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Responses to American Poetry

The aim of this online space is to host the research work of university students or young scholars as this emerges from larger projects focusing on the American poetry scene. The objective of this initiative is to bring this kind of research activity to the attention of the general public in an attempt to further promote the exchange of ideas with regard to the process of reading, understanding and appreciating poetry writing.


Tatiani Rapatzikou 
(Associate Professor, School of English, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece; Advisor and initiative co-ordinator

Athina Papadopoulou


Claude McKay: The Awful Sin Remained Unforgiven

Claude McKay, an African American poet, established through his craft the viewpoint of a black person living in the United States in the first decades of the twentieth century. He was one of the numerous literary figures who served as “a catalyst for the Harlem Renaissance” (Vargas 1) and who made it possible for the voices of other Black writers, such as Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, to be heard by diverse audiences. His poetry collections, including Harlem Shadows (1922), shed light on the hardships of living in Harlem while documenting the unrecorded history of the white supremacists’ racist views and violent actions. Specifically, through his poem “The Lynching,” which is included in the collection already mentioned, he condemns the white supremacist lynchings used as a method of racial subjugation and alerts his readers to the “dangerous progeny” (Davis 13) that may derive from such a dark reality. The fourteen compact lines of Mackay’s sonnet highlight the rise of unjustified violence towards African Americans, which is manifested through the deadly exercise of the lynching mobs.

Before diving into McKay’s sonnet, it is crucial that attention is paid to the epoch during which he lived. McKay was born in Jamaica, but it was the inhabitants of the American South with their racist practices that enraged him. The implementation of the Jim Crow Laws, established after the end of the Civil War and lasting until the 1960s, forbade Black people from exercising their voting rights and accessing higher education, while at the same time segregating them from the public sphere (Tischauser 11). Lynching was a violent practice that made its appearance in the American South, revealing the violence and racial hatred behind this kind of practices. The ritual of “a typical lynching would involve criminal accusations, often dubious” against the African Americans with very little or no proof, and the gathering of significant masses, the “lynch mob,” would commence the “judicial process,” making many African Americans petrified of living (Lartey and Morris). McKay viewed his move from the South to Harlem as a justification of that dark reality while it fuelled his efforts to raise awareness of the terrorism that took place in the white South (Featured Poet | Claude McKay).

We may even say that McKay was at the right place at the right time since Harlem was the beating heart for black poets and artists during the roaring twenties in the US. That was a period during which the arts flourished and African Americans started making their presence felt in the big urban centers of the American North. This is also the period during which American modernist literary experimentations sought their own way of expression so that they could respond to the fast changes and socio-cultural issues of present-day reality. Creative figures regardless of their art started forming rebellions against the past norms and regulations, and for the first time in literary history, readers experienced poems with “open poetic form, free verse, discontinuous narrative, juxtaposition, intertextuality,” while resorting to the “use of colloquial idiom in place of poetic diction and biting irony” (Awan and Khalida 64). The people of Harlem welcomed this new-age revolution, which gradually paved the path towards what is known as the Harlem Renaissance. Black poets like McKay, Langston Hughes, and Countee Cullen introduced black writing to a much wider audience while shedding light on the problems of black identity by looking into black tradition through the lense of the twentieth century socio-cultural and political changes. The free verse that was promoted by modernist literary experimentations enabled black poets to enrich their poems with the musicality and rhythm of jazz (Hirsch 256), which led to a synthesis of white poetry forms with black rhythmical elements and socio-political issues.

McKay attempts to condemn the lynching that is taking place in the course of the poem through allusions to Christianity. The dark history behind the lynching practises carried out in the American South is deeply rooted in the hatred of white racists, who implemented this method in order to terrorize African Americans on a social and racial level (Lartey and Morris). From the beginning of the poem, the use of the capitalized pronoun “His” in the first two lines of the poem as well as the phrase to “ascend to high heaven” (“The Lynching” 1) alludes to the connection that there is between the lynched victim and Christ by forcing the reader to sympathize with the “wordless black body” (Davis 12). Christ is a globally accepted figure of innocence given that He martyred for the sake of humanity; thus, the black body featured in the poem is punished so that light could be shed on the guilt that has been carried over in an attempt to alter the national history of the United States (Lartey and Morris). Hence, McKay records the veracity of African Americans, who had been manipulated by their oppressors. Namely, the victim, as presented in McKay’s “The Lynching,” is either “guided” (6) to his death or lynched at a “wild whim” (7). Maggie E. Morris Davis argues that “[t]he black body is necessary, but the real narrative emphasised is white violence” (13). One would expect that, given the poem’s radical and controversial subject matter, McKay would attempt to alter the objectification of the black body. On the contrary, the anonymity of the victim, as it becomes evident in the lines of the poem, heightens the throes of subjugation. The black body remains silent, even though it stays at the center of the poem. Indeed, the vividness of the imagery McKay resorts to in “The Lynching,” as is particularly the case with the “swinging char” (8) that features the victim’s body “swaying” between decay and death, underlines not only the alienation but also the annihilation of the black subject. Also, the oxymoron effect of the “ghastly body” (10), which highlights the malicious violation of the black body, and the “day dawned” (9), shed light on the vicious and vile acts that have remained undocumented till the middle of the twentieth century.

