A Semiotic Analysis: the Spirit of the African American Protest as Portrayed in Claude Mckay Poems

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In the past African American people come to America as slave and their descendant never can be separated from the old stereotype. The discrimination that faced by the black people encourage their courage to fight again the situation, they use literature to express their though. One of the black writers that used his works to express what his feeling about what happen to the black people in America is Claude McKay. McKay’s poems are analyzed and placed in the context of the oppression condition that was experienced by the black people. Using semiotic approach in which the meaning of the words that used in the poem will be analyzed to reveal the aim of the author and the effect to American society. The poems that McKay, such as “Enslaved and America” gives a feeling of African American experience faced the conditions, the poverty at that time, gap conditions, stereotyping, and slavery that leads them to the civil right movement.

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Since long time ago the African American people have long and remarkable story in American history. At first, they come to America as slave, and since that their descendant never can be separated from the old stereotype. Their characters are described as: savage, irrepressibly comic, lecherous, childish, sullen, and inferior. They never seen as human being by white people, for them they are not more than just property.

The discrimination that faced by the black people happened for long time, the situation encourage their courage to fight again. They fight for their future and their children to get better life. One of the medium that they use to express their feeling is through literature.

According to Davis, there are three character of literature based on mood of the author they are accommodation, protest, and escape. From that statement it’s clear that literature can be used as medium to express the idea of the author.

One of the African American writers that used his works to express what his feeling about prejudice and what happen to the black people in America is Claude McKay. As a pioneer of the Harlem Renaissance, Claude McKay was remarkable figure in African-American literature. He was one of the first black writers to inspire black people and affirm black people consciousness in use of literature as a useful tool to awaken the oppressed and exploited race. Black people should have confidence in its own culture, build self identity, and to stand on an equal side with all peoples around the world.

During his life, he gained different kinds of experiences, traveling in many European and American cities, making interaction with the lower class of black people wherever he went, and felt their suffering and misfortunes. He then wrote his precious experience in form of literature and then established himself as a poet.

Claude McKay was born as a Jamaican-American man. He was an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance and wrote three novels: Home to Harlem, Banjo, and Banana Bottom, Home to Harlem becomes bestseller novel which won the Harmon Gold Award for Literature. McKay also wrote a collection of short stories, Ginger town, and two autobiographical books, A Long Way from Home and Harlem: Negro Metropolis. He also wrote book of poetry title Harlem Shadows and becomes part of the first books published during the Harlem Renaissance. His book of collected poems, Selected Poems, was published lately. In his early life McKay was attracted to communism, but he was never become a member of the Communist Party.

McKay’s poems are analyzed and placed in the context of the oppression condition that was experienced by the black people who lived in America. In this case poem form and convection was used to evoke emotive responses of the reader. A poem can give a valuable contribution to gain the reader empathetic to the situation, as Laurence Perrine in his book Sound and Sense: An Introduction to poetry says:

Poem was born from a long process of thinking. Born from the mind of state of the author and shaped by the author’s motivating experience. Since it’s inspired from the experience, poem creating a sense that brings the reader to perception of life widen and sharpen contact witch existence. Through poem the author give new experience for the reader and it’s significant since it focused and forms in so reader can participate and gives greater awareness of his world. The poet itself is the mix of selects, combines and reorganizes the experiences from his own store of feeling, observation, and imaginations.

Every word in the poem has certain meaning. These meanings construct the whole idea and theme of poem. It’s not easy to reveal the true meaning of the poem. Author used a word to show what his/ her feeling. Mix it into beautiful form and rhythm.

Based on the background above, the aim of this research is tries to capture the protest of Claude McKay in maintaining black people existence in America through his the poems.

According to McDowell in his book American Studies, to see the American civilization, there must use interdisciplinary point of views. McDowell believes that American Studies move toward broader the limit, reconciliation of the tense, the academic disciplines, and a third long range goal, called a reconciliation of region, nation, and world. Referring to this theory, Claude McKay’s protest poems can be categorized as something come from region that will develop into a national issue because this poems provide a better understanding on the white supremacy in the United States of America toward African American people. The poem leads them to attempt protest for their equality. Protest of African Americans involves various aspects and the analysis will view it from interdisciplinary point of view. It is helpful to apply interdisciplinary theory by Henry Nash Smith taken from “Can American Studies Develop a Method” who states: American Studies is the collaboration between men working within academic disciplines to build wider scoop of knowledge, to widen the boundaries imposed by conventional method of inquiry.

