The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Claude McKay’s Workers’ Dreadnought Poetry (1919-1920) | Poems from The Liberator

The Barrier (September 6, 1919. Signed as Claude McKay)

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.

After the Winter (September 6, 1919. Signed as Claude McKay)

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!

The Little Peoples (September 6, 1919. Signed as Claude McKay)

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,
Have sent forth in their power a new decree:
Upon the old harsh wrongs the sun must set,
Henceforth the little people 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!

A Roman Holiday (September 6, 1919. Signed as Claude McKay)

’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 fulfilment here.
​Bravo, Democracy! Hail greatest Power
That saved sick Europe in her darkest hour!

If We Must Die (September 6, 1919. Signed as Claude McKay)

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 honour 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!

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