Claude McKay, along with Langston Hughes, was widely considered to be the finest poet of the Harlem Renaissance.  With the appearance of Harlem Shadows (1922), his first book of poetry in the United States, he became the most famous poet of African descent writing in the English language.  McKay regarded working-class African Americans as the only source worthy of the African American artist, and was later contemptuous of what he saw as the overly bourgeois and intellectualist emphasis of the Harlem Renaissance.  A Jamaican by origin, he left Harlem and the United States in 1922 for the Soviet Union.  Before doing so, he directed his considerable talent and anger toward the too often virulently racist America of the post-WWI era.  Many saw his “If We Must Die” to presciently console urban blacks who faced the “Red Summer” of 1919 in the year it was published.  His poems “The White House” and “The Negro’s Friend” attacked the self-congratulation of whites who gave some token “advancement” to the civil rights of African Americans.  His “The Desolate City” represents the trend of Harlem Renaissance artists to revere the pastoral, the natural, and the simple while viewing urban America as an often lonely, spiritually and psychologically unfulfilling, and even “desolate” place.

If We Must Die

If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accurséd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

The White House

Your door is shut against my tightened face,
And I am sharp as steel with discontent;
But I possess the courage and the grace
To bear my anger proudly and unbent.
The pavement slabs burn loose beneath my feet,
A chafing savage, down the decent street;
And passion rends my vitals as I pass,
Where boldly shines your shuttered door of glass.
Oh, I must search for wisdom every hour,
Deep in my wrathful bosom sore and raw,
And find in it the superhuman power
To hold me to the letter of your law!
Oh, I must keep my heart inviolate
Against the potent poison of your hate.

The Negro’s Friend

There is no radical the Negro’s friend
Who points some other than the classic road
For him to follow, fighting to the end,
Thinking to ease him of one half his load.
What waste of time to cry: “No Segregation!”
When it exists in stark reality,
Both North and South, throughout this total nation,
The state decreed by white authority.

Must fifteen million blacks be gratified,
That one of them can enter as a guest,
A fine white house— the rest of them denied
A place of decent sojourn and a rest?
Oh, Segregation is not the whole sin,
The Negroes need salvation from within.