Claude McKay’s “Tropics in New York”

Claude McKay, a poet of the Harlem Renaissance, wrote the poem “The Tropics in New York,” which describes a Jamaican emigrant’s life in New York. The poem, which alludes to a Psalm of David, likens the twentieth-century Jamaican diaspora to the Jewish Exodus. McKay uses specific formal poetic techniques and the quatrain, a classical form, to evoke sorrow and longing for one’s homeland. McKay’s poem is part of a long lineage of poems, and other art, of exile in ‘Babylon’ stretching from the Psalms of David, through the Harlem Renaissance, and including Jamaican Rastafarian song lyrics.

In the 1920s, there was a migration of black Jamaicans to the United States, and, in particular, to Harlem. This wave of immigrants as part of a broader migration, called the Great Migration, was of black Americans from the South to urban centers in the North, such as Detroit, Chicago, and New York, and black Jamaicans to the United States and England. The reasons for this migration were economic, but one of the results was a renaissance of the arts, including literature, music, and painting. Because of racism, particularly in Britain, and, perhaps, less so in the northern US, these new black communities were insular, but, yet, could not help being influenced by their new surroundings. There was a tension within these black communities between assimilation and remaining faithful to their native homeland and customs. The immigrants brought their culture with them, and this culture intermixed, to some extent, with the surrounding culture. Also, the more progressive and hip members of the surrounding white communities helped to spread the work of black artists. However, none of this art would have succeeded if the immigrant artists did not first master their craft at the technical level.

The “Tropics in New York” consists of three quatrains with a rhyming scheme of ABAB, and the lines are in iambic pentameter for the most part. It is nearly a sonnet but lacks a concluding couplet. In the first and third stanzas, McKay uses different parts of speech for poetic effect. Consider the parts of speech in the first stanza.

Bananas ripe and green, and ginger-root,
Cocoa in pods and alligator pears,
And tangerines and mangoes and grape fruit,
Fit for the highest prize at parish fairs,

This stanza is mostly a list of nouns. There are a few adjectives, such as “ripe” and “green,” and the last line of the stanza is an adjectival phrase. Despite the paucity of adjectives in this stanza—only one color is explicitly mentioned—a colorful picture emerges. The reader sees an array of colorful fruit in his mind’s eye. Interestingly, there are no verbs in this stanza. The poet paints a still life.

Now consider the parts of speech in the last stanza.

My eyes grew dim, and I could no more gaze;
A wave of longing through my body swept,
And, hungry for the old, familiar ways,
I turned aside and bowed my head and wept.

This stanza is full of verbs, “grew,” “gaze,” “swept,” “turned,” “bowed,” and “wept.” Throughout the stanza are personal pronouns, “I” and “my.” The first stanza contains no personal pronouns.

The poem moves from static to dynamic, the impersonal to the personal, and the objective to the subjective. The change in the last stanza is not quite the volta or turn of the classical sonnet. Nevertheless, the change in diction does emphasize the move from the gay to the sorrowful. The use of the word “hungry” is perplexing. The straightforward interpretation could be that this relates to the fruit. Physical hunger is not consistent with the ethereal quality of the poem, however. Perhaps it refers to a spiritual hunger or hunger of the heart. Emotions such as this are universal and in earlier times, were expressed in forms such as psalms and sonnets.

“The Tropics in New York” uses a classical rhyming scheme and meter, and the language of this poem is that of the Psalms of the King James Version (KJV) of the Old Testament. King David’s Psalm 137 describes the Exile in Babylon of the Jewish people of the Old Testament.

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
—Psalm 137:1 King James Version (KJV)

McKay’s poem is in the tradition of the writing of the Israelites—the language of exodus and exile. The elevated diction and structure allow McKay to express his personal feelings without the danger of sounding trite and maudlin as might happen if he were to use more colloquial language. The second stanza links the past and the present of this poem.

The second stanza consists mainly of nouns that are, this time, decorated by adjectives.

Set in the window, bringing memories
Of fruit-trees laden by low-singing rills,
And dewy dawns, and mystical blue skies
In benediction over nun-like hills.

There is a sacred, formal, cathedral-like sound to this stanza with words and phrases such as “mystical,” “benediction,” and “nun-like.” The phrase “bringing memories” neatly ties together the first and third stanza. The word “rills” hearkens back to the “streams” of Psalm 137, while the “fruit-trees” are reminiscent of the “harps upon the willows” in the second verse of Psalm 137.

