Bringing Memories


Unknown photographer: from Harlem Holiday, c. 1930 (detail)

From Poetry:

Perhaps the key legacy of the poet, novelist, and essayist Claude McKay is that he refused to remain still. Living up to his self-description as a “vagabond,” McKay emigrated from his native Jamaica to the United States in 1912. He arrived in South Carolina, moved from there to Tuskegee, Alabama, and then to Kansas State College in Manhattan, Kansas, before decamping to that more iconic Manhattan in 1914. After the publication of his celebrated poem “If We Must Die” in 1919, he spent two years in Holland, Belgium, and England before returning to the United States for activist work and the publication of his crucial fourth book of poetry, Harlem Shadows (1922). McKay spent the next decade or so in Europe and North Africa, pursuing a lifestyle of bohemian adventurousness, leftist radicalism, literary innovation, and spiritual evolution. His three published novels, his autobiography, his essays on Harlem, and his poems on faith (unpublished in his lifetime) reveal his yearning for a home that relied on no nation, was driven by no diasporic exile, and was beholden to no aesthetic or social theory. Though he is rightly remembered as an important pioneer and militant voice of the Harlem Renaissance, McKay should also be remembered for how he refused these and other roles. What readers should honor 100 years after the publication of his most important book of poetry is his “vagabond heart.”

McKay offered in Harlem Shadows a genuinely new sensibility in African American and Black Caribbean arts. “The Tropics in New York” elegantly captures how Harlem Shadows unites racial uplift to the displacements of the African diaspora and to bohemian self-cultivation. The poet-speaker looks through a shop window at tropical fruits “bringing memories / Of fruit-trees laden by low-singing rills, / And dewy dawns, and mystical blue skies / In benediction over nun-like hills.” McKay upends the nostalgia for natural beauty typical of pastoral poetry, including his own Songs of Jamaica, by revealing how such beauty and its sense of home fail to console: “A wave of longing through my body swept, / And, hungry for the old, familiar ways, / I turned aside and bowed my head and wept.” Those “old, familiar ways” are inaccessible here because the speaker is as displaced as the fruit in the store, and those old ways are as fictitious as the ideals of primitivist innocence that white New Yorkers in Harlem often projected onto descendants of Africa. Neither the fruit nor the poet can go home again, and the poem laments a bygone home that can only be imagined in the face of the modern forces of capital and migration.

Many poems in Harlem Shadows likewise link African heritage to the American poetic imagination through displacement and alienation in ways that challenge central aspirations of the Harlem Renaissance.

“His Vagabond Heart”, Keith D. Leonard, Poetry

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