Poetry Friday: May Day with Claude McKay

The incomparable Claude McKay

The incomparable Claude McKay

The combination of May Day (with its many undertones of justice for the downtrodden—whether the moderate justice of the eight hour working day, which May 1 was intended to celebrate, or the more radical justice called for by socialists on this day for most of the last century and all of this present one) with the events in Baltimore (which, thankfully, are tending toward justice, now that we know that there will be serious judicial inquiry into the death of Freddie Gray) make it impossible not to post a poem.  Whether you like it or not, folks, it’s going to be a return to a poem I posted many years ago (with only a little commentary on my part and a response from one of you)—a return to the power and the uninimidated force of thought that was the incomparable Claude McKay, one of the most beautifully and unapologetically honest of the voices of the Harlem Renaissance, and he’s coming right at you (and me) with “If We Must Die”, which was written in 1919 and published in the also great James Weldon Johnson‘s anthology, The Book of American Negro Poetry, in 1922.  Here it is:

If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

McKay pulls no punches in this sonnet, nor should he have to.  The injustices he addresses, while diminished meaningfully by the hard-won victories of the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s, are with us still—no fair reading of the treatment of minorities in our nation’s major cities can deny that completely (however much some may want to argue about how and to whom blame is to be apportioned).  McKay bolts out of the gate like a thoroughbred—“if we must die” is a brutal attention-getter, and to have the iambic bounce us right from that thought into “let it not be like hogs” is both genius and horrifying.  In the universe envisioned by McKay, death is inevitable, and unless we are careful, it will be an ignominious and panicked death, the death of beasts who have been cornered for the slaughter.  So, he commands, we must choose instead to go down swinging—not in some hip, casual, Tom Petty sense, but in the blood-and-bone sense of a man who knows the grave is in front of him and refuses to be the only one battered at day’s end.

This is unlike many of the sonnets I’ve spotlighted—McKay executes no unexpected turn at the end of the octet, no surprising connection blazing out of a final couplet.  The theme and the tone are sustained throughout.  He is too angry for artifice here—or rather I should say that he limits the sonnet’s grip on him to the mere boundaries of the form.  Inside it, rather than the artful musings and playful rhetoric of a poet in love with words, we see instead the passion of a wounded heart and the determination that words will mean something real.

It may seem odd that I, a literary blogger who doesn’t drift into politics all that often, should offer up McKay and this particular poem of his today.  It might also seem unsettling (even unpleasant) to some of you that I’ve shared a poem that pretty explicitly calls for violence and death—this might even surprise those of you who remember how sensitively and positively I’ve explored pacifism in a beautiful poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay.  To all of you, I’ll just say this: poetry addresses every aspect of our human condition.  It must speak to our anger as much as to our love; to our moments of violence as much as to our moments of mercy.  In sharing Millay or McKay with you, in neither case am I asking for unquestioning acceptance of what they say—to the contrary, I think poetry is valuable in part because it usually demands that we question what we’re reading.  What I do ask for, though, is that we consistently ask those questions—that we don’t shut out McKay but instead try to hear what he might be saying, and what kind of lived experience might bring him to this sonnet.  That we extend the same courtesy to Millay, and to Frost and Whitman and all the other poets who come our way over the years.

Today, though, let’s concentrate especially on McKay.  Let’s ask ourselves how much violence black Americans a century ago lived through to give this particular black man—an artist and (so far as I know) a man who never in his life struck another man in anger—this poem and these deeply felt passions.  Let’s ask ourselves what about our nation might still inspire that kind of passion: even as we deplore the use of violence by citizens in the streets, we must ask ourselves what kinds of violence (physical and otherwise) exerted by the institutions and authorities in this country might provoke such a response.  I personally want no one to die in the street as McKay envisions, but that desire demands of me not merely that I ask the riots to end, but that I reach behind my nation’s facade of equality and opportunity to wrestle to the ground also that side of America that oppresses the lives of the least fortunate so forcefully that a riot can seem to them like the only way out.

“He detested lying to anybody, not because he had any scruples against it, but because it appeared cowardly.”

