Who You Are, Who You Want To Be, Who You Must Be: Tensions of Identity and Self-Expression in Claude McKay’s “The Harlem Dancer”
Academic Essay by Daisy Couture
How do we conceptualize our world? Is it true to reality or do our histories become muddy in the remembering? As humans, idealization is irresistible. We idealize time periods, events, movements, even people, and while these idealistic tendencies are usually based in truth, they are dangerous. Idealization can obscure reality and distort history, overlooking the complexity and struggle that is inherent in life. The Harlem Renaissance is a clear example of this idealistic tendency; it was a movement in the United States between the end of the First World War and the 1930s, in which Black artists moved en masse to the New York City neighbourhood of Harlem and produced huge volumes of work. The prevailing narrative of this time that most scholars advance is one of an explosion of art that revived Black existence in America and forged a new future through artistic self-expression. The Jamaican-American poet and novelist Claude McKay is very often placed at the forefront of this movement. As Samuel Idowu Adewumi expresses in “Thematic Trends in Claude Mckay’s Selected Poems of the Harlem Era”: “The Harlem era symbolized the fact that Black people in America, freed from the constraints of chattel slavery, were now able to seriously grapple with… a collective direction for themselves” (1). This narrative, while compelling and inspiring, neglects the tensions of identity and self-expression present in McKay’s work. As a Black gay immigrant, McKay often felt out of place and struggled with producing work for patrons and for the consumption of white audiences. These issues of identity and self-expression under exploitative conditions are generally neglected in scholarship of the Harlem Renaissance in favour of idealization of the time. As Josh Gosciak notes in The Shadowed Country: Claude McKay and the Romance of the Victorians, “When ‘Harlem Dancer’ first appeared [it was] proclaimed… ‘the keystone of the new movement in racial poetic achievement’” (132). However, Gosciak argues that in actuality, McKay dealt largely with the struggles of the so-called Renaissance, and specifies “The Harlem Dancer” as “one of the first poems to interrogate Harlem as a geographic site of cultural performance and oppression” (11).
“The Harlem Dancer” is usually exhibited as an example of the “positive affirmation of black life” (Ramesh 87) produced during the Harlem Renaissance. I will argue that it is actually a poem that exemplifies the pervasive tensions of identity and self-expression that the movement and McKay, in particular, struggled with. I will argue that the themes of disconnection and dissonance present in the poem, created through poetic techniques and the character of the dancer, illuminate the tension of artistic expression under patronage. Together they also illustrate the atmosphere of internal and external conflict that McKay experienced. I will also explore the use of the sonnet form (traditionally white, masculine, and imperialist) and how McKay uses it to fight back against the oppression he experiences — specifically through the techniques of word choice, syntax and half rhyme.
While “The Harlem Dancer” first appears to simply chronicle a night in a club, upon closer examination, it is filled with themes and images of disconnection. This exemplifies how, under the celebratory atmosphere, tension and struggle existed during the Harlem Renaissance. Right from the beginning, the speaker describes the scene in third person, saying: “applauding youths laughed with young prostitutes / and watched her perfect, half-clothed body sway” (McKay 1-2). The speaker situates themselves outside the scenario, looking in, creating an immediate distance. The fact that the dancer has no name furthers this feeling; the speaker does not know this woman, she is just a figure. As we learn in the final couplet, it is not just the speaker but also the dancer who feels disconnected from the present: “But looking at her falsely-smiling face, / I knew her self was not in that strange place” (McKay 13-14). With that said, the fact that the speaker refers to the club as “that strange place” rather than ‘this strange place’ highlights the immense distance that both the speaker and the dancer feel from their present circumstance. The speaker identifies with the dancer because of this final revelation of cognitive dissonance.
The poem further explores the theme of disconnection through the syntax it uses. “Her self” in the fourteenth line is broken, instead of ‘herself’ as is standard English. This signals a distance from society through the abandonment of conventional grammar rules and also illustrates that there is rift between the dancer’s ‘her’ and the dancer’s ‘self’ — concepts that are usually considered synonymous. Her body might be in the club but her inner self is not. The syntax is again strange in the fifth line: “she sang and danced on gracefully and calm” (McKay 5). The adjective “calm” and the adverb “gracefully” paired together as if they match lead to a disquieting feeling that something is not entirely comfortable; there is separation between the dancer and her actions. The use of the word “seemed” (McKay 7) also hints at the distinct break between appearance and reality in the poem, as the dancer seems beautiful and alluring but in reality is unhappy and trapped. These themes of disconnection and distance illuminate the subtexts of McKay’s work for they are the result of the conflicts of self-expression and identity in which McKay was tangled. The presence of these themes may be an indication of McKay’s feelings about the situation within which he was trying to write — in a strange country, for the pleasure of white audiences, relying on the support of patrons.
