While reading Claude McKay’s book of poems, “Harlem Shadows,” I could not help but relate to specific ideas and emotions his poems evoked. In this blog post, I will share some thoughts and feelings I picked up while reading his book, specifically the poem “Flame-Heart”
One theme throughout this book was McKay’s roots. Claude McKay was born in Jamaica but immigrated to the South of the US to attend college and then came to the North. According to my research, he traveled to Europe, but his second home was the United States, and his book Harlem Shadows seems to depict both life in the US and Jamaica.
Throughout different poems, you realize that although he is in the US now, he misses Jamaica. I can identify with this sentiment. I was born in Puerto Rico to a Puerto Rican mother and a Dominican Father. In the early years of my life, I was raised there and finally settled here in New York around six or seven. In the poem “Flame-Heart,” Mckay describes this experience of forgetting details from his native country, such as when certain crops grow or changes in the season. Although these details seem small, these are the details that natives of a place know. It’s like asking a New Yorker, “What are the different boroughs like?” or “Which train line is the worst?” These are details that only New Yorkers who have lived here for a while would know.
I feel the same as McKay concerning ‘forgetting.’ Although recently I have started exploring my Dominican roots, I was lucky enough to grow for a while in Puerto Rico. Yet, as my family came here and I started learning English, and now my partner and his family are Dominican, I have forgotten many things from Puerto Rico. For example, when referring to root vegetables such as cassava, yautia, malanga, and others, Dominicans use the term ‘viveres’ while Puerto Ricans use the term ‘vianda.’ I grew up saying ‘vianda’ all the time, even here in the US, but constantly hearing the term ‘viveres’ from my partner and other people in my circle who are Dominican, I suddenly blanked out the other day when trying to recall the puerto rican term. The guilt that accompanied me was almost instant because this wasn’t the only term I had forgotten. While I am determined to further my Dominican roots, I am also determined to preserve my Puerto Rican ones.
One of the reasons Claude McKay wrote this book was to do just that: to preserve his Jamaican roots along with the new roots he established when he came here to the US. That’s why any form of art is helpful in terms of preserving one’s roots. We even discussed this phenomenon in class, where Africans being traded worldwide as enslaved people would use storytelling and singing after being uprooted from their lives and everything they knew. These art methods were one way for them to preserve their roots, and for Claude McKay, the book Harlem Shadows was his way of preserving and sharing this sentiment with which many of us can identify.