Claude McKay’s Harlem Shadows Essay

Claude McKay’s “Harlem Shadows”During the Harlem Renaissance, the black body was considered exotic and the “flavor” of the week. Society had an obsession towards black women, in general, blackness. However, the white race wanted to listen to their music, mingle with the women, and enjoy the other finer luxuries that the black society could afford. Even the art was captured by this idea of the exotic and contentment in being “black.” The masquerade began as members of the white race tried to pass as black and during that experience gain some satisfaction from their own lost and confused existence.

Claude McKay was unique in style and tone, yet still followed the other artists by topic. The exotic in Claude McKay’s “Harlem Shadows” is apparent. McKay is developing the exotic throughout the text and saying that black exoticism is the only way that Africans can survive in America. McKay wants the African American to embrace their bodies, but there is an element of pity to the work. He feels that embracing the exotic in your own body is the way that the black person can become African American. Ignoring the culture fails to guide black Americans to discovering his or her identity. As a Harlem Renaissance writer, Claude McKay tried to guide African Americans to accept the African culture along with the exotic characteristics involved in it.

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In “Harlem Shadows”, McKay tries to express how a black woman survives everyday life in America. He writes, “I see the shapes of girls who pass/ to bend and barter at desires call.” McKay identifies with the black desires that these women can not avoid. It is in their nature to turn and exchange their bodies. However, the most important reference McKay makes is the use of the word barter. The dictionary meaning of bartering is to exchange services without the exchange of money. These girls are not receiving money for each desire they fulfill. For the girls to continue satisfying desires without receiving anything in return, McKay implies they are enjoying the act. Also, that these woman need to complete these desires to survive. Another prominent aspect of the line is that McKay uses the term girls instead of women. Thus proving that even from an immature age, black females are not able to suppress their exotic nature and desires. Therefore, McKay is encouraging women to embrace their own African roots, n…

…ng, “Follow my example.” That is how the girls can save the culture and realize their identity. He wants the girls to find a better way to exhibit their sexual tendencies and embrace the culture. The girls nightly behavior is shameful and not the way to living the culture.

Throughout “Harlem Shadows,” McKay is telling the young girls to express their natural sexuality, but to find a different way. The behavior that they are displaying is more disgraceful and should not be considered Black culture. McKay shows how the girls have lost their innocence and spread the black culture to the white race, yet McKay implies that their idea of the culture is tainted as the girls themselves are. Claude McKay makes reference to his example being the girl’s saving grace to the true black culture and each girl’s true identity.

However, in his message McKay has to make the girls exoticized and objectified before he can explain the way to change and the ultimate survival. By objectifying the girl’s McKay attaches his poem along with the rest of the writers at the time. He is writing the same topic of exoticism, black culture, and resuscitation from a lost and confused existence.


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