The White City

William Maxwell: On "The White City"

Consider "The White City" originally printed in the October 1921 Liberator. I lieu of the application in "If We Must Die" of negative emotion to the positive end of joining kinsmen in struggle, this sonnet argues for hate as good medicine for a single black soul:

I will not toy with it nor bend an inch.

Deep in the secret chambers of my heart

I muse my life-long hate, and without flinch

I bear it nobly as I live my part.

My being would be skeleton, a shell,

If this dark Passion that fills my every mood,

And makes my heaven in the white world's hell,

Did not forever feed me vital blood.

I see the mighty city through a mist--

The strident trains that speed the goaded mass,

The poles and spires and towers vapor-kissed,

The fortressed port through which the great ships pass,

The tides, the wharves, the dens I contemplate,

Are sweet like wanton loves because I hate.

This poem obviously savors conceptual inversion. Like the young Louis Farrakhan's calypso tune "A White man's Heaven is a Black Man's Hell," McKay's text declares "the white world's hell" a heaven; hate not only feeds the speaker's "vital blood" but makes the monuments of the white city's power look "sweet like wanton loves" behind a scrimlike, Eliotic urban mist. The structural motivation behind the sequence of reversals is not only the binary logic of contradictive black and white worlds but also the production of loyal sonnet - the West's archetypal variety of love lyric - about titanic hate. This latter motivation is clarified at the close of the first quatrain, designed to ambush those anticipating another rehearsal of love's powers. The identity of the emotion "Deep in the secret chambers of [the speaker's] heart" is not revealed to be "life-long hate" until the middle of line three; even then line four goes on to cast this hate as something the speaker will bear as thousands of other sonnet voices have borne unrequited desire: "nobly," while playing an assigned "part" in a theatricalized test. In the second quatrain, the program of imagining hate as an enabling emotion for the sonnet speaker is given specific historical resonance by the news that his hate is a punningly "dark Passion" directed at the "white world's hell." The third quatrain, joined grammatically with the concluding couplet into a virtual Petrarchan sestet, drops the hate-for-love substitution during a series of aestheticized metropolitan perceptions: "strident trains" rumble beneath "vapor-kissed" skyscrapers. The final lines, however, return the negative image of the sonnet's ruling emotion to the fore of the poem's ironic repertoire. The nonwhite speaker enjoys a type of futurist gaze unveiling the loveliness of the white city's steel, crowds, and byways, but only with the X-ray glasses of race hate, corrective lenses that supply glimpses of reckless pleasure: "The tides, the wharves, the dens I contemplate, / Are sweet like wanton loves because I hate."

The attitude of "The White City" toward the sonnet form is less severe than its stance toward those who own the "poles and spires and towers," manifestations of urban beauty and aspiration that in themselves recall the "ships, towers, domes" Wordsworth's 1802 sonnet "Composed Upon Westminster Bridge." McKay's inversion of sonnet conventions necessarily evokes and depends upon these conventions for its success. More pointedly, his poem's speaker is an inheritor of the sonnet persona that had developed along with the fourteen-line formula. True to type, the voice of "The White City" appears to have discovered a way to live deeply with intense emotion through a process sonnet historian Paul Oppenheimer calls "dialectical self-confrontation." Even as the poem's first two quatrains instill and thwart the expectation that love is locked in "the secret chambers of [the speaker's heart," they gesture to a barely concluded controversy over hate's powers of (self-)creation. The poem's initial line - "I will not toy with it nor bend an inch" - marks the public resolution of a private argument, a just-decided inner debate discernible in this same line's formal declaration of determination and in the melodramatic self-reassurance of the second quatrain:

My being would be a skeleton, a shell,

If this dark passion that fills my every mood,

And makes my heaven in the white world's hell,

Did not forever feed me vital blood.

The staging of this internal argument warrants Adorno's contention that in the modern lyric "the historical relationship of the subject to objectivity, of the individual to society, must [find] its precipitate in the medium of a subjective spirit thrown back upon itself." McKay's "I" reveals that he has learned to thrive on the subjective experience of socially instilled antagonism not by appealing to this emotion's object or to his implicit audience but by resolving a difference within his "secret . . . heart." Significantly, such resolution relies on the lyric sonnet's provision of more than a "shell" in which "dark Passion" may be poured. The speaker's praise of the explosive emotion with which he now refuses to "toy," along with his willingness to bear "life-long hate" in noble if actorly style, suggests that he has found in the sonnet persona one model for the New Negro who accepts anger's formative power.

