To celebrate Black History Month, I read Claude McKay’s 1922 collection Harlem Shadows, one of the first major works of the Harlem Renaissance. Up to now, the only one of McKay’s poems that I was familiar with was “If We Must Die,” his searing response to white supremacist attacks on African-Americans. The poem was first published in the July 1919 issue of the left-wing magazine The Liberator and later appeared in Harlem Shadows.
“If We Must Die” is so powerful as a clarion call that I had never paid particular attention to its traditional structure—it’s a rhyming sonnet. McKay, it turns out, was an unapologetic traditionalist when it comes to form. The British poetry, religious revivals, and African folklore he grew up with in Jamaica, he says in the “Author’s Word” in Harlem Shadows, “are all punctuated by meter and rhyme. And nearly all my own poetic thought has always run naturally into these regular forms.”
Harlem Shadows covers the arc of 32-year-old McKay’s life: his fondly remembered Jamaica childhood, depicted most memorably through his descriptions of tropical fruits; his arrival in the United States as a young man and the racism he encountered there; his observations of life in Harlem, with unsentimental depictions of prostitution and grindingly hard work; and elegiac, sensual recollections of his short marriage.*
I was curious to see how Harlem Shadows was received by critics of McKay’s own time. Given how condescending The Liberator editor Max Eastman was in his introduction to the book,** I wasn’t optimistic.
“These poems have a special interest for all the races of man because they are sung by a pure blooded Negro,” Eastman begins. He goes on to say that “here for the first time we find our literature vividly enriched by a voice from this most alien race among us. And it should be illuminating to observe that while these poems are characteristic of that race as we most admire it – they are gentle-simple, candid, brave and friendly, quick of laughter and of tears – yet they are still more characteristic of what is deep and universal in mankind.” There’s some more about the good and bad kinds of educated Negroes (McKay, of course, is the good kind), but I’ll spare you that.
Reading excerpts from reviews in Book Review Digest, I was surprised at first to see that the reviewers were generally more respectful than Eastman. This was explained in part by the fact that two of the reviews, in The Bookman and The Nation, were written by Walter F. White, an African-American civil rights activist who would later head the NAACP.*** The Nation review is edgier than the brief Bookman writeup, concluding with the collection’s title poem, which is about a Harlem prostitute, while the Bookman review ends with an innocuous poem about feeling like a flower in a storm. It’s more nuanced as well, saying along with the praise that “there is in this volume perhaps too much sameness of form.”
In the New Republic, critic Robert Littell was lukewarm about McKay’s versifying, saying, “I feel that a hospitality to echoes of poetry he has read has time and again obscured a direct sense of life.” He praised the collection’s political message, though. “It is not a merely poetic emotion that they express,” he says, referring to McKay and other African-American poets, “but something fierce, and constant, and icy cold, and white hot.” The New York Times praised McKay too, saying that “this young negro is responsible for a bulk of poetry that seems quite new from his race.” All in all, other than some lumping together of African-American poets, it was a more respectful reception than I would have imagined.
Reading Harlem Shadows gave me an opportunity to go back to a blog post I was thinking of doing around the time of the 100th anniversary of the first publication of “If We Must Die” in 2019. I had been surprised to read in the short Wikipedia article about the poem that, in addition to its appearance in The Liberator and its republication in the left-wing African-American magazine The Messenger in September 1919, it was “read to Congress that year by Henry Cabot Lodge, the Republican Senator from Massachusetts.” The source was a a book on the Harlem Renaissance.
That sounded bogus to me, so I did some research. Other sources claimed that Lodge quoted the poem during World War II as a source of inspiration (Lodge Sr. died in 1924, so this would have had to be his grandson and namesake, who was also a senator), or that he read it as a disturbing example of black radicalism. I couldn’t find a free searchable copy of the Congressional Record online, so I e-mailed the Library of Congress, using their awesome Ask a Librarian resource.**** The librarian responded that they had been unable to locate a record of Henry Cabot Lodge reading “If We Must Die” in the House of Representatives, which I took as cautious librarian-speak for “it didn’t happen.”*****
However, the librarian informed me, Senator Truman Handy Newberry had the poem entered into the Congressional Record on September 23, 1919. Newberry didn’t actually read the poem in Congress; he submitted for the record a statement by the Commission on After-War Problems of the African Methodist Episcopal Church appealing to Congress to investigate the “race riots” in Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Knoxville, Tennessee. The statement quoted “If We Must Die” in full and said that the poem represents the sentiments of a large portion of the African-American community.
