This poem stands as a sharp rebuke to American society and politics at the way black citizens were treated as being second class. We are presented with an image of a poetic voice who is raging with anger at being shut out from society and from opportunity based on race, but suppresses this fury to rise above and demonstrate his civility.
However, he doesn’t find this easy and the suppressed rage hints at the violent undercurrent that threatens to be unleashed if something isn’t done.
Your door is shut against my tightened face,
And I am sharp as steel with discontent;
But I possess the courage and the grace
To bear my anger proudly and unbent.
The pavement slabs burn loose beneath my feet,
And passion rends my vitals as I pass,
A chafing savage, down the decent street;
Where boldly shines your shuttered door of glass.
Oh, I must search for wisdom every hour,
Deep in my wrathful bosom sore and raw,
And find in it the superhuman power
To hold me to the letter of your law!
Oh, I must keep my heart inviolate
Against the potent poison of your hate.
Claude McKay (1889-1948)
McKay is an interesting chappy: poet, revolutionary and civil rights activist.
Born in Jamaica to a fairly affluent family, he was well educated and showed poetic promise and willing from a young age. However, it is when he moves to the USA that his life really kicks off. He faced something of a culture shock arriving to a deeply racist and segregated American society and this prompted him to join civil rights or radical black political movement that also seems to have incorporated socialist ideals.
During this time (1910s-1920s) he published a number of poems highlighting his disgust with the level of racism and segregation. I haven’t been able to find out definitively whether this poem was produced in this period, but it seems highly likely given the themes and ideas explored.
Anyway, his political views take him across the Atlantic where he was one of the, if not the, first black journalists, and then onto Russia to explore his communist leanings further. However, eventually he returned to the US where he would fall out of love with communism and gain US citizenship. After death he has been made the national poet of Jamaica and remains a highly respected literary figure.
What you need to consider is his background as being a fairly privileged and accepted member of society in Jamaica and the complete contrast in the way he was viewed in the US. In many ways an outsider’s rage is likely to be more intense in the context of US segregation and abuse as he has not grown up in this setting and is used to being treated with respect and standing.
The feeling of suppressed rage throughout the poem may hint at the inevitability of violence spilling out from the suppressed black minority in the US. This could relate to the Red Summer of 1919 where violence spilled out between black and white groups as a result of building tension.
McKay explores the way that black people are treated and viewed in the US. This poem is full of rage and anger, but suppressed somewhat by his desire to rise above and show that he is better than those in society who condemn black people to the status of second class citizens.
The poem puts us in the shoes of someone who is shut out and excluded from a house. This is not just any house, but the White House and thus, metaphorically, he is shut out from society. It is not explicit that his exclusion is related to his race, but given our contextual understanding it seems a fair conclusion. However, the poem could quite easily be used by any group feeling unfairly excluded or discriminated against in US society.
Anyway, the response to this exclusion is reserved as his rage is suppressed beneath his civilised attitude. Instead of banging on the door and trying to kick it down, he wears the pavement out by pacing back and forth. This surely represents non-violent protest and movement for change.
However, it is clear that this response (taking the high road) is not easy. The poetic voice moans as he tries to find the power within him to resist his violent urges that are caused by the way he is being treated. He is fighting against himself so that he does not stoop to their level and prove himself the savage or undeserving type that would allow the door closers to feel some justification for their actions.
Language and techniques
Loads going on in this poem!
The title is such a juicy place to start, as well as being conveniently the first thing we read. We all know the White House as the centre of US politics (world politics now, not quite as much at the time) and thus placing the poem here broadens the meaning from a specific instance of racism to a societal problem that the government are at the centre of.
Not only this, but the White House also communicates McKay’s view of America; he sees the society as being solely to the benefit of the white citizenship and thus the building exudes this, showing that the USA is only for one skin colour.
Boom! Fourth paragraph of my commentary and I will now address the fourth word of the poem in some depth (I promise not to continue this ratio!). ‘Your’ – the use of the second person here immediately positions us in the place of the accused and makes us consider our role in the perpetuation of racism within society. Although this poem would undoubtedly have been read more widely by members of civil rights movements and the black populace as a whole, he certainly had a developed white audience (Winston Churchill is thought to have quoted his poetry in a speech) who were really the ones this poem was intended for.
Thus he focuses the poem on those allowing racism and segregation to be continued. The development of his emotions and rage should appeal to them/us and make us question our own role and view of the issue.
