The Harlem Dancer

Consumption: Devouring "The Harlem Dancer"

Youth and sex characterize the Harlem Dancer’s audience: the "[a]pplauding youths," the "young prostitutes," the "bold-eyed boys," and simply, "the girls [my italics]." The speaker of the poem doesn’t seem to belong to or identify with any of these groups, separating himself from their juvenility, their undisguised lust for the dancer (which seems to frighten or dismay the poet), and even perhaps from their designation by gender; the speaker distinguishes himself from the rest of the audience by not gendering himself within the poem. Instead, he identifies himself and the dancer with blackness, and draws a charmed circle around the two of them by virtue of their shared race. She sings a gospel, spiritual or jazz song; McKay, alone among the white folks slumming in Harlem, sees in that the codes of a common history. The poem explicitly codes the dancer female, however, and its rhetoric emphasizes her sexuality and its effect on the audience. McKay and the dancer may be on the porch together, telling stories and signifying to one another about their passage through the storm, but the dancer’s gender in combination with her race changed the course of her passage. The storm she passed through has invested her with a double consciousness, informed not only by her race but also by her gender.

McKay deliberately takes the position of the outsider in this Harlem scene. He is neither male nor female, nor young, like the boys, the prostitutes, or the girls. Something else besides the dancer’s sensuality moves his fascination with her, or so he would prefer us to believe. Unresolved oppositions in the descriptive rhetoric of the poem call this subject position into question; the speaker distances himself madly – too insistently – from the "passionate," devouring boys and girls. This fringe position allows him to view the scene from on high (morally speaking), but in the context of the poem, the speaker has exclusive access to the dancer’s psyche. He alone knows what she is thinking, and that she doesn’t belong where she is right now. The notes McKay makes on her performance contribute to the idea that a sexualized interpretation (the reaction of the rest of her audience) is un-called for or inappropriate: "she seemed a proudly-swaying palm" (7), she danced "gracefully and calm" (5). McKay emphasizes her nobility and grace, not her sexuality.

The way he describes the dancer, in lines 5 and 6, is intended to de-sexualize her and/or to de-exoticize her. "She sang and danced on gracefully and calm/The light gauze hanging loose about her form" turns around the image of the half-clothed, semi-savage exotic in the second line. But lush, tropical imagery returns in the next line, comparing the dancer to a "proudly-swaying palm." In fact, it’s hard to reconcile the juxtaposition of these two descriptions with one narrative speaker – unless the anxiety present is part of his character, a testament to the dancer’s stirring sexuality. He can’t help himself. Though the speaker wants to distance himself from the rest of the audience, he ends up identifying with them in that respect, both holding back from the objectification of the dancer and participating in it.

The boys and even the girls, however, "devour" the dancer with their gaze. The fact that even the girls are watching the dancer with hunger in their eyes suggests a number of things: 1) that girls, who would not "normally" be watching another woman with lust, are drawn to this one – perhaps because of something in her or about her that draws them, but possibly 2) because their sexual or gender (or both) identities, as a part of the Harlem dancer’s audience, are placed in imperfect service of McKay’s racially motivated poetics. Line 1 and line 11 are nearly parallel in content: a description of boys in the audience, then a description of girls in the audience. First, in line 1, the boys are a monolith and the girls are a separate mass. The boys take the action: they are the subjects of this sentence and they "watc[h] her perfect, half-clothed body sway." In line 11, the boys and the girls fuse into one watching body, the gaze of which is juxtaposed to the poet-speaker’s genuine racial vision. The audience’s gaze is clearly sexual and possessive; the speaker, on the other hand, is interested in the dancer’s "self" rather than her body. Uncontrolled and uncontrollable sexuality gets conflated with race, another example of the exoticizing of the dancer. In order to emphasize this distinction – between white representations or imaginings of black sexuality and the distance that comes with the speaker’s invocation of African-American history, the boys and the girls become genderless. They possess this passionate gaze regardless of their particular fulfillment of gender roles.

McKay finds these boys and girls invasive. This audience may be invading in a different way, however; they may be white folks slumming it in a Harlem nightclub, soaking in black culture as they might take in the totem poles uptown at the Museum of Natural History. In contrast to the audience’s misinterpretation of the dancer, the speaker identifies his personal knowledge of the dancer with blackness: "Her voice was like the sound of blended flutes/Blown by black players upon a picnic day [my italics]"; "Upon her swarthy neck black shiny curls/Luxuriant fell." Only he notices these things, he would say, just as only a black flautist could interpret the voice of a black singer. She is "lovelier for passing through a storm," presumably America’s storm of racial oppression. Nobody knows the troubles she’s seen, and still sees as she distances herself from that strange place; nobody knows, that is, but the black man watching from the seat in the back of the club. Her beauty, expressly linked in the mind of the speaker to the experience of blackness (the same history which fuels McKay’s more racially polemical poems), moves him not to passion but to idealization.