McKay presents the lynching as a celebratory communal activity, as is shown by the reference to “the mixed crowds” (9); everyone is urged to celebrate regardless of gender and age. The apathy in the scene the poem captures, as no one “showed sorrow” (12), with people being “thronged to look” (11), may be rather shocking to the readers; yet McKay does not hesitate to record “the communal participation in and commodification of lynching spectacles” (Davis 13). McKay's careful word choice in his poem “The Lynching” heightens the readers' emotions towards the dehumanizing lynching act: even the “little lads” (13) appear to be familiar with the lynching that is taking place to the point that they view it as an everyday thing, so they “danced around” (14) this “dreadful thing in fiendish glee” (14). Essentially, McKay stresses here how children are brought up to become lynchers themselves by “emulate[ing] the violence of their fathers” (Davis 13). Consequently, this cruel cycle of violence will never cease unless it is legally forbidden. The first anti-lynching bill came into power in 1937 due to the activism of many women’s organizations, particularly the Woman’s Loyal Union of New York and Brooklyn (WLU). Lyons and her community's resistance to "the color line" in Brooklyn and New York shed light on both WLU women's activity and the complexities of racist segregation and black resistance. WLU was pivotal in significant urban mobilizations and battles during the "Progressive Period," which saw the overthrow of Reconstruction, lynchings, and "Jim Crow" segregation (Johnson 836).

As has been mentioned, McKay resorts to the use of the sonnet form for the writing of this poem. Due to this, the poem “pa[ys] homage to the more traditional Elizabethan and Petrarchan sonnets” (Vargas 1) by combining both patterns while opening up its text to different ways of reading. McKay’s poetry appeared at a time during which poets and creative individuals endeavored to deviate from previous literary conventions like Naturalism or Romanticism (Davis and Jenkins). Working in the context of the Harlem Renaissance, McKay resorts to the sonnet form, which was popularized at the time of American modernist literary production, for the expression of his anti-lynching sentiments and promotion of (black) human rights. If one also considers what was happening on a global scale, with Karl Marx being an influential figure due to his economic and class theories about the distribution of capital and WWI having destroyed Europe, there is no wonder that McKay attempts through his poems to promote a way of writing that due to its subjects opens modernist poetry to the working classes and marginalized communities as well as to pivotal socio-cultural and political issues. The notion of the Soviet Union aiming at “Black in the United States,” with McKay transforming into an advocate, this becomes prevalent not only in his speech at the 1922 Comintern (Communism International) in Moscow but also through the publication of his radical poems, including “If we must die” (Carew 2). The Soviets promised a “renewed anti-colonial movement” and influential figures like McKay could promote these concepts (Carew 14). One would suggest that a radical poet like McKay would not favor the sonnet form as the carrier of his political ideology and would opt for something more revolutionary. On the contrary, a sonnet for McKay can be characterized as being “best suited to express powerful emotions controlled and measured by structure” (Denizé and Newlin 4). In other words, its structure facilitates McKay’s anti-lynching and human right protests as well as reminds the readership of the dangers of certain racist practices still prevalent in the American South.

In a typical sonnet fashion, there are fourteen lines with a concrete structure (Denizé and Newlin 13), which can be organized in an octave and a sestet according to the Petrarchan form and into three quatrains and a couplet based on the Shakespearean form; while its rhyme scheme is a blend of the two sonnet patterns already mentioned. If the poem is approached based on the Petrarchan format, then the first eight lines follow the ABBA/ABBA/CDECDE rhyme scheme. Furthermore, the octave can be divided into two quatrains, where the poet introduces the lynching event. At the same time, the sonnet can be split into three quatrains and a couplet, following the ABAB/CDCD/EFEF/GG pattern according to the Shakespearean rhyming scheme. For the construction of a multisensory sonnet, McKay adopts the alliteration technique, especially of the /s/ sound, to express his controlled anger throughout the sonnet: “smoke” (1), “bosom” (2), “sin” (4), “swaying in the sun” (10), “Showed sorrow” (12). In addition, it should be highlighted that McKay was a revolutionist and a Marxist who attempted through his poetry to fight against “Jim Crow” regulations, “sharecropping,” and “northern urban metropolises” (Marxists). What fuels McKay’s writing is the prevalent racist ideology of his time racist ideology and the campaigns of racist trepidation against his people.

