Claude McKay: Poems

Critical Reading: “The Harlem Dancer” and Her Storm College

Claude McKay’s “The Harlem Dancer” is a poem immersed in the rich cultural aesthetic of a cultural renaissance that is unable to conceal its somber song of oppression, even in an atmosphere trying relentlessly to exorcise those sour notes. The infected atmosphere in question is a Harlem nightclub, in which a beautiful, black female dances away her hardships as “laughing youths,” “prostitutes,” and the speaker watch. Using the speaker’s unique perspective, and the strict sonnet form, McKay illuminates both the beauty of resilience and degradation of the African American “self” perpetuated by racial oppression.

Initially, a division is drawn between the speaker and the rest of the audience because of a difference in race and perhaps morality. Critic Beth Palatnik agrees, stating that the speaker “identifies himself and the dancer with blackness” (Palatnik). According to her analysis, the speaker assumes a position of moral superiority over the rest of the audience that sexualizes the dancer’s “half clothed body” (McKay 2). She notes that the speaker is more preoccupied with the woman’s “swaying palm” than he seems to be with her scantily clad figure.

Though Palatnik seems to believe that this evidence alone proves the speaker’s...

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