The tension between these two visions of the dancer – as Madonna and as whore – splits the consciousness of the poem. The dancer is alternately exoticized by the young, hot-blooded, wine-flushed members of the audience, and idealized by McKay as a pure representation of his kind of beauty. A collection of phrases from Hughes’ "Mulatto" elaborate on that history; the historical precedent and the danger underlying the "devouring" gaze of the white boys and girls comes into focus. A gaze implies power, and a certain level of coercion – an awareness of the rules overseeing bodies (especially black bodies) and self-government according to those rules. The dancer’s self "was not in that strange place"; it is, in fact, equally in this one:

What’s a body but a toy?     Juicy bodies     Of nigger wenches     Blue black     Against black fences… What’s the body of your mother? (11-15, 19)

The dancer, the poem implies, cannot take responsibility for the expectations placed upon her by her white audience. Any reading of her sexuality as exotic, overpowering, and uncontrollable, and thus fascinating to boys and even girls automatically contains and ignores this version of history which McKay is party to. The poem addresses the hegemonic fear of and fascination with the "other" by way of a speaker who isn’t exactly one of "us," but isn’t exactly othered either. The poem sexualizes the co-opting of black experience and black art by white people looking for novelty, characterizing it as a kind of cultural rape.

McKay frequently reworks the sonnet form to express racial rage, most memorably in poems like "Mulatto" and "The White City." Where the boys and girls of "The Harlem Dancer" read their representations of Africa and black female sexuality on to the dancer’s body, McKay takes the body of the sonnet – a privilege-soaked, white-identified form – and uses it to insert "Afric’s son" into Shakespeare’s mode of discourse. The sonnet, then, serves as "high talk," speaking with Old Massa’s voice to lull him into believing in his slaves’ perfect assimilation. It could be (and has historically been) dismissed as apery, but that would be done at peril when it comes to McKay:

Think you I am not fiend and savage too? Think you I could not arm me with a gun And shoot down ten of you for every one Of my black brothers murdered, burnt by you?" ("To the White Fiends, 1-4)

"The Harlem Dancer," though, doesn’t summon up this characteristic rage, though it does turn around the sonnet form in provocative ways. If it is a love sonnet to the dancer’s eyebrows, it does also contain the cultural history of rape, and in that way subverts the sonnet form. It may parenthetically allude to the rage that appears in "The Lynching," since most lynchings were punishment for perceived sexual encroachment upon white women by black men. Here, in the Harlem club, these white children (stand-ins for the "little lads, lynchers that were to be" ("The Lynching," 13)?) devour the dancer with their eyes. The place is at once strange and familiar.

The boys and the girls are differentiated, however – not in their deployment of the gaze, but in their representation within the poem. The youths in the first line applaud; they act at first, before the girls, by watching the dancer. The girls are at first described as prostitutes; they do not act, are not granted any verbs, in the beginning of the poem. When the description becomes more vivid in line 11 – the boys are "wine-flushed, bold-eyed" – the girls are merely "girls," with no descriptors attached. There’s a hierarchy of description of gender in the poem, and I would argue, an intentionally deconstructive one: the boys and girls appear to be as one in their objectification of the dancer, but there is also a second layer of objectification relating to the "young prostitutes." The girls and boys of the audience fuse into one at points in the poem; however, at other points the poem’s rhetoric differentiates them. Even boys and girls, united in their gaze, visually re-enacting a rape, are still boys and girls. Surprise must still be expressed at the queering of the girls’ reaction to the dancer; the girls are prostitutes, defined in the poem by their sexual servitude. In the end, then, McKay can’t be comfortable with reading the dancer solely as fellow sufferer in America’s storm. In addition to the dancer’s blackness, she carries the additional burden of being a sexual object, blue-black against a black fence. 