"The White City" thus shows the lyric sonnet's merit for the New Negro - and vice versa. With the latter demonstration, the poem makes itself accessible to readers schooled to respect lyric confessionalism above the insertion of black enmity into interracial discourse. Those who first introduced McKay to nonradical white U.S. publics indeed praised his equal possession of old-line lyricism and indelible blackness. As Liberator editor Max Eastman put it in his introduction to Harlem Shadows, McKay bucked his "age of roar and advertising" to protect the quality of "all the poets that we call lyric because we love them so much": "the pure, clear arrow-like transference of . . . emotion into our breast, without any but the inevitable words." His sonnets were thus for the singing and had a "special interest for all the races of man because they [were first] sung by a pure blooded Negro." This profile of McKay as the custodian of both full-throated lyric voice and full-blooded Negritude was among the earliest images of Harlem's renaissance projected outside uptown Manhattan. Whatever its racialist pitfalls, it was an image partially suggested by McKay himself, not by blundering into a constrictive white form but by forcing the encounter of the lyric sonnet and the Crusader-built New Negro. In stage-managing the "dark Passion" of a militant made black and bid to sing, McKay made hay from the form/content problem later ascribed to his reflexive failings and became a messenger of Harlem's radical rebirth to audiences who never believed that Communism would prove fatal to racism.

From New Negro, Old Left: African-American Writing and Communism Between the Wars. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Felipe Smith: On "The White City"

The work of Du Bois and Johnson undoubtedly set the tone for the imagery of entrapment and despair in the northern metropolis that permeates the poetry of Jamaican-born Claude McKay, an immigrant like Du Bois and Johnson in the American city famed for its "openness" to outsiders. McKay reached New York in spring 1914, already embittered by two years in the South and Midwestern plains of Kansas over the cruel race prejudice for which his Jamaican upbringing had not prepared him. In "The White House," the poem that occasioned McKay's vilification of Alain Locke, McKay's Marxist critique envisions Du Bois's "Great I Will" as a national space enclosed against black male aspiration. In this poem, the "door" shut against the "tightened face" of the "chafing savage" forces him to "keep [his] heart inviolate/Against the potent poison of your hate." McKay complained that Locke had changed the title of the poem to "White Houses" without consulting him, in fear that the original title "The White House" would be misconstrued as a criticism of the president, thereby jeopardizing McKay's ability as a resident alien to return to the country from Europe. In his autobiographical A Long Way from Home, McKay gives some insight into the whiteness of the enclosed spaces of his poetic landscape: "My title was symbolic," he says, "not meaning specifically the private homes of white people, but more the vast modern edifice of American industry from which Negroes were effectively barred as a group." Locke, said McKay, distorted the meaning of the poem,"making it appear as if the burning desire of black malcontent was to enter white houses in general." When McKay looked to Africa as a possible refuge, he found a still colonized African body politic the plaything of the modern white nations. "The sciences were sucklings at thy breast," McKay exclaims in "Africa." Yet despite Africa's history as the mother of all civilization, it had since been "Swallowed" by "darkness" and now has become "the harlot, . . . Of all the mighty nations of the sun." Like Johnson before him, McKay's despair emerges as disbelief in the millenarian triumph of Du Bois's Mother Africa, a view that not even his later visit to Africa would materially alter.

Looking no further than the possibility of a perpetual torture in America that perversely bestows a measure of redemption through conscientious resistance, McKay renders New York as a stark labyrinth whore exclusion becomes a form of entrapment in the cruel talons of Liberty. In "The City's Love," the city comes alive for him in a form clearly influenced by Johnson's white witch city:

For one brief golden moment rare like wine,

The gracious city swept across the line;

Oblivious of the color of my skin,

Forgetting that I was an alien guest,

She bent to me, my hostile heart to win,

Caught me in passion to her pillowy breast.

The city as feminized space shows the poet her tempting face, testing his "inviolate" heart by "[sweeping] across the line." Denied "masculine" prerogative in the maintenance and transgression of boundaries, however, the speaker is the one whose spatial integrity is at issue here, a circumstance magnified by his inability to hold the city's attention beyond "one flame hour." The passage might refer to one of those moments when McKay, among a group of radical artists and writers associated with the journals the Masses and the Liberator, found some respite from the raging color consciousness of the era, although he was to find sufficient prejudice within socialism to make him an outcast among outcasts.

