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.”— African-American poet-editor Claude McKay (1890-1948), “America” (1921), in Selected Poems of Claude McKay (1953)
As I thought of this past weekend’s horrifying events in Charlottesville, Va., I came across this poem. It was written at a particularly low point in this country’s history, after Jim Crow had become entrenched not just at the state and local level but, at the behest of southern-born President Woodrow Wilson, through much of the federal government.
Personally, I favor setting monuments to prominent Confederate figures in a historical context rather than removing them. But the ugly hate and violence displayed in the town that Thomas Jefferson called home demonstrates not merely that these sculptures give tangible form to the inexpressible sorrows of a region that suffered much in a war fought 150 years ago, but also that they hold special potency to all too many bigots today.
This is the “bread of bitterness” that Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay assailed nearly a century ago. Our job today is to assure that the venom of the “tiger’s tooth” in America then will be drained for good.
For those despairing of America’s true place in the world, it would do well to recall the Jamaican-born McKay’s own ideological journey. A Communist when he penned these lines, he eventually turned against what was widely regarded as the political and social order of the future. Despite all the problems he still perceived in race relations, he nevertheless became an American citizen in 1940.
(For more about McKay and the poem "America," please see this post from the Workman Publishing blog featuring a conversation with school librarian and author James Klise.)