Copyright © 2001 by Beth Palatnik

Cary Nelson: On "The Harlem Dancer"

An objectifying look or verbal representation does not preclude a variety of other perspectives; indeed it is both a form of celebratory play and a form of concentration that can be empathic. That may be the case, for example, in Claude McKay's 1917 "The Harlem Dancer". . . Of course there is no guarantee that the speaker in the poem reads the dancer's feelings accurately, facial expressions being notoriously open to multiple interpretation. Gender here is caught up in other systems of value—as it necessarily always is—and here those other values include the moral system that frames the poem and prejudges the prostitutes and the night club or brothel setting. Nonetheless, McKay does insist that the dancer is both an admirable symbolic figure and an individual, dual recognitions crucial to the other context that energizes this text—race. The phrase "grown lovelier for passing through a storm" reaches beyond her skilled triumph over the dance hall setting to reverberate throughout black history, or so the poem urges us to believe, and the dancer's pride and beauty stand for everything black Americans have won from adversity. Yet her mastery of the dance--along with its suggestions of materially constrained and compromised transcendence--is also specified and limited in a crucial way, for she has triumphed at the historical intersection of gender and race. Indeed, gender and race here are inseparable from history; they are social values, not unchanging essences.

If McKay's poem is somewhat compromised by its unselfconsciously judgmental opening and closing lines (and by a formalism that does not altogether serve this subject well), one finds few compromising elements in Langston Hughes's poems about women. 

From Cary Nelson, "The Fate of Gender in Modern American Poetry," in Marketing Modernisms: Self-Promotion, Canonization, and Rereading, ed. Kevin Dettmar and Stephen Watt, copyright © 1996 by the University of Michigan Press.

Eugenia W. Collier: On "The Harlem Dancer"

Perhaps the poems which showed most effectively the tragic consequences of oppression, and which speak most eloquently in a universal language, are the poems which present quick portraits of black individuals. Here one sees a close-up of the laborer in Cullen's poem, who must toil incessantly only to have his golden fruit snatched by others. With great frequency the New Negro poets focused on the individual—often a black woman—and suggest the immense human potential behind the toil of the washer-woman, the strutting and wiggling of the prostitute, the swagger of the dandy, and so forth-human potential that has been destroyed by the social system. Among the best of these is McKay's "The Harlem Dancer."

. . .

In the slow, measured dignity of the sonnet form McKay has encased the wild and lascivious world of the Harlem night-club. As we study the poem in some depth, we see that this apparent paradox is actually quite appropriate.

Our first impression of the dancer is gained through a glimpse of her audience—young people, already caught up in the sordid life of the city. The men who applaud are mere youths; the prostitutes with them are also young. They applaud and laugh and watch the suggestive motions of the beautiful, half-revealed body. Yet the slow-moving rhythm of the poem implies a kind of sadness that contrasts with their gaiety. Focusing now upon the dancer herself, the poet compares her voice with the sound of a musical instrument—not with the wail of a saxaphone, nor the blatancy of brass, but with the softly delicate music of "blended flutes." In the next line the nightclub begins to fade out as the poet places the flutes on the lips of "black players on a picnic day." The outdoor wholesomeness of a picnic contrasts with the nightclub. The next two lines imbue the dancer with classic beauty and simplicity; her grace, her quiet loveliness, her garments draped loosely about her, could easily belong to Greek sculpture. But the poet compares her instead to a graceful palm tree, proudly swaying. In this comparison McKay suggests the pride in their African heritage which was widely expressed by the Harlem poets. The rest of the comparison, describing the palm as "lovelier for passing through a storm," suggests that the hardships of the dancer's experience have endowed her with a kind of beauty that she might not otherwise have attained.

Then abruptly the poet brings us back to the reality of the Harlem nightclub. The coins "tossed in praise" indicate that the world—and she herself—tragically underestimates her worth. She dances for mere coins, casually tossed by liquor-befogged youngsters. The poet reminds us that they, too, are victims, for although they are "wine-fused" and "bold-eyed," they are still only boys and girls. Perhaps their hunger and their eager passion may not be for sex alone, but actually for fulfillment of another sort. In the final couplet, the poet expresses the theme of the poem: that human values can be obscured by economic and social deprivation, but that they persist and are discernable to the compassionate observer.

Now the appropriateness of the sonnet form becomes apparent. Iambic pentameter is a slow, dignified meter, contemplative and often sad; and the theme of the poem is not lascivious dancing, but human dignity, not midnight gaiety but unobtrusive tragedy. The rhyme scheme of the sonnet is demanding and restrictive; so also are the social and economic forces that have shaped the life of the Harlem dancer. There is, then, no conflict between form and theme.

In spite of occasional awkward juxtapositions of words, the poem attains a high level of artistry. The language is dynamic but restrained, the imagery is effective, the emotion is sincere and well-expressed. And although the characters and settings are Negro, the poem has universal application. In vividness it matches the quick, sympathetic portraits of Edwin Arlington Robinson. In social commentary it approaches Edwin Markham's "The Man With the Hoe."

From "I Do Not Marvel, Countee Cullen." College Language Association Journal 11.1 (1967).