We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
—Psalm 137:2 KJV

Of course, colonialists first imposed Christianity on black slaves in the Americas. Is a black American furthering colonialism by using poetic forms originating in England, such as the sonnet and the King James translation of the original Hebrew Bible?

There was controversy in the black artistic community as to whether black poets and writers should adopt the poetic structures of the Anglo-American tradition as their own or whether they should use their native dialect. Langston Hughes, in particular, was critical of Claude McKay’s use of the sonnet (and its variants). However, there was much more going on in McKay’s work than merely its formal structure. The subject matter of McKay’s poems was particular to his community. Also, as we have seen, McKay has identified himself and his fellow Jamaican émigrés with the Jewish people in exile. This identification with another exiled community distances his work from, say, the love sonnets of Shakespeare. Writing strictly in the Jamaican dialect would be to ignore his experiences and revelations in his new land. The identification of exiled Africans in Jamaica with the exiled Jews of the Old Testament would continue through the decades in both painting and music.

Aaron Douglas, a painter, was a fellow artist of the Harlem Renaissance. As McKay would contrast colorful Jamaican fruit with the dreariness of a day in New York, Douglas’s paintings combined urban scenes within scenes of Africa. Moreover, the colors he used were vibrant, like the colors of a verdant jungle, but he would use a limited palette within each painting like the duotone shades of a city.

Rastafarian reggae musicians, in the 1960s and 1970s, carried on with the theme of Exile in Babylon in their song lyrics. Consider the first verse of the song “Rivers of Babylon,” written by Brent Dowe and Trevor McNaughton and recorded by the Melodians.

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down
Yeah, we wept, when we remembered Zion

Dowe and McNaughton were Rastafarian Jamaicans. They more or less directly quote from Psalm 137. Rastafarians considered themselves exiles from Africa (in particular, Ethiopia), while McKay considered himself an exile from Jamaica. Some Rastafarians considered themselves a Lost Tribe of Israel. There are many parallels between these cultures and societies, the Harlem Renaissance, Rastafarianism, and the Jewish Exile (and are interesting to explore). The Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey also moved to Harlem around the same time McKay did and figured prominently in both Rastafarianism and the Harlem Renaissance. The parallels between the Harlem Renaissance and Rastafarianism reverberate in both art and culture. McKay’s poem “If We Must Die” matches the rebelliousness of Rastafarianism and its war against ‘Babylon.’

“The Tropics in New York” is a poem in a long tradition of songs/poems/psalms (and paintings) of exile and suffering, or “sufferation,” as the Jamaican reggae world calls it. McKay consciously places his poem in this tradition by alluding to Biblical text and using a traditional, formal structure. However, “The Tropics in New York” rises above a generic sonnet of love or loss. With McKay’s choice of colorful diction in the first stanza, the poem occurs at a particular time and place. With the third and final stanza, McKay expresses universal and timeless feelings of exile and disconnectedness with one’s community. “The Tropics of New York,” like the paintings of Aaron Douglas, contrasts the vibrancy of one’s homeland, or Zion, with the dreary and often degrading life of an immigrant in Babylon, the modern American city.

References

To avoid influence, I didn’t read any books on Claude McKay or his poetry before writing this essay. However, I did decide to approach the subject of McKay obliquely by listening to and reading about Jamaican reggae.

  • For background knowledge on Rastafarianism, I read The Encyclopedia of Reggae: The Golden Age of Roots Reggae, by Mike Alleyne.  I learned a little more about the song “Rivers of Babylon” in this book, too.
  • The BBC Four television documentary, Windrush, was helpful for general knowledge on Jamaican emigration to Britain.  Windrush, in particular, shows how isolated Jamaicans felt in Britain and how they created their own dance clubs, which helped slowly spread Jamaican music to white Britons.  Reggae has been much more integrated into British society than it ever was in US society, but that’s a whole interesting subject on its own.
  • Reading Bass Culture: When Reggae Was King, by Lloyd Bradley, probably did not influence this paper directly, but is tangentially related to the subject and is very fun to read for learning the diverse attitudes and beliefs of Jamaicans.
  • Also, after I had nearly finished this essay, I started reading Ronald Segal’s book, The Black Diaspora. Seeing the jacket art, “Building More Stately Mansions,” by Aaron Douglas, made me realize similarities in the themes of Douglas’s paintings and McKay’s poem.

This essay was originally written for ENGL E-300.

Claude McKay’s “Tropics in New York”

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