As promised, here’s a love poem, one written by Claude McKay the Jamaican-born poet and writer who worked for many years in the United States. McKay sort of bridges the gap between Paul Laurence Dunbar and the Harlem Renaissance for Afro-American poets.
Like Dunbar, Fenton Johnson and Anne Spencer, his poetry was written early enough to be included in James Weldon Johnson’s pioneering 1922 The Book of American Negro Poetry. Like Dunbar, McKay could write a smooth metrical/rhymed poem in the 19th century style, but like Fenton Johnson he often set his poems in distinctly urban settings: the northern U. S. cities that were the terminus of the Great Migration of southern Afro-Americans during the 20th century. Alas, also like Fenton Johnson and Anne Spencer, his published poetic work seems to have fallen off by the late 20s, though McKay’s prose career continued throughout the 30s.
One of the poems James Weldon Johnson included in his anthology continues to be one of McKay’s best known, his sonnet “If We Must Die,” a passionate ode to desperate self-defense that doesn’t once specifically mention the white race-riots, lynching and other terrorism that was a cardinal problem for the civil rights movement between the abandonment of Reconstruction and the middle of the 20th century. I find this an interesting choice on McKay’s part. I’m certain many readers of “If We Must Die” understood in McKay’s time exactly what he was writing about, even to the specifics of it down to names, places and horrific details. But that’s not in the poem itself, unless you count the “O kinsman” address in the 9th line and the external knowledge of who that might be defined via McKay’s skin color. Is McKay’s choice intentional? By omitting his race and context, which his readership largely knew anyway, he’s saying self-defense isn’t a thing to be granted to or earned for Afro-Americans somehow, but a fundamental human right to be self-asserted. McKay had many other poems in which race is mentioned after all—makes it seem all the more to be a choice.
By choosing to state this universally, “If We Must Die” has even engendered an unverified factoid that Winston Churchill quoted this poem in a speech during the most desperate days of WWII—but all that is in war and ugly violence, and I promised you a love poem, and “Memory of June” is that—though it has one somewhat ambiguous phrase that might make it part of a struggle.
Here’s the text of McKay’s “Memory of June:”
Did you spot it? You should know I’m not about testing you; you are to only score yourself here. I didn’t see it the first time I read it either. Do you think it’s the phrase “your brown burning body” celebrating mutual Afro-American love and desire? Well this is poetry, a pleasure, not bomb-defusal, feel free to hold for that. It is a pretty poem, a romantic one, isn’t it?
The subtle, ambiguous line I eventually noticed is earlier: “For one night only we were wed.” McKay is now widely assumed to have been gay, though he never “came out” and nothing I’ve read so far tells me why this is now assumed as known.*
Let’s assume this is so. It is also safe to assume that few readers of the poem when it was first published in 1920 knew this, other than those in McKay’s intimate circle. Now the course of love is complex. Many nights of love are singular for many reasons. And Afro-American couples accrue special challenges. But McKay chose “wed,” the thing that gay couples were officially denied until late in my lifetime.
McKay might well be using the same tactical move as he used in “If We Must Die” in a different context, one where a then more secretive circle would read this poem differently from the common reader.
So here we are in June, a traditional month for weddings and also gay Pride month, and I present Claude McKay’s “Memory of June,” a love poem, not another poem about war or violence. Except love isn’t simple, and good love poems aren’t.
The player to hear my performance is below.
*This sort of ex-post-facto outing without a diary, journal or other unpublished manuscript that would be easily cited if it existed often comes from gossip or oral history—two names for what is largely the same thing, but gay history has fewer paper records to rely on. So, evaluating that isn’t simple, and McKay isn’t notable enough for this to be something I can find quickly.