As we enter into the weekend celebrating American Independence Day on July 4th, I thought I’d put together some poetry about the American experiment. While not unprecedented, this is a complex time to be doing that. We are clearly in troubled times, and while I myself am as troubled as the times, I can still try to grasp what some others in their troubles and troubled times have chosen to say about America.
Let me start off with what a particular immigrant had to say almost exactly 100 years ago. The immigrant was Claude McKay, a Black man who came from Jamaica in 1912. Now of course, the presence in the then English colony of Jamaica of a man of African descent can be traced to the violent and involuntary diaspora of the slave trade before McKay’s time, but in his own lifetime, as an immigrant, McKay chose to come to America.
By the time he wrote this poem, first published in 1920, a number of then current events would have been impressed upon his thoughts. He first landed at the Tuskegee Institute in the de jure segregated American south, as close to the time of American slavery and the Civil War as we are to Martin Luther King and Woodstock today. He eventually traveled to the onset of the Harlem Renaissance in New York as well has visiting London and Russia. The life of a Black man was complicated by racism in all these places. Furthermore, if we are to apply the 21st century term “intersectionality,” McKay was working class, gay, and a committed Leftist.
Troubled times? The Palmer Raids and the original “Red Scare” imprisoned or deported many. The now better-known* and understood series of race riots and other acts of terrorism in the service of racial oppression were raging. Even in black and leftist circles, issues of black sexuality were a third rail, and McKay touched that rail.
And, as we now all know, 1918-1919 was also the time of the last great worldwide epidemic.
Given this background, as you listen to or read McKay’s sonnet “America” you may be surprised that this cri de cœur is as nuanced as it is. In the three quatrains before the closing couplet McKay is essentially making the case that he’s energized by being at a time and place when these evils are present and unmasked to confront. I’ll personally extend his statement: The American Experiment is this. It’s not the absence of evil, our country was never an Eden. That we are still fighting for our ideals of openness, opportunity, and equality under the law is evidence of our frailty—and our stubbornness.
Tragic persistence of metaphor: in 1920 McKay would paraphrase “I can’t breathe.”
Now what to make of McKay’s closing couplet, the turn the poem takes there as many a sonnet does? My first reading was that this is just the judgment of history: Babylon will always fall. Ozymandias leaves so fast he forgot to pack his trunk. That’s the clear reading of the 13th line.
A final line follows though. I think McKay the prophet here might have meant this too in his warning: we must change to extend our republic’s life, that all is at risk—even if every human, and every civilization, like every artist, will fail. Did we change from his time to extend our experiment? I believe we did. Are we called, are we in need of, more, further, change today? Well, what I think is less important that what you think, particularly if you are younger.
The player to hear my performance of McKay’s sonnet as a song with acoustic guitar is below. Is this the only statement for the 4th of July? No, I’ll be back soon with a reading from another American prophet.
*I was a history and civics nerd as a young person. I can tell you there was next to nothing to read about the racially charged riots of the WWI period until this century unless one knew to dig into primary sources from that time. The more distributed evil of lynching was acknowledged to some degree, but even when urban unrest returned less than 50 years later in the United States during The Sixties, I can’t recall a single pundit or think piece that referenced these events of the post WWI era.