Saturday, February 19, 2022

Quote of the Day (Claude McKay, on a Lonely Winter Night in Harlem)

“Through the long night until the silver break
Of day the little gray feet know no rest;
Through the lone night until the last snow-flake
Has dropped from heaven upon the earth's white breast,
The dusky, half-clad girls of tired feet
Are trudging, thinly shod, from street to street.”—African-American poet, novelist, and essayist Claude McKay (1889-1948), title poem of Harlem Shadows: Poems (1922)

I recounted some details on the life of Claude McKay in this post from four years ago. But this year, on the centennial of Harlem Shadows, seemed like a good time to sample the work of this major figure of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.

In this title poem from the volume, McKay evokes the plight of Harlem prostitutes. They ply their trade under the worst possible weather conditions. (I can't read about that "snow-flake" without a shudder.) They are only “girls,” compelled to take up degrading work (in the prior stanza, to “bend and barter at desire’s call”) on desolate streets.

Though McKay evokes a larger “stern harsh world” responsible for their condition, the “poverty, dishonor and disgrace” they experience really come at the hands of a prejudiced white society.

In its vivid picture of sex workers in the inner city, this poem reminded me of “Buy and Sell,” a melancholy song from Laura Nyro’s debut album. I don’t know if she read any McKay growing up, but I would not be surprised, because she absorbed so many lyrical and musical influences. But the works of both are individual and unforgettable.

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