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Claude McKay was a well-known Jamaican poet and author. McKay was a leading figure in the Harlem Revival, a flourishing literary movement. He was born in Sunny Ville, Jamaica to a peasant family. As a consequence, he celebrated rural life or the poor black culture in Jamaica. As a result, he publicly criticized American authorities. McKay was proud of his African ancestry, and his poetry praised black identity. As a consequence, his poetry addresses a wide variety of Jamaican life problems for the black, white exploitation, and praise for black identity. McKay was also adamantly opposed to bigotry. In most of his writings, he expressed his bitter feelings towards racism. It was because, while working in Kingston as a young man and his stay in New York, McKay experienced a lot of racism. Initially, McKay wrote in English, but after some time he changed his style to write in Jamaican dialect. In his poem "Quashie to Buccra," McKay uses the Jamaican dialect to write about the plight of a black peasant complaining about the buccra (white man). It is in this and many other poems such as "Old England" that McKay brings out the formal strategies of using the Jamaican dialect. It was a compelling style but contradicting. It might lead the reader into believing that the colonized were angry at their oppressors while some thrived in the British way of life. On the other hand, the poem may bring out different contradicting themes. McKay's Jamaican dialect poems are written in a way that the issues are understood differently by native English readers and Jamaican readers.
In "Quashie to Buccra," McKay represents the life of a black peasant and a white man. The peasant scolds the buccra (white man) vehemently because of exploiting the fruits of Quashie's labor without flinching. Buccra does not care about the amount of labor the Quashie has put to produce the sweet potato (petaters). The buccra even bargains for a lower price for the sweet potato but Quashie object to the exploitation of his hard-earned labor. He also complains about the objectivity of his race as a human being. Quashie narrates the difficulty of toiling for his fruits. One has to till the hard soil in the scorching sun just to plan the sweet potato. It is similarly hard during harvest season but comes selling time this struggle goes to waste. Hence, the poem is a representation of the black man and the oppressor as the white man. McKay gives voice to the Jamaican peasants who exploited for their hard labor for the whites. Quashie is portrayed as a low life peasant but also as a man who can stand up for himself. He directly confronts buccra on his lack of appreciation for the hard work the peasants put into farming their crops. In the poem, Quashie speaks out and says; "You tas'e better an' you say it sweet, But you no know how hard we wul fe it (1-2)." The poem is a representation of black oppression by the whites. Additionally, the poem is a celebration of black identity especially of the rural Jamaican people.
McKay's "Old England" also features a Jamaican Creole. The persona in the poem expresses a nostalgic longing for his homeland. Unlike, the previous poem Old England represents two diverse cultures with different ideologies. Neither of the two cultures seems to agree with each other. It seems that the poem displays use of Jamaican dialect but represents English aspects of life. The speaker of the poem displays feelings of longing for his homeland, England. He imagines seeing images that represent British traditions. In the poem, the speaker sees; "immortal Milton an' de wul'-famous Shakespeare, Past'ral Wordswort', gentle Gray, an' all de great souls buried dere" (19-20). As such, the poem identifies affection to British authors such as Milton. The authors thou dead, still influence the life of the speaker in a way. The speaker's vision also treats the working class poverty with some respect. It recognizes the hard work put in by the working class in building the economy the county stands. McKay grew up in the times of the British colonialism in Jamaica thus; the poem is a representation of the British way of life. Those who grew up in the British colonized Jamaica found themselves acquiring the ideals of the white men. The thematic focus in the poem diverts from black oppression to acquisition of British culture.
The two poems are distinctively different in thematic concerns. Quashie to Buccra is concerned with the plight of black people in the hands of the white oppressor. However, Old England shifts focus to the acquisition of British culture. In this poem, he shifts focus from identifying more closely with the colonized to the colonizer. McKay sought to embrace black identity in most of his books and poems. As such, he aimed at reorganizing the concept of the Negro from the white stereotyping. During the Harlem Renaissance, most writers were against Western formal conventions and culture. It made most writings of this time such as McKay's acts of rebellion and defiance against white culture. Old England was published a few years before the Harlem Renaissance thus, does not reject the British tradition (Claude 23). Most writers before that used the British literary tradition in most of their writings. Old England is a representation of how British tradition was celebrated rather than the usual rejection. However, Quashie to Buccra is the complete opposite. It celebrates Jamaican life especially among the peasant farmers in the rural areas.
The interpretation and understanding of Claude McKay's poems are different for readers. The use of Jamaican dialect to write his poems is both efficient and contradicting. It is understandable to native Jamaican readers but may pose a challenge for native English speakers. In Quashie to Buccra, the reader may get the interpretation that the black peasant is a bit naïve. It brings out the Quashie as a black country fool whereas the Buccra is brought out as the symbol of power in society. It is a difference between the colonized and colonizer. The colonizer wields all the power while the colonized is exploited physically, socially, and economically. Hence, for native Jamaican readers, the poem will have a positive impact because it will inspire and motivate. McKay gives voice to the colonized thus; the poem will create awareness and encourage black identity among the native Jamaican readers (Tyrone 63). However, Old England is a poem that will have more impact on native English readers. It celebrates Western culture especially by recognizing English authors such as Milton and Shakespeare. Therefore, the themes depicted in the two poems have a different impact on readers. Native Jamaican readers' perspective of the colonized is different from that of native English readers. The concept of colonialism has brought immense suffering to the black community as depicted in Quashie to Buccra. However, it has drawn about appreciation of Western culture as portrayed in Old England.
Claude McKay vented his bitter feelings towards racism in his poems. It served as a voice for promoting black identity. During his stay in the US, McKay experiences the injustices of racism thus, used poetry to create awareness about the effects. The style in his poems dominates use of the Jamaican dialect. McKay also used English literary aspects in some of his poems such as Old England. Many of the poems like Quashie to Buccra celebrate the Jamaican language and culture. In contrast, his poems about the white world focus on the British way of life and the beauty of the country. Therefore, for readers of McKay's poetry, different interpretations can be formed primarily by native English and Jamaican speakers. Jamaican speakers will find pride in the poems because they give voice to the oppressed in a language they understand. However, native English speakers might not identify with the poems because they are written in a style they may not understand. However, the themes in the poem relate to both different cultures. In Quashie to Buccra, the idea reflects more to the Jamaican people because it is concerned with the celebration of black culture. In contrast, Old England is an admiration of the Western tradition and culture. It celebrates the culture brought by the white colonizer rather than rejecting it.
McKay, Claude. _x0093_Old England_x0094_. Norton Anthology of English Literature. 8th ed. Stephen Greenblatt Vol. F. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006. Print.
Tillery, Tyrone. Claude McKay: A Black Poet_x0092_s Struggle for Identity. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992. Print.
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