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Analysis of Claude McKay's "Exhortation: Summer 1919"

Analysis of Claude McKay's Exhortation: Summer 1919


Claude McKay's Exhortation: Summer, 1919 act as a clarion call for both African Americans and their brethren in Africa to defend themselves. An "exhortation" is language that is used to incite or encourage; McKay wanted to unite all Black people to reclaim their rightful place in the world. McKay, who was born in Jamaica, was outraged by the racism that he found in South Carolina. McKay wanted Blacks to take on a universal revolution to fight for their equality; he knew that this movement was going to have to be militant. McKay did not believe in violence, but he did believe in self-defense, which is what he wanted his people to do, defend themselves.

The summer of 1919 is also known as the Red Summer, because of a string of violent race riots broke out against African Americans perpetrated by Whites. During WWI there was a shortage of industrial workers; so companies began recruiting Blacks in the south to replace the men who went off to fight in the war. An estimated 500,000 African Americans emigrated to the North, in what is known as the first wave of the Great Migration. They mostly settled in Harlem, a formerly exclusive suburb for White middle and upper middle classes. When soldiers returned home from war they were either left without jobs, or they now had to compete with African Americans for jobs that they had previously held. Keeping in mind that Blacks had only recently been emancipated, there was most likely still lingering resentment against them by some Whites. African Americans were attacked, killed, raped, and lynched; police did not do anything to stop the violence, but some African Americans did fight back against their attackers to little avail.

Some feared that African Americans would attempt to overthrow the government the way that the Bolsheviks in Russia overthrew their government. Claude McKay was attracted to what was going on in Russia, because it was what he wanted Blacks to do. Russia was not prepared for the WWI, and it collapsed. On March8, 1917 around 10,000 Petrograd women marched through the city demanding "Peace and Bread" (bread was rationed, and women had to stand in line for it after they had already worked a twelve hour shift in the factories), and they shouted "Down with Autocracy" (autocracy is when a government is run by one person, and that person has unlimited power). Factories shut down on March 10. Many people joined the march, and the Tsar abdicated on March 15. A Provisional Government took power. The new government decided to carry on with the war, which is not what the workers and peasants wanted. The Bolsheviks (later known as the communists) popped up everywhere and began representing the interests of the lower classes. They were led by V. I. Lenin, who believed that the only way to destroy the capitalist system was with violence. On November 6 through 7 the Bolsheviks seized control of the Winter Palace, and the Provisional Government collapsed; the Bolsheviks took over the government.




Claude McKay uses an extended metaphor throughout this poem; the poem starts out with the earth being pregnant and the poem ends with the universe giving birth to a revolution. One definition of pregnancy is something that is "rich in significance: meaningful;" this birth is going to change the world. "Rumbles" is an example of onomatopoeia (verbal sounds that imitate and evoke the sounds they denotate); it is used here to describe the loud thunder of the universe, which probably correlates to a pregnancy contraction. The Earth shakes in terror at what is to come. The "Earth's bowels" is referring to the inmost parts of the earth, such as the earth's core. McKay describes the "terrible storms" as being "strange," which connotes that they are new and unfamiliar. These storms could be referring to the beatings that the Blacks took during the summer of 1919, and the fact that some fought back against their attackers. "Lightning-torches" refers to how lightening lights up the night sky, which can be both scary and dangerous. "Kindling" is something that is easily combustible and is used for starting fires; in this line the lightning acts as a kindling, which is meant to either scare men or incite them into action. These first three lines seem like they are describing a tempest, which is an extremely violent storm; perhaps this storm functions as a warning. In line four, Africa is personified; McKay is demanding that Africa awakens and forces change. He is inviting them to join in his fight for equality, and the basic right to be Black and life without fear. Claude McKay was born in Jamaica, but in this line "motherland" is referring to Africa.

The East refers to Africa. McKay describes the clouds as crimson, which either refers to bloodshed or to a common weather saying: "Red sky at night, sailor's delight, red sky at morning, sailors take warning." Weather systems typically move from west to east, and red clouds result when the sun shines on the underside on the clouds either at sunrise or sunset. A "new dawn" refers to a new beginning; the world is going to be changed. "Golden" refers to either the sun or superb. "Glory" is defined as honor and praise rendered in worship; or something that secures praise and renown. When you put "golden glory" together it means that Africa's magnificence will cause those in the west (United States) to revere Blacks rather than abhor them. Lines five and six are saying that the revolution will start in Africa and spread to the United States. Line seven is a call to arms; he wants his brethren to join his fight. The birth of the revolution will forcibly change the old ways of the world. The dead inspired this revolution, and they walk with the revolutionaries; the dead are born again. The "grave's disguise" refers to idea that once people die they are no longer a threat, but the grave and death is just a disguise; they live on in the hearts of man. The earth groans like a woman experiencing labor pains. "Travail" is defines as childbirth, labor; painful work or exertion: toil. The earth is giving birth to a stronger race.

"Sweet" probably refers to sweet dreams; dreams of what the world will become after the Revolution. The "seductive night" is referring to the Harlem nightlife, which is the birthplace of the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance is a time when Black literature, music, and culture sprang up and became popular among both Blacks and Whites. The nightlife in Harlem was filled with music, dance, alcohol and other such intoxicating activities. McKay is begging that his fellow Black men not partake in the nightlife, so that they can fulfill their destiny. Their children and their children's children will benefit from the sacrifices that they make now; so it is up to them to take the Revolution seriously. "Heavy-lidded eyes" refers to tired eyes. Throughout the poem McKay demands that the continent of Africa awake, but in line seventeen he changes to his demand to Ethiopia awake. Ethiopia is one of the oldest sites of human existence known to man, and it may have been the birth place of man. McKay wants man to be reborn, so it makes sense that he would choose Ethiopia as the birth place.

Lines eighteen through twenty-six is repeated from lines five through thirteen. It functions like a chorus in a song; it is the part that is most likely to be remembered.

Sources

Duiker, William J., and Jackson J. Spielvogel. World History: Comprehensive Volume. 3rd ed. United States: Wadsworth, 2001.

Published on January 30, 2012 by Sophia Brookshire © All Rights Reserved

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