America (Claude McKay poem)

America (Claude McKay poem) Study Guide

First published in The Liberator in 1921, "America" is Jamaican-born poet Claude McKay's powerful reflection on both the attraction and the antagonism he felt toward the nation in which he spent much of his adult life. Written while McKay was planning to visit communist Russia and after he had spent two years abroad, the poem evinces an outsider's keen insight into the many failures and blatant hypocrisies of his adopted country. But structured as a kind of love poem, "America" also reflects McKay's avowed appreciation for America's achievements and his belief in the noble ideals America was meant to represent.

Composed in the "Shakespearean" or English variation, "America" shows McKay employing the full resources of the form for which he is best known, the sonnet. While the sonnet form was uncommon among the "high modernist" poets who were his contemporaries, "America" rewards the same kind of close attention that those poems do, and McKay is also able to infuse new potential into the sonnet by crafting tensions between structure and meaning. Demonstrating an advanced knowledge of English and American culture, the poem's speaker also pushes against the oppressive norms of those cultures, critiquing and reversing racist tropes and presenting a daring and defiant conception of black male virility. These very attitudes, in fact, earned McKay's sonnet a place in the file the FBI was developing on him, reminding us both of the racist and reactionary obsessions of the U.S. surveillance state and of the power and vitality of McKay's poetic vision.