A Reading of McKay’s “America”

In “America”, McKay uses powerful descriptors such as “sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth” and “her bigness sweeps my being like a flood” to emphasize the oppressive nature of American society.  Despite this powerful language, McKay does not condemn America but suggests that America is responsible for his poetic identity, his creativeness.  The “cultured hell” he is forced to live in is also responsible for his success as a poet.  Standing up before the American culture is a challenge for McKay.  McKay sees society’s negativity as something that can be changed and not a hopeless cause.  In the line “She feeds me bread of bitterness” McKay suggests that he is force fed American ideals and social norms in such a way that those ideals become necessary for survival, sustenance, the basic structure of existence.  In this way society restricts not only the freedom of the individual but the freedom of artistic expression.  McKay points toward the future when society can no longer survive as the oppressor of social and artistic expression when he describes the “priceless treasures sinking in the sand.”  Treasures represent a society resting on a racist foundation.  If a society, specifically America, is exposed to hatred for too long it loses those elements which make it unique and ethical such as its foundation of freedom and equality.  Racism holds everyone back not only the marginalized.  In addition, McKay is reminding a young nation that its lofty position in the world is unfounded and fallible.    

 Question:  What does McKay’s employment of the sonnet suggest in terms of commenting on American society?  Is it merely a poetical technique or a form of criticism or militancy?

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3 Responses to A Reading of McKay’s “America”

  1. tyler20289 says:

    I think, like black writer’s before him (Phillis Wheatly for example) McKay used traditional poetic standards to demonstrate his competence as a poet to his readership. The sonnet was also popular form during the early 1900s with American poets ( including Robert Forst and E.E Cummings), though it had lost favor in England post-WI. Perhaps McKay was proving “Her vigor flows like tides into my blood”—displaying his competence as an American poet?

  2. whatcher12 says:

    I agree with the first comment in that the sonnet is a useful mechanism for demonstrating the poetic prowess of a writer. Furthermore though, I think that the use of a sonnet is especially interesting in this case because the sonnet is usually romantic, and it usually employs a shift in the tone towards the end of the sonnet. In comparison to McKay’s criticism, in which he is calling for a turn away from social and artistic norms (namely racism) of the day, the sonnet seems a perfect tool to express the longing for that shift. In “America” I believe the shift begins after “Darkly I gaze into the days ahead.” If this is agreed, then the compassion and love for America mentioned previously in the sonnet would seem useless if something is not repaired.
    I think McKay uses the sonnet very well, and I think the poetic shift within it is employed flawlessly.

  3. Eveon11 says:

    I also agree with both comments, and find it especially interesting that the sonnet is used to reveal the darker aspect of America. However, I find it oddly fitting, since the author seems to say that the disadvantage he finds himself at being Black works to almost empower him, since he is forced to endure a harder life as a minority. Rather than being beaten down by all the challenges he faces, he chooses instead to imply a notion that seems to suggest a similar sentiment to ‘what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.’ In this way, I think the sonnet reveals the author’s coping mechanism in decidedly feeling personally empowered by the obstacles he manages to overcome each day. In doing so, it’s interesting, because in order for any sense of empowerment to emerge out of racism, he seems to grapple with the distinction between individuality and how closely related that is to race. I think McKay implies that although society places significance on race (which forces race to become ‘natural’ in determining someone’s status), it isn’t someone’s color that makes them better or worse, but how they cope with obstacles. Here, the sonnet works to recognize McKay’s own self-worth, which his heritage forces him to discover.

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