Who was this Senator Newberry, I wondered, imagining a heroic figure, a progressive and outspoken ally of the black community. I was soon disabused of this rosy view. Newberry, it turned out, was a Republican from Michigan who defeated Henry Ford (yes, THE Henry Ford) in the 1918 election. He resigned in November 1922 after being convicted of committing election irregularities in violation of the Federal Corrupt Practices Act. His conviction was reversed when the Supreme Court ruled, in the 1921 case Newberry v. United States, that the Act was unconstitutional. The Senate, after an investigation, decided that he could remain a member but criticized him for excessive campaign spending. When a new effort to unseat him began, he resigned.****** So not exactly an illustrious Senate career, but I was pleased to see “If We Must Die,” and the compelling statement that accompanied it, in the Congressional Record.
I never got around to doing this post, however. (In my defense, this is probably not the only late-2019 plan that was never carried out.) I also never got around to doing anything about the Lodge reference in the Wikipedia article, although I did correct the date of the poem’s publication in The Liberator, which some misinformed person had changed from July 1919 to July 1922.
Others were on it, though, with varying degrees of accuracy. In October 2020, someone added a sentence to the Wikipedia article saying that, in reading “If We Must Die” to Congress, Lodge intended the poem to serve as an example of “black radicalism.” Then, in February 2021, a substantially revised and expanded version was published, and the article was upgraded from its previous “stub” status. The new version refers to the claim that Lodge read the poem in Congress, but quotes a scholar as saying that there is no evidence of this. This scholar also casts doubt on similar claims that Winston Churchill read the poem in the U.S. Congress and/or the House of Commons.
I promise I’m not going to do this on every single post, but I was curious to see what ChatGPT had to say about all this, so I asked whether Henry Cabot Lodge read “If We Must Die” in Congress. Never happened, ChatGPT said. “While he was known for his eloquent speeches and strong political positions, there is no record of him ever reading or referencing the poem ‘If We Must Die’ during his time in Congress.”
I was impressed for a moment, but then I wondered what ChatGPT would have to say about Senator Newberry. “While the poem was referenced and discussed by various political figures and commentators at the time of its publication,” the bot responded, “there is no evidence that it was formally entered into the Congressional Record by Senator Newberry or any other member of Congress.”
I begged to differ, noting the date and circumstances. Within seconds, ChatGPT responded with this gracious apology:
I’m glad I finally managed to write about “If We Must Die,” and I’m glad to have read the rest of the poems in Harlem Shadows. Even though, poetically, many of them are too old-fashioned for my taste, they’ve lingered with me, leaving a vivid sense of the early years of McKay’s remarkable life.
*I assumed, reading the poems, that his wife had died. It turns out, though, she returned to Jamaica six months after their wedding. (She and McKay had been childhood sweethearts.) He never met their daughter, his only child. McKay was bisexual and had relationships with both men and women over the course of his life.
**This introduction, unsurprisingly, does not appear in the edition I read on my Kindle.
***In the two reviews, White also discusses the collection The Book of American Negro Poetry. The Nation review also discusses a book called Negro Folk Rhymes. This is the only time I can think of, now or a hundred years ago, that I’ve seen the same person write two different reviews of the same works.
****Which, I hasten to add, you should only use if you have tried really, really hard to find whatever it is you’re looking for yourself.
*****The librarian also informed me that there is in fact a free online version of the Congressional Record, at https://www.govinfo.gov/app/collection/crecb. It doesn’t appear very user-friendly, though.
******This strikes me as an unusually speedy sequence of crime-committing, charging, convicting, Supreme Court overturning, and Senate investigating.