Claude McKay was the great elder statesman of the literary movement that came to be called the Harlem Renaissance. Like most of the poets of that Renaissance, McKay was not from Harlem; in fact, he was not from the U.S. at all. Born in Jamaica in 1890, McKay first came to the U.S. to go to college, and stayed on in New York to live, work, and write during the great ferment of artistic innovation after the First World War.
His great lyric poem “The Tropics in New York” is all about not being from New York. McKay was venerated by younger writers like Langston Hughes, but they didn’t often imitate his style, which was deliberately classicist and old-fashioned. Sometimes, to our ears, McKay’s diction can seem stilted. But in “Tropics” I think it strikes exactly the right note. Even the old spelling “grape fruit” (for once, that’s not a typo!) evokes a world where something as homely (to McKay, and to us in 21st century Texas) as a grapefruit can look out of place and exotic.
It’s a poem, if you will, about the world being flat. Nowadays, the fruit that McKay saw piled up at corner stalls in his post-WWI city is available in every supermarket in America. Not so much in the 1920s, when mangoes and “alligator pears” (avocados!) were rare luxuries. But New York, then as now, is a place where luxuries from every corner of the world are everyday sights. It is a city of immigrants – from around the globe and around the U.S. And it is a city where nostalgia is a way of life: for homelands far away, and for the past.
Both homeland and past converge in “The Tropics in New York” in one of the most delicately-rendered evocations of displacement in American poetry.