Night Life of the Harlem Renaissance
by Ernest Rayford
Claude McKay was an influential Harlem Renaissance poet whose work focused on the black experience in America. It was during his early years in America that he realized he lived in a deeply racist and segregated society, prompting him to join civil rights groups and radical black political movements. McKay set the tone for the Harlem Renaissance and gained the deep respect of the younger poets of the time, including Langston Hughes. One of the many poems that McKay wrote is called “Harlem Shadows,” in which McKay discusses the side of Harlem others are unfamiliar with. The poem primarily deals with Harlem’s appearance at night and the plight of his African American sisters who have to work as prostitutes due to their poverty. Throughout the poem, McKay’s despairing tone is reflective of his attitude toward the downfall of his race and how society has forced innocent African American women into prostitution and poverty. To convey his central message, McKay uses several writing strategies to give his readers a better sense of what life in Harlem was like.
McKay’s use of both visual and auditory imagery throughout the poem helps the reader gain an understanding and paint a picture in his/her mind of how ugly and sad Harlem was at night for the young African American women. In the poem, McKay states, “I see the shapes of girls who pass / To bend and barter at desire's call” (1). McKay shows how the women have to travel from place to place looking for work just for money. McKay uses words such as “tired,” “trudging,” and “weary” to explain how the work entitled in their profession is hard to bear and was most likely forced upon the young women, leading them to be degraded by the dominant race as a result of racism and sexism. Another example of his use of auditory imagery is when he says, “Ah, little dark girls who in slippered feet / Go prowling through the night from street to street!” (1). When McKay describes the prostitutes “prowling” it shows a side of the women that make them look like animals.
McKay uses parallelism and repetition to connect the reader to the young woman in his story and helps the reader understand her experience. McKay ends each stanza with “street to street,” showing how they are working non-stop. His repetition and parallel structure symbolizes what they go through over and over throughout the night in Harlem; tirelessly, they work all through the night without rest. McKay also repeats the word “little” in all three of his stanzas, illustrating the innocence of the women and letting the reader infer that they are forced into the profession.
Claude McKay’s personification is mostly of the world ruled by the white supremacists. Claude McKay personifies the world as cruel as he exclaims, “Ah, stern harsh world, that in the wretched way / Of poverty, dishonor and disgrace, / Has pushed the timid little feet of clay, / The sacred brown feet of my fallen race!” (1). McKay explains how the white people have made the world very difficult for African-Americans to survive and thrive. It hurts McKay to see what has become of his people and his race and to see how degraded they have become.
McKay paved the way for many poets during the Harlem Renaissance with his style of writing, and his ability to portray the conditions and racism he and fellow African-Americans faced through in his poems. McKay’s work is regarded as a big contribution to the advancement of black identity, showing others the ugly sides of places they did not know about, such as he did with Harlem in his poem “Harlem Shadows.”