That quotation from The Store sums up a lot about The Colonel’s character pretty aptly, and demonstrates why I’m finding real depth in Stribling’s novel.  Colonel Miltiades Vaiden is a man who does the right things for the wrong reasons—and a few wrong things for what he, at least, believes to be the right reasons.  There’s a moral flexibility to The Colonel that is interesting because his spectrum doesn’t run from good to evil, like a character in a melodrama.  His spectrum seems to be based much more on honor, like a samurai’s bushido or Achilles’ pursuit of timë and kleos, only he combines this obsession about personal glory with a personality that seems much too milquetoast to carry out his career with success.  I alluded to Jerry Lundegaard, the hapless car salesman played by William H. Macy in Fargo, in my last post, and there’s a lot of Jerry in The Colonel still, despite the fact that Miltiades is a war veteran who clearly had access to a better reserve of courage at one point in his life.

The Colonel’s straining for glory hits some unexpected curves in the point of the story I’ve reached—I continue to be intrigued by his plot line, even as he becomes more and more reprehensible.  What I like best about Stribling is the way his novel sides with the African-Americans living in Florence in the subtlest of ways—he lingers on certain images (the starving family in the darkness rejected by Jerry Catlin, the look in Grace’s eyes as she delivers bad news, etc.) like a director taking an extra beat at the end of a scene before the movie moves on.  The narrator is a personless omniscient 3rd person voice, so there’s no one to opine about the plight of impoverished black people—just the reality of who they are as people, and it’s a reality Stribling never lets too far away from the stage, even though it rarely takes the spotlight.

One of the sides that I therefore find most fascinating is the attitude The Colonel holds towards the people who were formerly his family’s slaves.  They bear his surname of Vaiden, and continue to feel a connection to him.  He feels the connection also, and carries it in a variety of ways—at times he seems sympathetic, and deals with them almost as though a distant family member, but too often their names and lives seem to be his possessions.  He can deal with them as he likes, not because they are Vaidens, but because they are the Vaidens’—no longer legal property, but still somehow beholden to him (in his mind) because of some unspoken bond between them.  The fair hair and eyes of some of these young African-Americans is such a visible marker, for me, of the real biological connections between the families, but Miltiades seems blind to it.  Given my examination of my family’s history (which is explored online in two places thanks to my conversations with Atlantic blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates about his and my ancestors—black and white families named Smack and living in the same Maryland town—and what I’ve come to learn about them), this is personal for me.  And personal in a way I hardly know how to share.  Was my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather a Miltiades, looking down on (and simultaneously emotionally bound to) Ta-Nehisi’s ancestors, his own son or nephew or cousin?  Or were we better than that, somehow—a family who accepted the black Smack families as freed individuals before the war?  Is it possible they could have acknowledged real kinship to each other?  And what would it mean to me, if so?  If I am lucky, some day I may find out the truth about our connection—by which I mean, only to know that he and I share an ancestor (and what that implies).  But the rest of it—the truths I want to know about how these men and women thought of each other and spoke to each other, how they made sense of their lives in relationship to each other—these are truths I cannot even think of looking for.  They are lost to me.

So reading The Store draws me (and weighs on me) because I can see how complicated these relationships were after the war (Stribling makes them feel very honest, at least—I trust that he is showing me the real South at the time), and almost against my will I am forced to walk in the white Vaidens’ shoes.  I ask myself how this complicated blend of ideas and feelings, some of them contradictory, came to be, and how long it would have to take to change those feelings.  I ask myself what events would really make these families separate and equal, to appropriate (and change the meaning of) the language of Plessy.  Would it take dying side-by-side in a war?  Voting side-by-side in a polling station?  Sitting side-by-side as children marry each other across racial boundaries?  When would the wrong bonds be broken, so that the right bonds can form?

Stribling’s doing something that works, here.  He knows how to play this game—how to distract with the left hand while the right sneaks the rabbit into the hat.  All the things that should go wrong for The Colonel go right, and the last things he expected to fall apart, do.  I’m still working out what this story is really about, but the more I read, the more I think The Colonel himself is a waved handkerchief, a puff of smoke.  His story is real and matters, but Stribling wants to keep me focused on him in order to bring other guns to bear.  I’m trying to pace myself a bit and enjoy this (as I did with Wharton’s novel), but I won’t be able to slow down much: I’m hooked.