McKay uses the character of the dancer as a figure for the Harlem Renaissance artist, trapped in the system of patronage. The artists of the Harlem Renaissance largely relied upon patrons to support them while they produced their particular form of self-expression. As Indian literary scholars Kotti Sree Ramesh and Kandula Nirupa Rani note, McKay’s most significant patron, Walter Jekyll, was White (46). This was clearly a tense relationship; while patrons allowed artists to devote themselves full time to their art, they were also to whom the artist was subordinate. McKay was not pleased with this system and clearly saw it as a threat. As he writes in a 1925 letter to his friend Walter White: “My position is tragic. I am always working under the shadow of [financial] insecurity and it paralyzes me. . . . We [Black artists] are made impotent… and thus we become emasculated in ideas and the expression of them” (Roberts 31). The fact that most Black artists relied upon White patrons is a particularly tense point that follows in a long history of Black bodies and voices being subjugated by some form of White master. Self-expression becomes yet another form of subjugation.
The figure of the dancer is a metaphor for this paradox of creation as both powerful self-expression and subjugation. Just like the Harlem Renaissance artist, she relies upon consumers to support herself, thus her form of self-expression turns into an exploitative relationship. The audience in the poem is described as “devour[ing]” (McKay 12) the dancer’s body, a word choice that implies she is being consumed. Literary scholar Kimberly Roberts identifies the presence of this tension in McKay’s works and his particular propensity to use the prostitute as a representation of the Black patroned artist. As she writes in her article “The Clothes Make the Woman: The Symbolics of Prostitution in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand and Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem”: “McKay is more concerned… with the ways in which the prostitute can symbolize the patronized, and thereby feminized, writer… as it was experienced by 1920s black Harlemites and the simultaneous commodification of black bodies” (109). While the dancer in “The Harlem Dancer” is not explicitly portrayed as a prostitute, there are prostitutes present in the club and the dancer’s work does have a sense of prostitution in that she is performing for strangers in exchange for money, exhibiting her “half-clothed body” (McKay 2) and relying on it to support herself. The sonnet describes how the watching crowd “toss[es] coins in praise” (10), calling to mind the image of a strip club. While the dancer is not a sex worker (and it is problematic to equate all sex-work with exploitation), the role is similar, as an economic imbalance and vulnerability exists. The use of the dancer as a figure for the Harlem artist shows the conflict McKay felt with his own forms of self-expression, for he knew that to be successful he had to appeal to White audiences and offer up his own work for their consumption. Most scholarship on the subject treats McKay’s self-expression as a mark of his freedom and yet it is also the medium in which he was forced to subjugate himself and allow his writing to be consumed for the entertainment of white audiences, similar to how the dancer must offer up her own body.
The comparison between the dancer and the speaker is further complicated for it is not one of solidarity. More conflict and tension is added into the poem by the relationships between the speaker, dancer and the audience. How is the speaker complicit in the spectatorship he is critiquing? Sonnets have traditionally been vessels of the male gaze and “The Harlem Dancer” is no different. Although the speaker identifies with the dancer, and feels some private connection forged through mutual exploitation, he is still watching her as a part of the crowd consuming her body and art. And while the final couplet shows he sees something more than the others do, that is the part of herself she is trying to hide: “But, looking at her falsely-smiling face / I knew her self was not in that strange place” (McKay 13-14). He is violating her only way to protect herself, focusing on the self she is trying to hide. The speaker also describes the dancer as “lovelier for passing through a storm” (McKay 8), romanticizing her struggle, much as the Harlem Renaissance is often idealized. The fact that the speaker is partly complicit in what he is criticizing only goes even further to show how conflicts of identity are pervasive in McKay’s work. The speaker is not clearly part of any group and even the identity he finds himself in, which is one of solidarity with the dancer, is fraught.