However, such idylls are eventually disturbed by vampiric figures that link McKay to Du Bois and Johnson before him, as the moments of "loveliness" described in "The City's Love":

Oh cold as death is all the loveliness,

That breathes out of the strangeness of the scene,

And sickening like a skeleton's caress,

Of clammy clinging fingers long and lean.

McKay's adaptation of Johnson's witch, who twines her arms about her victim and binds him with her hair, is more fully realized in his sonnet "America":

Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,

And sinks into my throat her tiger's tooth,

Stealing my breath of life, I will confess

I love this cultured hell that tests my youth!

Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,

Giving me strength erect against her hate.

Her bigness sweeps me like a flood.

McKay's earlier "Tiger" had similarly explored the sexual suggestiveness and sado-masochism of black/white contact, imagining the "white man [as] a tiger at" his throat, "muttering that his terrible striped coat / Is Freedom's." "America" employs the tiger image in a heterosexual encounter, in the tradition of Johnson's witch. She is a phallic mother, simultaneously exploiting and nourishing the entrapped immigrant "stand[ing] within her walls with not a shred / Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer." The cruel paradox of life in a racist America is that the race hero stands "erect" only through resistance to America's resistance.

Similarly, McKay's "The White City" finds his victimization strangely invigorating:

My being would be a skeleton, a shell,

If this dark Passion that fills my every mood,

And makes my heaven in the white world's hell;

Did not forever feed me vital blood.

Only the hate engendered in the poet by the city's callous disregard keeps him alive, keeps him from being drained, and, because that hatred is an ever renewing source of energy, his death-in-life is eternal. McKay captures that simultaneous exclusion and enclosure in the image of the city veiled by a "mist." Thus his failed "inventory" leads to a perversely gratifying hatred of that which he can see dimly through the veil of whiteness but never seemingly possess.

With McKay, exclusion from the myth of "Liberty" in New York necessitates a paradoxical protective self-enclosure. The act of self-restraint becomes itself the imprisonment against which the poet's spirit rebels. McKay envisions the black American, then, as having internalized his own oppression sufficiently to love the possibility of AMERICA, while hating the self that both disallows participation in that freedom and protectively numbs the spirit against such desire. As Houston Baker has suggested, it has been this eternally deferred possibility of an egalitarian social order that has alienated black Americans, and McKay's poetry reveals clearly how entrapment in this myth of AMERICA is the form that social exclusion often takes. McKay thus became the forerunner of poet Langston Hughes and novelists Richard Wright, Ann Petry, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin, who would explore the contradictions of the urban ghetto's proximity but incomplete access to the wealth and power of America.

Taken as a whole, McKay's works reiterate the earlier immigrant experience of Du Bois and Johnson in giving voice to two distinct narratives of New York: the mythic New York as the gateway to America, and the cruel, indifferent New York as the destroyer of dreams. In the context of the black northward migration, this body of work collectively reveals the anti-"prospect" as a characteristic stance of black literary production - a gaze upon the seductive myth of American spatial freedom that yields only visions of further enslavement and misery. This vision is acutely modern in that its consciousness of alienation does not quite extinguish the quest for cherished ideals. It betrays the would-be race hero as always potentially a masochistic product of a slave mentality, in love with that which hates him. The gaze from without fails to penetrate; the gaze from within is mesmerized by its spell.

More important, McKay's symbolism returns the focus to what, in Du Boisian terms, might be called the "whiteness" of the witch, Du Bois's white witches, as we have seen, did not have to be racially identified as "white" to serve as agents of American materialism: for Du Bois, the "white soul" was more threatening than the white body. As the center of the American capitalist myth machinery, New York symbolized the social "space" of "whiteness" in American culture, dwarfing the literally white sites of governmental authority in Washington, D.C., in the public imagination. The "whiteness" of America was a myth that had to be resisted because it had but one implication that all blacks could agree on - the death of blackness. McKay is Graves's "true poet," in love with the pitiless goddess Liberty, who would as soon crush him as embrace him. It is the colossal ambivalence of his posture that inaugurates the Harlem Renaissance as the public fantasy of America's two social bodies living inside each other's soul.

From American Body Politics: Race, Gender, and Black Literary Renaissance. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998.