It is important to note that African American poets, who lived during the period of segregation and heated racism, were in a unique position when it came to Americanism and patriotism. The given analysis will focus on “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes and “If We Must Die” by Claude McKay in order to analyze how these poets had shifting views of these concepts. Both poems demonstrate that despite slavery, segregation, discrimination, and racism, African Americans love the place of their birth and feel connected to it despite the hateful culture and traditions of Americanism of the past.
In order to comprehensively analyze how the poets wrestled with the idea of Americanism and patriotism, it is useful to take the context and time period of the poems into account. Festus Claudius McKay was born in Sunny Ville, Jamaica, in the year 1889. He was a son of peasant farmers but was interested in literature from childhood. His neighbor and brother played a critical role in helping him to study English poetry. When he was 17, he left Sunny Ville and worked as a woodworker in Brown’s Town, and later moved to Kingston (Poetry Foundation par. 2). The common theme is “the Black individual’s quest for cultural identity in the face of racism” as a major part of the Harlem Renaissance (Poetry Foundation par. 13). He believed that “Black Americans should unite in the struggle against colonialism, segregation, and oppression” (Poetry Foundation par. 15). In other words, the speaker was the voice of the struggles of the Black community.
In the case of the second poet, it should be noted that James Mercer Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, on February 1, 1902. His father left the family during his early childhood, and he was mostly raised by his grandmother until he moved to Lincoln, Illinois, where he started to write poetry. He graduated from high school and continued his study at Columbia University in NYC. Although Hughes’s works depicted an insightful illustration of African Americans, he did not differentiate the common experience from his personal one (Academy of American Poets par. 1). The author’s theme was more diverse, with an emphasis on both positive and negative aspects of the Black experience. The speaker used serious humor, which was widely successful due to the immense popularity of his works.
Shifting View of Americanism and Patriotism
“If We Must Die”
On the surface, Claude McKay’s poem does not contain any reference to patriotism or Americanism, but a deeper analysis reveals that he is a true patriot who seeks to shift the view of Americanism. The most prominent symbol from the poem of the poet was a comparison of his and the Black community’s enemies with “mad and hungry dogs” (McKay par. 1). Although he is primarily calling the African American people to unite against the White oppressors even if there is a disadvantage, he never attacks or betrays the nation of his birth. In other words, one can see that despite all the hatred, racism, discrimination, and rather recent slavery, McKay is still willing to die and fight by standing his ground on American land. This shows that for McKay and many African Americans, the Americanism of this period was not equal to patriotism.
He, like many Black community members, loves and wants to be in America because it is his birthplace, where he deserves to have a place under the sun. His hostility is aimed rightfully against the racists and supremacists, who he does not identify as Americans, but rather dogs and monsters (McKay par. 1). Essentially, he is a patriot because he is not willing to betray his country no matter the hatred spewed against his people. It is easy to be a patriot when your countrymen are accepting of a person or group. However, it is true patriotism when one is born in a nation where the majority is oppressive on the basis of old Americanist ideas, and this individual is still willing to stay in his homeland. He essentially shifts the view of Americanism to be inclusive of African Americans and other peoples of color, but he always has been a patriot.
“The Negro Speaks of Rivers”
Hughes’s poem further demonstrates that African Americans are patriots, but he does not subscribe to the White-centered Americanism of the past, and thus, he is willing to change it as well. One of the major symbols of Langston Hughes is the four rivers in his poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (Hughes par. 3). Euphrates, Congo, and Nile represent the ancestral homeland of African Americans, whereas Mississippi revolves around the recent history and future of the community.
Hughes is open, transparent, and honest about where his ancestors came from, and he does not pretend not to value his African heritage. He states, “I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young. I built my hut near the Congo, and it lulled me to sleep. I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it” (Hughes par. 3). However, he further adds: “I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset” (Hughes par. 3). In other words, although he is aware that his ancestors came from rich and vast Africa, he and his generation of African Americans belong in America.
Although modern-day Americanism is essentially the same as patriotism, during Hughes’s time, these were not equal for many African Americans. Americanism did not embody the cultural, traditional, and racial connotations of inclusion and multiculturalism of today. It was White-centric, which is why Hughes was a patriot, but likely did not subscribe to White-centric Americanism. The poem highlights that despite all the hatred and racism, he and African Americans of his time feel connected to his homeland, and thus, they love America constituting patriotism.
In conclusion, it is evident that both McKay and Hughes were always patriots who loved their birthplace and homeland but wanted to shift what Americanism was during that period. It is important to note that despite the racism, discrimination, hatred, and hostility aimed at African Americans, they both refuse to betray or abandon America but are rather willing to fight for it. One could argue that both of them were more patriotic than their White counterparts, who were always included in all iterations and forms of Americanism. The reason is that it takes a special form of connection with the homeland to love it despite the majority of its people and inhabitants hating the group.
Academy of American Poets. “Langston Hughes.” Poets.org., 2022, Web.
Hughes, Langston. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” Poetry Foundation, 1921, Web.
McKay, Claude. “If We Must Die.” Poetry Foundation, 1919, Web.
Poetry Foundation. “Claude McKay.” Poetry Foundation, 2022, Web.