‘Sonnets and Songs’ by Claude McKay from The Liberator. Vol. 2 No. 7. July, 1919.

Claude McKay made his debut in ‘The Liberator’ during the Red Summer of 1919 with these seven sonnets and and songs from the July issue. Introduced by Max Eastman, these wonderful poems serve as a perfect introduction to McKay’s work and includes his most well known poem, ‘If We Must Die.’

‘Sonnets and Songs’ by Claude McKay from The Liberator. Vol. 2 No. 7. July, 1919.

Introduction by Max Eastman.

We have the good fortune to publish this month a page of sonnets and songs by a negro poet practically unknown to the public, who seems to have a greater and more simple and strong gift of poetry than any other of his race has had. Claude McKay is a native of Jamaica, who came to this country seven years ago to study scientific agriculture. He graduated from an agricultural college in the west, but for reasons that I suppose are personal did not return, as he had planned, to his own lazy island. He stayed in America, living the active life of the northern negroes, only with a more wandering will and more song on his lips.

At the time when these poems were written he was a waiter in a dining-car-a position from which he was able to see a great many things and understand them with a bold and unhesitating mind. His attitude toward life is like Shelley’s, free and yet strenuously idealistic. I think his conscience is a little more austere in matters of social conduct than in matters of art. I wish he would write more poems as mettlesome and perfectly chiselled throughout, as some of his stanzas are. And I think he will, for he is young and he has arrived at the degree of power and skill revealed in these poems practically without encouragement or critical help. To me they show a fine clear flame of life burning and not to be forgotten.

McKay and Eastman.

Sonnets and Songs by Claude McKay



LIT with cheap colored lights a basement den,
With rows of chairs and tables on each side,
And, all about, young, dark-skinned women and men
Drinking and smoking, merry, vacant-eyed.
A Negro band, that scarcely seems awake,
Drones out half-heartedly a lazy tune,
While quick and willing boys their orders take
And hurry to and from the near saloon.
Then suddenly a happy, lilting note
Is struck, the walk and hop and trot begin,
Under the smoke upon foul air afloat;
Around the room the laughing puppets spin
To sound of fiddle, drum and clarinet,
Dancing, their world of shadows to forget.


‘Tis best to sit and gaze; my heart then dances
To the lithe bodies gliding slowly by,
The amorous and inimitable glances
That subtly pass from roguish eye to eye,
The laughter gay like sounding silver ringing,
That fills the whole wide room from Boor to ceiling,A
rush of rapture to my tried soul bringing-
The deathless spirit of a race revealing.
Not one false step, no note that rings not true!
Unconscious even of the higher worth
Of their great art, they serpent-wise glide through
The syncopated waltz. Dead to the earth
And her unkindly ways of toil and strife,
For them tbe dance is the true joy of life.


And yet they are the outcasts of the earth,
A race oppressed and scorned by ruling man;
How can they thus consent to joy and mirth
Who live beneath a world-eternal ban?
No faith is theirs, no shining ray of hope,
Except the martyr’s faith, the hope that death
Some day will free them from their narrow scope
And once more merge them with the infinite breath.
But, oh! they dance with poetry in their eyes
Whose dreamy loveliness no sorrow dims,
And parted lips and eager, gleeful cries,
And perfect rhythm in their nimble limbs.
The gifts divine are theirs, music and laughter;
All other things, however great, come after.


I MUST not gaze at them although
Your eyes are dawning day;
I must not watch you as you go
Your sun-illumined way;

I hear but I must never heed
The fascinating note,
Which, fluting like a river-reed,
Comes from your trembling throat;

I must not see upon your face
Love’s softly glowing spark;
For there’s the barrier of race,
You’re fair and I am dark.


SOME day, when trees have shed their leaves,
And against the morning’s white
The shivering birds beneath the eaves
Have sheltered for the night,
We’ll turn our faces southward, love,
Toward the summer isle
Where bamboos spire the shafted grove
And wide-mouthed orchids smile.

And we will seek the quiet hill
Where towers the cotton tree,
And leaps the laughing crystal rill,
And works the droning bee.
And we will build a lonely nest
Beside an open glade,
And there forever will we rest,
O love-O nut-brown maid!


AN ugly figure, heavy, overfed,
Settles: uneasily into a chair;
Nervously he mops his pimply pink bald head,
Frowns at the fawning waiter standing near.
The entire service tries.. its best to please
This overpampered piece of broken-health,
Who sits there thoughtless, querulous, obese,
Wrapped in his sordid visions of vast wealth.

Great God! if creatures like this money-fool,
Who hold the service of mankind so cheap,
Over the people must forever rule,
Driving them at their will like helpless sheep
Then let proud mothers cease from giving birth;,
Let human beings perish from the earth.


THE little peoples of the troubled earth,
The little nations that are weak and white;
For them the glory of another birth,
For them the lifting of the veil of night.
The big men of the world in concert met,
nave sent forth in their power a new decree:
Upon the old harsh wrongs the sun must set,
Henceforth the little peoples must be free!

But we, the blacks, less than the trampled dust,
Who walk the new ways with the old dim eyes,-
We to the ancient gods of greed and lust
Must still be offered up as sacrifice:
Oh, we who deign to live but will not dare,
The white world’s burden must forever bear!


‘TIS but a modern Roman holiday;
Each state invokes its soul of basest passion,
Each vies with each to find the ugliest way
To torture Negroes in the fiercest fashion.
Black Southern men, like hogs await your doom!
White wretches hunt and haul you from your huts,
‘They squeeze the babies out your women’s womb,
They cut your members off, rip out your guts!

It is a Roman holiday, and worse:
It is the mad beast risen from his lair,
The dead accusing years’ eternal curse,
Reeking of vengeance, in fulfillment here.
Bravo Democracy! Hail greatest Power
That saved sick Europe in her darkest hour!


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 accursed lot.
If we must die-oh, 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!

Oh, kinsmen! We must meet the common foe;
Though far outnumbered, let us still be 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!

The Liberator was published monthly from 1918, first established by Max Eastman and his sister Crystal Eastman continuing The Masses, was shut down by the US Government during World War One. Like The Masses, The Liberator contained some of the best radical journalism of its, or any, day. It combined political coverage with the arts, culture, and a commitment to revolutionary politics. Increasingly, The Liberator oriented to the Communist movement and by late 1922 was a de facto publication of the Party. In 1924, The Liberator merged with Labor Herald and Soviet Russia Pictorial into Workers Monthly. An essential magazine of the US left.

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/culture/pubs/liberator/1919/07/v2n07-w17-jul-1919-liberator-hr.pdf

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