McKay incorporates various poetic devices in his sonnet, apart from the two diverse structures and rhyme schemes already mentioned. What makes his poem distinct are its argumentative tone and polyphony, which derive from the way punctuation is used. To exemplify, the first quatrain is heavily punctuated, as the two full stops “His spirit in smoke ascended to high heaven.” (1) and “The awful sin remained still unforgiven.” (4) deliver the immediate facts regarding the modus operandi. The commas at the beginning and the end of the second line break the line into two parts, and the caesura helps the reader immediately capture the fragmented snapshots. A similar motif can be located in the following lines: “And little lads, lynchers that were to be,” (13) and “Danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee.” (14), as two commas are breaking them into two separate images followed by a solid full stop, which foregrounds McKay’s stance. Additionally, in the middle of the poem, in lines “Hung pitifully o’ er the swinging char” (8) and “Day dawned, and soon the mixed crowds came to view” (9), “McKay makes frequent use of […] the ‘volta’ to signal the shift to a new perspective,” which is illustrated by the full stop (Denizé and Newlin 3). McKay intentionally uses punctuation marks in the sonnet to highlight the lynching occurrence. One could claim that McKay splits the poem into two distinct scenarios, one showing the lynching's execution and the other showing the celebrations. To help the reader understand the barbarity of such an action, McKay urges them to identify with the victim in the first section. McKay was one of the many individuals who spoke out for black people's rights and demanded to be heard and treated with respect during that time in his life. The danger of the misinformed public and the deceived masses is highlighted in the second section.

In a nutshell, McKay, through his innovative sonnet, “The Lynching,” touches upon a dark and cruel practice. He unites Christianity and Christ’s crucifixion with the unjust damnation of African Americans so that he can shed light on their suffering and mistreatment, which highlights the racism and oppression expressed by the racists. McKay subverts and questions morally and ethically the role of religion and how the supremacists managed to exploit Christianity so that they promoted their own dark vision. Simultaneously, McKay foreshadows the doom, with the young white generation being caught up in a cycle of violence. Despite the passing of a century since the publication of the sonnet, McKay perhaps documented a non-negotiable fact: there will always be violence and racism underneath the surface, regardless of the movements, Black Lives Matter, or the legislation, because people will always be afraid of what is different or what questions their norm. But his poem demonstrates that, if communities unite against such things, they can rewrite history by ending the cycle of racial doctrine.


Works Cited

Awan, Abdul Ghafoor, and Yasmin Khalida. "New trends in modern poetry." Journal of Literature, Languages and Linguistics, vol. 13, 2015, pp. 63-72.
Carew, Joy Gleason. “Translating Whose Vision? Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson and the Soviet Experiment.” Intercultural Communication Studies, vol. 23, no. 2, 2014.
Davis, Alex, and Lee M. Jenkins. The Cambridge Companion to Modernist Poetry. Cambridge UP, 2007.
Davis, Maggie E. Morris. "Sound and Silence: The Politics of Reading Early Twentieth-Century Lynching Poetry." Canadian Review of American Studies, vol. 48, no. 1, Spring 2018, p. 40.
Denizé, Donna E. M., and Louisa Newlin. "The Sonnet Tradition and Claude McKay." The English Journal, vol. 99, no. 1, 2009, pp. 99-105.
Featured Poet | Claude McKay. Accessed 19 Apr. 2023.
Johnson, Val Marie. ‘“The Half Has Never Been Told”: Maritcha Lyons’ Community, Black Women Educators, the Woman’s Loyal Union, and “the Color Line” in Progressive Era Brooklyn and New York’. Journal of Urban History, vol. 44, no. 5, Sept. 2018, pp. 835–61. SAGE Journals,
Lartey, Jamiles, and Sam Morris. "How White Americans Used Lynchings to Terrorize and Control Black People." The Guardian, 26 Apr. 2018. The Guardian, Accessed 19 Apr. 2023.
McKay, Claude. "The Lynching." Poetry Foundation, Accessed 19 Apr. 2023.
Tischauser, Leslie Vincent. Jim Crow Laws. ABC-CLIO, 2012.
Vargas, Rikki. "Claude McKay: A Literary Revolutionary." Harvest, 1 Dec. 2020, Accessed 19 Apr. 2023.
Walsh, Owen. "Claude McKay, the New Negro Movement, and the Russian Revolution." Socialist Appeal, 22 Aug. 2017, Accessed 19 Apr. 2023.

Contributor Bio: Athina Papadopoulou


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