“Honors used to seek men, but nowadays men seek honors.”

Finally.  After a string of novels that meandered between “acceptable” and “dissatisfying”, we have a real winner on our hands in The Store.  I don’t have unlimited praise to offer Stribling, but right now I’d say this is easily in the top 4 of the Pulitzers I’ve read so far, and it may be in contention for a spot as high as #2 on the list.

Getting at why is, in some ways, very easy.  Stribling is managing to present a wide array of characters who are all three-dimensional—full of that mixture of emotions, motives, flaws and strengths that make up people like you and me.  Even the above-average Pulitzer novels thus far have only managed to present one or two main characters in this level of complexity, with the exceptions of the incomparable Edith Wharton and the talented Thornton Wilder.  That I’m putting the relatively unknown T. S. Stribling in their company is high praise, I know, but so far it’s deserved.  What he captures most beautifully is how self-centered every human’s worldview is: Person A takes an action for some private motive, but Persons B, C, and D each assume A must be motivated by some personal slight or vendetta aimed at them specifically.  Stribling’s handy enough with the characters that I can simultaneously think it’s laughable that young Sydna Crowninshield would expect that family friend Colonel Miltiades Vaiden has taken a job at the Handbacks’ store out of some misguided attempt to protect her virtue and good name, and yet completely understand why, from Sydna’s point of view, no other motive can be half as believable.  Everyone’s private agendas are well known to Stribling and the reader, and we can see how they intersect—sometimes harmoniously, sometimes disastrously—and how two characters can be talking to one another, and yet be having two different conversations.  Stribling’s not operating at an Austen or Wharton level of psychological insight, but he’s doing very sturdy work and is making the characters come alive, which is all I need to get hooked.

And yes, miraculously, Stribling’s novel (set in the post-Reconstruction South) extends that level of complex dimensions to his black characters.  Racism is rampant in the town of Florence—slurs fly, and even the best white folks express the vilest sentiments with the most light-hearted of airs.  Stribling is being very honest in presenting this, but it would collapse the novel (for me, anyway) if he didn’t present black characters as individuals with some level of dignity and agency.  This is not, incidentally, the same as presenting the black characters as “the good ones”.  He’s actually taken care to demonstrate their motives as being similarly complex—the wizened “man of God”, Lump Mowbray, whose impulses are not entirely pure; the proud “white negro” (as everyone refers to him), Toussaint Vaiden, whose confidence is either inspirational or arrogant, depending on how you think a man should respond to condescension; Gracie, an experienced mistress, consort of the powerful and white, whose plans for her future seem on the borders of delusion.  They aren’t the butt of the narrator’s jokes, as black characters have been in many novels thus far.  But they aren’t here to teach us the virtues of enduring scorn with patience; they’re here because they live in Florence, and the vicissitudes of their daily existence affect events both large and small as much as the actions taken by a man like Colonel Miltiades.

The Colonel is clearly our main character, but Stribling has at least five plots on the burners right now—The Colonel’s dream of a better, more financially successful life; the strange interrelationships (and attending obligations) of all the men who served in the The Colonel’s Confederate regiment, and their families; the courtship of the delicate Sydna Crowninshield by the lascivious Lucius Handback (and others); the spiritual journey of the self-described “infidel” Jerry Catlin (The Colonel’s nephew); and the attempts by Toussaint and his mother Gracie to find a way to escape Florence and find a home where he (and she?) can pass as “white”, and the future that will come with it.  There’s a lot of overlap here, since The Colonel is a major figure in two plots, and is only one degree of separation from the other three.  This is a small town, and everyone is in everyone else’s business, whether it’s welcome or not.

