Cultural dualism in the early life and poetry of Claude McKay



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The Negro poet Claude McKay is most widely remembered today for his militant sonnet, "If We Must Die."" As a careful examination of the culturally dualistic inclination of his early life and literature will show, however, McKay was not a militant man. The true key to understanding his role as a poet is ambivalence of feeling about culture, not racial antagonism. Because he had been born and raised in the hills of Jamaica where racial conflict was relatively slight, McKay developed a humanitarian outlook on life which prevented him from ever completely rejecting any race or culture. Not even the racism and materialism which he encountered after migrating to America at the age of twenty-two was able to destroy for very long his deep love of humanity. If at times McKay wrote poems which reprimand the white world, at other times he wrote poems which applaud the white world, and to regard him as a militant simply on the basis of a few extremist poems is to miss the most significant property of his work-cultural dualism.