The door being ‘shut’ is a metaphor representing the way that black citizens were completely excluded from society. The word ‘shut’ is definitive and doesn’t contain an ounce of hope or opportunity of gradually opening. Even more interesting is the idea that it is ‘shut against [his] face’, which suggests to me that the excluded are desperate for change and to be invited to the party. With your nose pushed up in front of a closed door it is all the more frustrating. McKay also describes the door as being ‘shuttered… glass’, which implies that the excluded are not even allowed a glimpse inside, but could also suggest the weakness of the door and thus the danger of continuing segregation and discrimination.
At this point we also have our first suggestion of an economic disparity between the two groups. A ‘tightened face’ makes me think of skin tightly stretched over bone, emaciated as you might see on someone starving or homeless. This is contrasted with the ‘decent street’ and the ‘boldly shin[ing]’ glass of the White House door (lines 7-8). Opulence and comfort are contrasted with deprivation and poverty.
McKay creates a really beautiful image of the excluded as he presents an image of an honorable man on the outside who burns with the passion of violence inside. He ‘bears [his] anger proudly and unbent’, which implies that he won’t be defeated by their actions, but also that he will not be dragged down his status in order to make change. While his actions are described as demonstrating ‘courage’ and ‘grace’ (suggesting that although he knows he is in the right, he will not sink to their level), McKay dissects this image to show us the passion raging inside.
The excluded is ‘sharp as steel’, which is a phrase intimately associated with swords and therefore war and violence. In lines 10-12 we see the struggle within to contain this rage as he pleads with himself to be strong with an ‘Oh’ and tells us that only ‘superhuman power’ allows him to continue to act within the law.
If we had any doubt about how strongly this exclusion hurts our poetic voice this is expelled in the sixth line where he says that it generates ‘passion [that] rends [his] vitals’. He feels like his heart and organs are being torn apart, such is his anger. He also describes himself as being ‘sore’ and ‘raw’ as if he is constantly battling this inequality and it is leaving him bruised. This shows us the intensity of his pain and suffering, it is not a remote feeling, but something that consume every part of him and is crucial to every aspect of life for him.
In spite of this rage, our poetic voice resists his urge towards violence and instead continues to march and protest by peaceful means. McKay expresses this with the idea of ‘pavement slabs burn[ing] loose beneath my feet’. This indicates that his message and fight will go on until he and his fellow protesters have literally worn the pavement away by repeated marching.
The ‘grace’, ‘courage’ and refusal to stoop to violence stand in contrast to the way the excluded is viewed by those behind the door. McKay describes the protester as a ‘chafing savage’ not because he believes this, but to reflect the way they are treated or regarded. A savage by nature is violent, unpredictable and uncivilised. This is the complete opposite of the way that he conducts himself, thus disproving the racist assumption.
In fact it is the excluders that should be embarrassed of their actions. They are pushing the excluded towards savagery of heart, as described with the inner rage of our poetic voice, with ‘the potent poison’ of their hatred and bigotry. This metaphor comparing their attitude and the discrimination to ‘poison’ again demonstrates the hurt and pain being caused and it suggests that the actions of the excluders could kill the civility of the oppressed.
Phew! I think that was pretty thorough.
A few things going on here.
Firstly, this poem is structured as a Shakespearean sonnet, which is slightly odd given the themes of this poem. However, it is written to persuade through demonstrating his deep anger and frustration with the situation. We could also argue that this further demonstrates that this is something that has consumed McKay and his heart; he is passionate about this above all else.
You should also mention the use of harsh sounding stressed rhymes at the end of each line. This has the effect of making each line sound bitter and reveals the suppressed anger referred to throughout the poem. This effect is furthered still by the sounds of despair as the poetic voice pleads with himself to stay calm and not give into his rage – ‘oh’ repeated twice in the last six lines. We also have this bitterness flaring in the 12 line with an exclamation mark as he spits at the hypocrisy of him following the laws set by those that disenfranchise and discriminate against him.
I mentioned above briefly about the use of the second person that makes us read this poem as if it is directly to and about us. He repeats ‘your’ twice in the last three lines to again draw a distinction between the excluded and the excluders, but also to make us realise that this is a problem that is caused by us (sorry, not us, but the white suppressors) and not ‘chafing savage[s]’.
He is bitter throughout this poem. Although he tries to suppress this feeling with his actions, he reveals himself not only with his language and rhyme, but also with several cases of enjambment and the flaring exclamation mark.