America has had a long and troubled history with its immigrants and minorities, namely native North Americans, gays, lesbians, Hispanics, and African Americans. The underlying myth that is the American Dream is a promise of freedom, wealth, and success for those who work hard. Millions come to this country with the hope of prosperity and social mobility. This ambition is what drives so many to leave their home country with nothing but the clothes on their backs. While America is often deemed as the land of freedom there are some that are denied access to the American dream because of their race, creed, and color. Jamaican-American poet Claude McKay came to America with the same expectation that this beacon of light know as America would give him the opportunity to fulfill the American dream. However, he soon realizes that during the early 1900s the black man was viewed as a second-class citizen. One of his most notable pieces “The Lynching” tackles the social injustice in America during the Harlem Renaissance. He uses unconventional methods of appropriating religious symbols to assert his theme. African American rapper Jay-Z also focuses on success in American in his song featuring Alicia Keys “Empire State of Mind”. He as well changes the connotations of religious figures to agree with his overall message. While McKay’s “The Lynching” and Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind” may have been composed years apart, the themes of both works coincide. More interestingly, they use unorthodox methods by taking traditional western Christian images and appropriating them to appeal to their audience all while successfully delivering their messages.
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While Lincoln’s passage of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 did not abolish slavery in the United States, it was a step in the right direction. Even after the 13th Amendment, which actually freed slaves, African Americans in the U.S. still had to deal with extreme prejudice and discrimination for years to come. The subject of racism towards blacks is a recurring theme in Claude McKay’s poems and his 1922 poem “The Lynching” is an excellent example of this. This poem’s central character remains anonymous throughout the course of the poem. We are introduced to this nameless character as a man who was just lynched. We can safely conclude that the man who has been lynched is a black man because lynching was a common occurrence done to blacks during this time. Throughout this poem McKay paints a vivid and gruesome picture in the reader’s mind by clearly describing what has happened to this nameless man and his ascension to heaven.
Vivid imagery is not the only means McKay uses to appeal to the reader. With a first reading, it is evident that the format this poem follows a traditional rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG, a similar scheme found in Shakespearean sonnets. However, McKay takes this poetic form and alters it. Shakespearean sonnets usually deal with love and beauty. McKay moves away from this and uses the sonnet to reflect what is happening to African American and making other African Americans aware of these horrible realities. McKay makes it clear that treating blacks as second-class citizens is a problem in America that needs to be correct because it is hurting their social mobility.
Much like Claude McKay’s “The Lynching”, Jay-Z and Alicia Key’s “Empire State of Mind” uses a substantial amount of symbolism throughout, particularly the use of religious symbolism. McKay begins his poem with “His spirit is smoke ascended to high heaven. His father, by the cruelest way of pain” (Claude McKay, Line # 1-2). From the beginning of the poem, Christian imagery is prominent. Especially when McKay uses words like “spirit” or “ascended to high heaven” or “his father”. With a basic understanding of Christianity, we are immediately aware that Claude McKay takes the black man and compares his suffering to that of Jesus Christ. While comparing any man to the son of God is already controversial, McKay goes even further and compares an African American man to Christ. This is in direct contrast to the traditional view of a white Christ.
Another thing McKay does is separate African Americans from white Americans “And little lads, lynchers that were to be, Danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee” (McKay, Line # 13-14). The black man is seen as Jesus, who has ascended to heaven while the white lynchers are still on earth having to face the sins they have committed. With the extreme amount of racism in the United States and Jesus being viewed as a white man, McKay’s unconventional approach to the subject is genius. Not only does he take the most recognizable religious figure in America and convert his image to that of a black man, he uses religion to appropriate the mistreatment blacks have to endure to appeal to his audience.
Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind” does something similar to McKay’s work. In his song, Jay-Z states, ““Hail Mary” to the city, you’re a virgin and Jesus can’t save you, life starts when the church ends” (“Empire State of Mind”, Jay-Z and Keys). Jay-Z may not be doing the same as McKay, but he does share some common ground with “Empire State of Mind”. When Jay-Z states, “ Don’t bite the apple, Eve” (“Empire State of Mind”, Jay-Z and Keys). He takes Eve and the apple and relates them to New York City. Eve represents girls in New York City succumbing to the temptation of the city and turning bad by biting “the big apple”. Jay-Z also takes Mary’s virginal status and applies it to the context of how New York City can corrupt even the purest of hearts. He again utilizes Christian imagery in the line “And Jesus can’t save you, life starts when the church ends”(“Empire State of Mind”, Jay-Z and Keys). This is a direct example of how Jay-Z takes religion and makes it apply to the context of the overall theme of the song. In this line, he relates back to the subject of success in New York by letting the listener know how hard it is to make it in New York City. Jesus not being able to save a person in New York City and life starting once the church ends, shows that there are problems that one has to deal with in New York City that are going to be extremely difficult to overcome.
Another thing both Jay-Z and McKay successfully do in their respective works is the use of contrast and parallelism. Jay-Z is talking about success in New York City and his social mobility, which eventually results in him being the king of New York City. Jay-Z and McKay both show two sides of the overall story in their pieces. Jay-Z may be extremely successful in New York City, but he is aware that this is not the case for everyone. He may be on the top, but he knows that the city will change you and that you may have to do things you’re not too proud of in order to survive. “I used to cop in Harlem, All of my Dominicano’s right there up on Broadway” “Me, I’m out that Bed-Stuy, home of that boy Biggie Now I live on Billboard and I bought my boys with me” (“Empire State of Mind”, Jay-Z and Keys). These lines give us an insight from both sides of the spectrum. He tells the listener that he used to sell drugs just to make a living, but now he’s on billboards making millions. He does this once again when he states: “Eight million stories, out there in it naked City is a pity, half of y’all won’t make it” (“Empire State of Mind”, Jay-Z and Keys). Jay-Z is making it clear that New York City does not guarantee you success by using this contrast of being super successful and having to do illegal things just to make ends meet. He may be living the luxurious life but at the same time there is someone else living in the same city as him but on the streets. In McKay’s “The Lynching”, we can see another use of contrast. The African American man has done nothing wrong but was hanged in public display. This man gets to go to heaven while the people who did the lynching are stull on earth dancing around his body. “ The awful sin remained still unforgiven” (McKay, Line #4). These people are denied access to God because they are sinners and are racists. McKay depicts the lynchers as the evil ones who are going to be left behind and not be granted access to heaven while the black man who has done nothing wrong was attacked for the color of his skin. The contrast between good and evil is clear in this poem, those who are racist are evil and the sinners who will not be given access to the eternal paradise that is heaven.
Claude McKay’s “The Lynching” and Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind” were written decades apart. Some of the situations such as a black man being hanged in the streets are not present or as common during Jay-Z’s time. Despite this time gap, both Jay-Z and McKay do excellent jobs of taking religious symbols and applying them in a relevant manner to the time they lived. Although the overall messages of both pieces may not be the same, with McKay focusing on the socially unjust and Jay-Z focusing on success in New York City, they also share the use of contrast and parallelism. These function successfully for both Jay-Z and Claude McKay and allow their works to have a more personal impact on their audiences.
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