The student of literature regarding to American studies point of view should take account of sociological, historical and anthropological data and methods in field of art. These interdisciplinary studies open opportunity for collaboration among men working within academic disciplines to create wider boundaries and new methods of research that different from the conventional method.

The American studies theory will be applied in this research in order to observe the social and historical data and facts in order to get a better understanding about African American people life, the challenges and the circumstances that lead McKay’s protest through his literary works. Furthermore, another American Studies theory proposed by Robert Sklar in his American Studies and Realities of America is also applied to view the reality of America particularly the times the poems were written and the condition of racism faced by African American. Sklar states:

American Studies is be able to manifest in form of inter and supra disciplinary. This concept applied for high culture society which is sociology, anthropology, economic, and politic are drawing upon and integrating as well as history and art.

Therefore, it is said that literary works can be a mental evident reflecting a certain happening or event in a society. The reflection of the society can be seen from the literature works. In this case the word that use in the poem will have deeper meaning. It can be represent the spirit, idea, and view of the author. To know more about what the real meaning of certain words that use in literary work, semiotic theory can be applied as approach in the research.

One of the semiotic theories that suit able with the research is semiotic theory by Roland Barthes. Barthes in his book Mythology, text is code, which each code is a perspective of quotations, element in the story that creates certain meaning. According to Barthes there are five system codes in narrative works, hermeneutic, proairetic, semantic, symbolic, and cultural.

Barthes theory will reveal not only the purpose of the author in wrote the poem, but also what the works represent for, about the society, the culture and the idea behind the poem that can be cached by the reader. Word by word will be analyze use the code and combined so get connotative meaning rather than the denotative.

In concerning to this study, the literary works in form of poem were used to trace the social condition of the period of McKay life and times when the poems were written, to find out what social, economic and political circumstances that McKay tries to protest and how the poem represent it all.

The method of the research use library research. The main data are taken from Claude McKay’s chosen poems. To support the primary data, the secondary data are used, coming from other books, journals, papers related to Claude McKay’s biography, his writings, sociological and historical aspects as well as theories. The research also makes use of the internet in order to find sources related to the research. The descriptive qualitative method is applied writing in the report of the data analysis.


As one of the significant writers who adopted of African American spirits, Claude McKay himself experienced the inequality done by the white man in America. There a poem by McKay tries to tell about how he hates being discriminate and his expression for white people, it is title: enslaved.


Oh when I think of my long-suffering race,

For weary centuries despised, oppressed,

Enslaved and lynched, denied a human place

In the great life line of the Christian West;

And in the Black Land disinherited,

Robbed in the ancient country of its birth,

My heart grows sick with hate, becomes as lead,

For this my race that has no home on earth.

Then from the dark depths of my soul I cry

To the avenging angel to consume

The white man’s world of wonders utterly:

Let it be swallowed up in earth’s vast womb,

Or upward roll as sacrificial smoke

To liberate my people from its yoke!

Claude McKay’s ‘Enslaved’ discusses exactly what the title suggests, talking about slavery. In this poem, McKay uses repetition of various hard and soft consonant sounds to contribute to the general theme of oppressive white power over the blacks. He uses word so intent, one of the most noticeable patterns is the constant hissing sound produced by the ‘s’ in various words in each line, from very beginning of the line.

“Oh when I think of my long-suffering race”

In this line, the poet uses the words ‘suffering’ and ‘race’ in their connotative meaning to emphasize the crucial effect of opening line, to show how important the part suffering and race. The “race” is referring to the African American people who were suffered for long time, He not use black people but use term “race”, tribe of people who have special features. He also use strong word “suffering” to show that the race, the people feel hurt for long time, and they don’t have any choice to heal. This condition attracts the author concerns, he thinking of them, their condition haunted him. In this poem can be seen the racial inequality and the African American experienced as a slave.

In the next lines, Claude McKay writes his experience as African American, being despised, oppressed, enslave. These kind oppression events make them choose to avoid place for human being. They hiding live separated in a group, tries looking for safety not only from nature force but from white people. McKay himself experienced the inequality done by the white people in America. He witnessed all torments and miseries that befell upon the African Americans due to the oppression set and done by white people. He cried it with his darkest soul. He is angry for what happen. He expresses his anger for inequality through his poem. He feels hopeless for everything, for what they called as supreme people but act like savage. The lines show that white people had dominated the African Americans’ life. The whites had maintained their power to control the African Americans and other Black people in the world.

Every word he writes is dedicated to rise up the spirit of his race to get movement to be equal with other race. No more slavery they have freedom as human. He assumes that the white man is deserved to get revenge for what they being doing for long centuries. It can be seen how he hate the white man in the lines: “My heart grows sick with hate, becomes as lead,” His soul is full of hate and anger; he swore them to disappear and go to hell for what they have done.

