“Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth!
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate.
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.’
Claude McKay, a Jamaican-American writer and poet, was an active figure during the Harlem Renaissance. His poem “America” exerts his passionate feelings both positive and negative about America. This piece fits perfectly in the 1920’s given McKay’s role in the movement. These times were full of excitement, struggle, and opportunity. America was a place that could be loved and hated simultaneously and the poem exploits that fact. It is written as a standard original sonnet. The three quatrains are set up beautifully and the concluding couplet supplements the overall perfect rhyming scheme, which also includes slant rhymes. In the poem McKay incorporates a collision of figurative language and personification, which opens the poem up to the reader. This sonnet is written using a terrific example of Iambic Pentameter, where every other syllable basically holds a strong emphasis, which makes for a very smooth read. There is a very important message behind this poem and it argues that America is the nation that made/forced the Black culture to be stronger.
The poem is broken up into two important stanzas. The beginning of the poem seems to be blaming America for it’s harshness and inequality. McKay constructs the first stanza filled with negative diction: “she feeds me bread of bitterness” and “Stealing my breath of life.” The terms stealing and bitterness give off a sense of disgust, hate, and suffering. However, the McKay finds a way to still appreciate America through it all: “I love this cultured hell that tests my youth!” America may not have been the easiest and most pleasant place to live during the 1920’s and even now, but the obstacles faced are just apart of the battle that the all of the nation’s inhabitants must face. When you make it somehow, you can appreciate the struggle.
America is personified throughout the entire poem. In the first few lines, “Although she feeds me bread of bitterness, and sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth, stealing my breath of life, I will confess, I love this cultured hell that tests my youth,”we can see all of the feelings that a child might have towards his mother. Not only does the juxtaposition of America to a mother help the reader relate more to the speaker’s point, but it shows how America is regarded by others. Often, mothers and fathers appear to be extremely strict on their children, but in the end it is generally supposed to be for the child’s best interest. America was given the role of a protector in this piece, one that wasn’t the most pleasant to have around. But this role was not tragic enough to instill fear in the ones it protected, there was still that respect factor. An example of that goes, “Her vigor flows like tides into my blood, Giving me strength erect against her hate. Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood. Yet as a rebel fronts a king in state, I stand within her walls with not a shred Of terror.” From this we get a more specific idea of a protector, one who builds and molds the character of her children. This sonnet was strategically composed to personify America and place the nation inside the shoes of a mother, one that has a firm hand and can later be appreciated.