a poem about a female African dancer, but it is Claude's images which which would come to me, over and above my own experience of Basotho female dancers that I saw when I was a child.

That proudly swaying plam of his stayed with me, especially that, going through a storm, it was bent in that particular way that palms bend in the wind, ready to spring back (strike back!) with all the force of their being.

I did write my African female dancer poem, but in writing it I was avoiding Claude's own haunting dancer. Perhaps I should heartily thank him in that due to this fact, my version of a dancing lady is somewhat "different."

Geoffrey Philp said...

Dear Rethabile,
Yes, I agree with you.One of the things that I learned from Walcott and McKay was that the sonnet would be adapted to indigenous use with local imagery. The Negritude movement's importance my not be as prominent today--due to ignorance--but those writers were on to something