Poetry, such as Enslaved, is an incredible art form in its capability to eloquently express all emotion; there’s something about a well-thought-out verse structure that can make any sequence of words sound beautiful, powerful, daunting or anything else that might need to be expressed. Enslaved by Claude McKay is an example of such a poem, one that turns bitterness, hatred, and rage into an eloquent art form that anyone can read and wonder at. Today, it serves as a window into the mind of one of the unfortunate segregated, oppressed, and crushed spirits that haunted McKay’s life, in Jamaica, the United States, and England. You can read the full poem Enslaved here.
Oh when I think of my long-suffering race,
For weary centuries despised, oppressed,
In the great life line of the Christian West;
A quick note here — the poem is not actually separated into verses, but it’s far easier to analyze bit by bit. Enslaved follows a very Shakespearian structure, in an ABAB-CDCD-EFEF-GG fashion. Though a few of the rhymes are somewhat forced, the structure works well for the poem and helps it to flow in an elegant way.
The content of this aspect of Enslaved speaks clearly to the history of colonialism. The “long-suffering race” is almost certainly a reference to McKay’s own heritage — he was born in 1889 in Jamaica, by then long colonized by European influence. McKay was, from birth, given a first-hand colonial experience, racially labeled, deemed worthless by the Western World: an especially evident conclusion after he moved to the United States, approximately ten years before the publishing of this poem.
The reference to the “Christian West” more than likely refers to the religious superiority that was typically espoused by European colonists. McKay himself began his basic education in the church he attended, and across the world, those who were not born into caucasian, European families were, as McKay so well puts it, denied a human place. This verse serves to remind the reader that the racist tradition of the world as McKay has been living it is not isolated to him, nor to his neighbors, nor even to his country. It is a long tradition of hatred, oppression, and slavery that has, at this point, stood for many “weary centuries.”
And in the Black Land disinherited,
For this my race that has no home on earth.
McKay’s choice of words here is evidently very careful. “The Black Land disinherited” is a line filled with a strong meaning. The word “disinherited” especially speaks to the injustices of racist policy. Typically, in order to disinherit someone from ownership of land, the one doing the disinheriting must actually own that land. And so, in order for the “Black Land” to be disinherited, Western colonialism must claim ownership of it. McKay is stating that the home of the black people — be that in his native Jamaica, in the countries across Africa, or anywhere they may have migrated to in Europe or North America — has been stolen from them, and the door locked forever. And without a homeland, who can say that those people have a home left in the world? It’s not as though anyone else was giving them one.
These lines to Enslaved carry with them unmistakable connotations of deep sorrow. For the narrator, their heart has closed. The sorrow has passed for them and is now sickened with the weight of unbearable hatred. Being hated, they have learned hate, and feel it when thinking about the home that was ruthlessly and horrendously stolen from them.
Then from the dark depths of my soul I cry
Let it be swallowed up in earth’s vast womb,
Or upward roll as sacrificial smoke
To liberate my people from its yoke!
At the end of Enslaved, we see the sorrow pass, and the narrator is able to properly express their hatred; the avenging angel could be a simple metaphor, or it could refer to the Angel of Death from the Christian and Judaic Old Testament (the Book of Exodus), who was the tenth plague sent by God to the Egyptian people for defying Moses’ cry for Israelite freedom. The Angel of Death took the life of every firstborn in the Egyptian capital, saving only those whose homes were marked with lamb’s blood, a message which Moses had shared with the enslaved Israelites. It was this final plague that finally broke the Pharaoh of Egypt enough that he freed every slave in Egypt and commanded them to leave.
If this was McKay’s intention, it certainly makes sense as a parallel; the narrator of the poem is certainly crying for a similar calamity, to see the world of their oppressors consumed entirely and destroyed, believing it to be the only way that the racism, slavery, and oppression can be finally lifted from the world. Their people will only be free, the final two lines claim, once the world of the “white man” is entirely destroyed.
As was mentioned earlier, Claude McKay was born in Jamaica in 1889, where he lived and wrote, beginning writing poetry at the age of ten, and publishing his first poetry collection, Songs of Jamaica, in 1912. In the same year, he left Jamaica and went to the United States to begin his university education. The intense racism and heavily enforced segregation he encountered was a significant shock. He did not stay long in South Carolina, his original destination, but instead left for Kansas State University. His poetry from the time was heavily influenced by these experiences.
In 1919, McKay moved to London, England, where his experience fighting against racism continued. Three years later, he published the volume in which Enslaved appears, Harlem Shadows. The influence of this period in McKay’s life is extremely evident in Enslaved.
The words of Enslaved memorialize what a world filled with segregation, racism, and hatred did to the mindset of Claude McKay. Enslaved is a call to answer hatred with hatred, a beautifully and powerfully written call for violent revolution. Every line is filled with sadness, anger, or some combination of the two. As a historic poem, it serves as a powerful reminder of what a racist world creates, the anger and pain it causes that manifest themselves in intelligent talents and enviable skills. It is a look into the early twentieth century in the United States particularly, an image of the world as it was, and a call to reflect on the world as it is.