McKay agreed to apply the violent and harsh expression and words in his poems. He believed that violence was the strategic way to destroy the oppression system that limited the African American life.” The white man’s world of wonders utterly: Let it be swallowed up in earth’s vast womb”.

The discriminatory conditions encourage McKay to protest. He believed that the life of African American would never change when they did not do protest. “To liberate my people from its yoke!”, He argued that there should be a movement from African American people to liberate their self from the discrimination conditions. It’s not enough to just keep silent to what happen to them, they should fight together, hand by hand for their better future. No matter how they should make sacrifice, they know that it’s time to stand up. If the first poem talks about social and psychological conditions of black people in America, the other poem that writes by Claude McKay tells about his feeling to America and its condition, is title: “America”:


Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,

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.

Yet as a rebel fronts a king in state,

I stand within her walls with not a shred

Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.

Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,

And see her might and granite wonders there,

Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,

Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.

In the Poem, “America”, written by Claude McKay, McKay tries to express his passionate feelings both positively and negatively toward America as his home, place where he stayed, where he life. The 1920s were a time of excitement, but also a time of struggle especially for African American people. This poem clearly shows both sides during the Harlem Renaissance, black people movement in America during 1920-1930s in intellectual, social and artistic field. The spirit of Harlem renaissance can be easily found in this poem.

“America” uses the standard of an original sonnet form. It contains three quatrains with a concluding couplet and a perfect rhyming scheme. Every reader will agree that the form of the poem is well written and leave great impression in heart of the reader. The poem is also a perfect example of Iambic Parameter, every other syllable holds emphasis making the poem read smoothly, read it as beautiful thing. However, he incorporates a mixture of personification to paint a more diverse picture.

The poem is split into two main stanzas. The beginning of the poem seems written in negative tone, to be accusing “America” due to the harsh and negative choice in diction: “she feeds me bread of bitterness”, America is your mother, who raise you, feed you, but She only give the bitterness taste and “Stealing my breath of life.” Stealing and bitterness give off expression of disgust and painfulness. It’s almost consuming the good things in life. However, at the same time He seems to appreciate America too. “I love this culture hell that tests my youth!” this line is that although all these things come toward America, it is just another battle it must face. American society shapes the people who live there. The value of live earn by daily routine. Everything America has to deal with can be seen as negative, but deserves credit for how it handles itself in the end.

This poem has an amazing use of personification because the entire time the subject represents and plays America. America is described in a big metaphor. The first 4 lines, “Although she feeds me bread of bitterness, 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,” can be seen that these are all feelings evoked from motherly characteristics. Not only does comparing America to a mother help the reader relate better to the speaker, but it shows what America is and how it appears. America becomes symbol of people itself, one unity that live together in a big land full of opportunity.

The end of the poem further shows that the future of America may be dark, “Darly I gaze into the days ahead”, but yet has an appreciation for all that “America” truly is. It closes, “Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.”

America in the past for African American people at the first seen as Promised Land, but soon as they came to America they become slave and all beautiful dream soon disappeared. The African American poverty also one of the issues in this poem, the lines “Yet as a rebel fronts a king in state, I stand within her walls with not a shred”. This lines mean that the African American have no place in America, America is seen as “King” very powerful place with powerful people and African American people seen as “rebel” a bad connotative stereotype. “Rebel” usually related with bad people doing bad people and came from bad society. This as same with the stereotyping that used by white people for the African American people that they are “savage, sullen, without a redeeming human treat, irrepressibly comic, etc”.


Claude McKay contributed his writing in form of poems to awaken the spirit of the African Americans. He used provocative expressions in his protest poems in inspired the next Harlem renaissance writers. McKay adopted the spirit of protest of the African Americans to challenge the white discriminatory system. The systems that make them suffer for long time. The poems that McKay, such as “Enslaved and America” gives a feeling of African American experience faced the conditions, the poverty at that time, gap conditions, stereotyping, and slavery that leads them to the civil right movement. Struggling for had the same right to get better education and schooling, work, healthier place to live and other chances that could make significant progress to prove their existence among the White’s society.

McKay was acutely alert to the alienation, oppression, suffering and injustice the African American suffered in American society, he devoted himself to the exploration of the dignity and divinity of the individual in his works. He gave a rich legacy of the awakening of African American consciousness and the ideal image of the race. The poems are records the reality of black experiences in the twenties when a new black culture was in the making.The poem portrayed what the black people feeling about their self, the society, and The America as part of their live.

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