Sometimes it is the pathos of the Harlem Renaissance poetry that appeals to the reader. This is especially strong in a poet like Claude McKay. Here is an example in “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 death-blow!
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 force of the poem resides in its incantatory appealing tone. The sonnet form consolidates that mantra-call for bravery in the teeth of terrible ontological realities. Let the reader consider that the poet is penning this in the midst of segregation, race riots or daily police brutality or in the neighbourhood of lynch mobs. It is writing in the midst of a social war, much like Wilfred Owen writing in the urgency of the trenches. Despite the message-driven impact of the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, its urgent response to political and existential survival, most of the poets still escape mere doggerel and would fit into our black canon. They are Du Bois’ ‘Talented Tenth’ that would save the ‘race’ from its wretchedness. And they did make a political difference as history bears out. It appears that the poetry of contemporary African America has not left this protest tradition behind.

It inherited this from the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement that followed and is still propelled forward by that tone of dissatisfaction with daily reality.  Apparently there is no golden age of race relations in America as of yet despite desegregation, enfranchisement, affirmative action and a select community of upwardly mobile African American people. Prejudice dies hard. The primitive impulse still holds America in its iron grip in the 21st century. It is either that science has not reached America or she refuses to read it. Insecurity is the fuel that feeds the primitive impulse. And white America still appears to be very largely insecure. If America does not eradicate race prejudice it only speeds up the demise of its empire. The scenes from Hurricane Katrina resembled that enacted in a helpless Third World country. Long live America…. You know the rest!


Amatoritsero Ede


Amatoritsero Ede is a writer-in-residence, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.



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Sentinel Poetry (Online) #40


ISSN 1479-425X     March 2006