The Colonel is fascinating to me, in part because he combines so much ambition with so much haplessness.  He’s dignified but without being accorded societal respect; he’s honest and decent in his public dealings, but more than a bit scheming and unkind in his private thoughts.  The sentence that begins this post is spoken to The Colonel, and expresses part of his paralysis: he thinks a man of his distinction and service ought to be lauded (and he expects someone to seek him out), but he thinks it would be gauche to thrust himself into the limelight.  But that kind of dignified privacy only really operates in full view of the crowd: in the shadows, he’s a bit less particular about his aims and means.  At the point I’ve reached in the novel, he’s about to try and undo a familial disaster he suffered two decades prior by engaging in subterfuge that is utterly unlikely to succeed: his Jerry Lundegaard moment, if you will.  He is just as appealing and appalling as Jerry is, and therefore just as watchable.  The Colonel also provides us with a really easy connection to all the levels of society in Florence—he thinks of himself as upper class, and has connections to that world, but he lives among the relatively low middle class.  He has business that takes him among the rural poor—where, significantly, he is generally idolized as a war hero who led many folks’ fathers and uncles in battle—and his commitment to a certain level of basic fairness (along with his past as an overseer on a cotton plantation) give him a place of some small importance in the eyes of local black farmers.  I know, I know…in some ways it sounds like I’m describing Wang Lung, who I could not stand in the last novel.  I can’t really say what appeals to me about The Colonel, beyond the fact that he seems more human than Wang Lung, and that his particular flaws make him far more of an underdog (and therefore more pleasant to observe and even root for).

The only thing that continues to bother me is Stribling’s ridiculous approach to The Colonel’s wife, Ponny.  As I mentioned before, he lays on about her weight pretty aggressively in the opening paragraph.  This continues throughout—the narrator never calls her “Ponny”,  but always “his fat wife” or “his fat wife, Ponny”.  Whenever The Colonel sees her, we get some remark on her “shapeless bulk” or how “non-sexual” she is in his eyes.  Stribling can’t say something like “He briefly embraced his wife as he left.”  He can’t even say “He briefly embraced his fat wife as he left.”  It’s usually something like “He reached his arm around her large back, his hand gripping her pudgy shoulder, as he laid a brief kiss on her ponderous, swollen cheek.”  I recognize that it’s important to build up how disgusted The Colonel is by his wife, at least physically (he seems at least somewhat affectionate toward her personally), since it ties into some larger narratives about what The Colonel has done with his life and how it might have been different.  But the extent to which he’s going with the adjectives and the repetition becomes a parody of itself.  It also degrades Ponny as a real person, and not just some globular plot point, more than I think he should—in the end, I’m just disgusted by her, and not sympathetic to her, because Stribling never shows her through anyone else’s eyes, and certainly not her own.  (This is a real contrast to the black characters, who are often spoken of in the harshest terms, but who stand on their own two feet, and about whom the narrator is generally very neutral, if not even somewhat sympathetic.)

In short, for once, I have a novel I think I can really recommend.  If you’ve been looking for a read, and want to take a trip through the post-War South with me, I think this will reward your investment of time.  I’ll have a lot more to say about this one, I think, and it’s really nice and refreshing to be able to look forward to reading it and sharing those thoughts.

“The black people who live in the Quarters at Blue Brook Plantation believe they are far the best black people living on the whole ‘Neck’…”

“…as they call that long, narrow, rich strip of land lying between the sea on one side and the river with its swamps and deserted rice fields on the other.”

That lengthy sentence opens Scarlet Sister Mary, by Julia Peterkin, the 1929 recipient of the Pulitzer Prize.  I’m skeptical about this one.  Maybe it’s a sensitive portrayal of a portion of the African-American experience.  Maybe it’s at least sympathetic to the plight of those enslaved.  But the fairly casual references to slaves as being bred like race-horses and clinging to old superstitions make me suspicious.  I mean, here’s the second sentence in the novel:

“They are no Guinea negroes with thick lips and wide noses and low ways; or Dinkas with squatty skulls and gray-tinged skin betraying their mean blood; they are Gullahs with tall straight bodies, and high heads filled with sense.”

Even if I put the best possible spin on this, in which I focus on the positive portrayal of the Gullahs (who are, it seems, our protagonists?) and assume that the narrator’s negative comments about Guineas and Dinkas are from the perspective of proud and biased Gullahs, it certainly didn’t set me at ease.  If this novel proves to be really viciously racist, I don’t know how well I’ll survive it.  Peterkin does have a good way with words (not really evident in the above excerpts, so I guess you’ll have to trust me for now), but style won’t make up for bigotry, if it comes to that.  We’ll see, I guess.