‘Harlem Shadows‘ was published in 1922 in Harlem Shadows. The collection was incredibly influential during the Harlem Renaissance and helped to solidify McKay’s place as one of the most important writers of the period. ‘Harlem Shadows’ focuses on the experience of a particular group of Black women who make money as sex workers.
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‘Harlem Shadows’ by Claude McKay is a powerful poem that depicts sex workers in Harlem during the 1920s.
In the first stanza of ‘Harlem Shadows,’ the speaker begins by describing, using a first-person perspective, the sounds of a woman’s footsteps. She’s called “a lass” and described as moving through the “Negro Harlem.” It’s dark out, and the speaker can also see other women walking. They’re prostitutes, headed to “barter at desire’s call.” The women work all night, without a chance to rest their feet. The poet paints a dark picture of this occupation and a sympathetic one of the women who are having to make money this way. The poet also makes it clear that these are Black women he’s talking about. They are contrasted with the snowflakes and “earth’s white breast.”
The poem concludes when the speaker addresses the world and his “poor heart.” He describes how poverty and sorrow have been forced onto the feet of his race.
You can read the full poem here.
Throughout this poem, the poet engages with themes of racism and poverty. The women he depicts are forced to survive in the only way they can, selling themselves. They walk the streets of Harlem, freezing and no doubt in danger, seeking out men to pay for sex. This isn’t a profession they’re happily engaged in. The poet makes it clear that these women were forced into this position through historical racism and poverty. They have no other way to support themselves and those they care about. The women are doing the best they can in a truly terrible situation.
Structure and Form
‘Harlem Shadows’ by Claude McKay is a three-stanza poem that is divided into sets of six lines, known as sestets. The stanzas follow a consistent rhyme scheme of ABABCC, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. The poet uses this predictable and seemingly upbeat pattern as a way to suggest that these aren’t the last women he’s going to see selling themselves in this way. These women are suffering as many have before them and will after.
The poem also uses iambic pentameter. This means that each line contains five sets of two beats, the first of which is unstressed and the second of which is stressed. Therefore, the lines should sound like da-DUM da-DUM.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: can be seen through the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “hear” and “halting” in the first line and “lone” and “last” in line three of the second stanza.
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. Thus, for example, the transitions between lines on and two of the first stanza as well as lines one and two of the second stanza.
- Personification: seen through the depiction of the earth’s surface as a “white breast.” It should take in and care for these women. Instead, it is cold and dangerous. The symbolism of the color white should not be ignored in this example of figurative language.
I hear the halting footsteps of a lass
In Negro Harlem when the night lets fall
Its veil. I see the shapes of girls who pass
To bend and barter at desire’s call.
Ah, little dark girls who in slippered feet
Go prowling through the night from street to street!
In the first stanza of ‘Harlem Shadows,’ the speaker begins by using several enjambed lines to describe a sound. He’s out at night, and he can hear the “halting footsteps” of a woman walking through Harlem. They’re “halting” steps. This suggests that she isn’t entirely confident in the direction she’s going, or perhaps she’s taking her time getting there. The following lines contain lyrical language, including a metaphor comparing “night” to a “veil.”
It’s dark in Harlem, covered in a veil-like night. This evokes a feeling of death or at least mourning. As the next lines reveal, it turns out there is more than one woman out at this time of night. There are “shapes of girls” passing to “bend and barter at desire’s call.” These women are prostitutes, out working the streets in the dead of night. He uses words like “girls’ and “little” to describe these women. This suggests that they are innocents, young girls desperate to make money the only way they can.
In an interesting juxtaposition, the poet uses the word “prowling” in the last line of this stanza. This paints the women in a different light, as if they’re animals, large cats, prowling through the streets hunting. But, because their feet are slippered, the poet is also emphasizing their vulnerability.
Through the long night until the silver break
Of day the little gray feet know no rest;
Through the lone night until the last snow-flake
Has dropped from heaven upon the earth’s white breast,
The dusky, half-clad girls of tired feet
Are trudging, thinly shod, from street to street.
In the second stanza, the poet returns to describe the girls’ feet once more. This time they are “little gray feet” that don’t rest until daybreak. The night is a lonely place and a cold one. It’s snowing on this particular night, making the women’s lives even harder. Now, they have to “barter” with desire and deal with the freezing temperatures. The women trudge from street to street through the snow on “earth’s white breast.”
This example of personification is also one of the ways the poet alludes to race in the poem. The “white” snow on the earth should be something beautiful and distant, but instead, the women are forced to navigate through the cold in the middle of the night. Plus, through the use of the word “breast,” the speaker is alluding to the way the Earth is commonly personified as a mother. But, in this case, she isn’t caring for her children.
Ah, stern harsh world, that in the wretched way
Of poverty, dishonor and disgrace,
Has pushed the timid little feet of clay,
The sacred brown feet of my fallen race!
Ah, heart of me, the weary, weary feet
In Harlem wandering from street to street.
The poet exclaims over the state of the world in the final lines. His speaker addresses the “stern, harsh world,” an example of an apostrophe. It is wretched and filled with poverty and sorrow. These women have no choice, due to their economic circumstances, than to work on the streets.
The speaker again depicts the women’s feet. They are “timid little feet of clay” and the “feet of my fallen race.” The women persevere through the darkness of the night, but they are also depicted as gentle, concerned, and careful. They are “weary, weary feet” that are forced to walk these same paths through the city over and over again. The use of the word “wandering” in the last line evokes the idea that these women are lost. They’re in a bad place in life and dealing with poverty they can’t escape.
The tone in ‘Harlem Shadows’ is sympathetic and serious. It reflects the perseverance and desperate circumstances of the Black sex workers in 1920s Harlem. The poet addresses their suffering while also alluding to their strength.
Claude McKay wrote ‘Harlem Shadows’ to address the complex lives of women working on the streets. The reader should have a better understanding of their economic circumstances, and the broader economic state of Harlem in the 1920s, after reading the poem.
‘Harlem Shadows’ is not a sonnet. It is 18 lines long, rather than fourteen, and it does not use any of the recognized sonnet rhyme schemes.
The poem depicts one portion of the Black experience in Harlem, New York, during the 1920s. The poet sought to reveal what goes on under the cover of darkness and evoke sympathy and understanding from the reader. He also explores the character of these women. They turn to the one source of income they have and endure the darkness of those nights on the street.
The mood is gloomy and concerning in ‘Harlem Shadows.’ The reader should walk away feeling sympathetic towards these sex workers and have a better understanding of the lives of Black sex workers in Harlem in the 1920s.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Harlem Shadows’ should also consider reading some other Claude McKay poems. For example:
- ‘If We Must Die’ – powerfully encourages the reader to stand up for and with the Black community. One should show strength in the face of discrimination, he says.
- ‘I Know My Soul’ – a sonnet that discusses the importance of being honest with oneself.
- ‘America’ – balances ideas of loving and hating the United States. McKay explores the good parts of the country, the strength and vigor it contains as well as the bad.