There is also significant tension in the form and structure of the poem. Sonnets are the traditional form used by Shakespeare and Petrarch and have long been regarded as the highest form of European poetry. Many scholars have argued that by using this form McKay was trying to prove he was equal to the great European masters and that he was a product of his “formal education in the master’s classics” (Ramesh 87). However, his use of sonnets was, and continues to be, looked down upon by both fellow writers and critics. Ramesh and Rani even describe his work as “[s]tifled by his colonial sensibility” (87). However, Terence Hoagwood compellingly argues in his book The Shadowed Country: Claude McKay and the Romance of the Victorians that McKay’s use of the sonnet is much more radical than it is conservative or weak, as it showcases his mastery of his craft. For while the use of the sonnet can be interpreted as desperately trying to conform to European standards, it is also a radical move of subversion, taking the form used for imperialist purposes and writing about Black lives and voices. As Hoagwood notes: “McKay brings the dignity and beauty of Elizabethan forms and techniques to subjects that are not only modern but conspicuously outside the traditional tropes” (52). “The Harlem Dancer” features prostitutes, nightclubs, black dancers singers, and musicians. It contains issues of exploitation, conflict, and confusion. McKay’s use of the sonnet is not conservatism or an eagerness to please, but rather a way to fight back by utilizing traditionally oppressive traditions, and subverting them from within the culture of poetry.
McKay goes further in his subversion than just writing about nontraditional subject matters; he also breaks the structural conventions of the sonnet by not following the form perfectly. Lines 5-8 are made up of alternating end rhymes but all of the lines almost rhyme (“palm,” “storm,” “calm,” “form”). The half-rhymes blur the form, distort its supposedly rigid structure. McKay also rejects the harmonious language of traditional sonnets, opting for harsh, powerful plosives like ‘P’ and ‘B’ (“prostitutes,” “perfect,” “body,” “blown by black players upon a picnic day”). The alliteration of these sounds gives the poem a strong beat, a power, and a force usually absent in traditional sonnets. The strange syntax discussed earlier (“gracefully” and “her self”) makes one almost misread the poem, forcing the reader to concentrate and attend, rather than be led along. This disruption is perhaps another challenge to White consumption of his work, forcing the reader to engage instead of passively consume. In a poem full of tension over self-expression and identity, the form of the sonnet is a strength, a clear move that claims power historically denied to the non-white artist. McKay uses the sonnet which was for so long exclusively used by European writers and manipulates it, making readers engage with it in unexpected and challenging ways. He makes a traditional form his own and makes the reader experience it on his terms, in his world. No matter how conflicted McKay felt about his situation, he nevertheless fought back against the oppressive nature of imperialism and racism.
“The Harlem Dancer” is a complicated poem that is built upon themes of tension over identity, self-expression and dissonance. To whom do artists owe their allegiance? At what point is the price of self-expression not worth it? How do you stay true to yourself while being consumed by those you fight against? McKay’s sonnet portrays these struggles, configuring the dancer as a Harlem artist and hinting at the conflicting identities he was forced to navigate by the complex web of the speaker’s relationship to both the audience and the dancer. However, this complex and multifaceted dissonance is not a weakness; it makes the poem rich and powerful. Ultimately, the tension present in the poem offers an alternative narrative to the time period than the one most commonly repeated. “The Harlem Dancer” shines light on the struggles, tensions, and confusions of the Harlem Renaissance, humanizing a commonly romanticized era. It reminds us that there has never been a perfect world or movement, that there will always be much work to do; but also that perhaps the first step is to make that tension seen, to speak of it and make others hear it.
Grosciak, Josh. The Shadowed Country: Claude McKay and the Romance of the Victorians.
Rutgers University Press, 2006, pp. 11, 132.
Hoagwood, Terence. “Claude Mckay’s HARLEM SHADOWS.” Explicator, vol. 68, no. 1, 2009,
McKay, Claude. “The Harlem Dancer.” The Book of American Negro Poetry, edited by James Weldon Johnson, 1922, pp. 136.
Ramesh, Kotti Sree, and Kandula Nirupa Rani. Claude McKay: The Literary Identity from
Jamaica to Harlem and Beyond. McFarland & Company, 2006, pp. 46, 87.
Roberts, Kimberley. “The Clothes Make the Woman: The Symbolics of Prostitution in Nella
Larsen’s Quicksand and Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s
Literature, vol. 16, no. 1, 1997, pp. 107–130.
Samuel Idowu, Adewumi, & Kayode Moses Bolawale. “Thematic Trends in Claude Mckay’s
Selected Poems of the Harlem Era.” International Journal of Education and Literacy
Studies, vol. 2, no. 2, 2014, pp. 15-19.
 I use the terminology “Black” rather than African-American because not all the artists involved in the movement were American citizens, for example, Claude McKay was Jamaican.