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America the Ironic

Updated on September 27, 2013

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America is known for being the land of the free and a place where people from many different countries come to start new lives and the citizens there can better their old ones. But, there was a point in time when America was not so friendly to others that were different from them, especially those of the Negro race. There was a time where America was not the home of the free and the brave, but a time when there was racism and slaves. Even after the Civil Rights Era there were places Negros could not go and things that they could not do as equally as the whites in America could. In Claude McKay’s poem “The White House” and D. L. Crockett-Smith’s “Homestead, USA” speakers in the two poems describe how America is supposed to be a rich and wonderful place to live, yet it hates and discriminates against those who do live there. Through diction both speakers in each of the poems describe a place in America that is supposed to represent freedom and respect for its citizens. In these two poems America represents money, power, and discrimination and is symbolized by the White House in Washington, DC and Wall Street in New York.

Claude McKay’s poem “The White House” is also known as “White Houses.” Alain Locke changed the title of the poem without consulting McKay because he felt that the title “The White House” “would be misconstrued as a criticism of the president” (Smith). McKay on the other hand had a symbolic reason for naming his poem “The White House.” McKay did not mean “specifically the private homes of white people, but more the vast modern edifice on American industry from which Negroes were effectively barred as a group” and when Locke changed the title he also changed the overall meaning of the poem (Smith). Locke made the poem “appear as if the burning desire of black malcontent was to enter white houses in general” this was certainly not the case (Smith). Locke wanted to show the hypocrisy that surrounded it.

In this poem the speaker talks about how the door of the White House is “shut against [his] tightened face/ And [he] [is] sharp with discontent.” The speaker is angry that he is excluded from “prosperity and affluence, signified by the closed door of the white house” (Keller). Even though he is not welcome to the experience these fruits of desire the speaker “possesses the courage and the grace to bear [his] anger proudly and unbent,” meaning he keeps his dignity and pride and does not act violently against these crimes of injustice (McKay). “The speaker’s incivility derives from resentment over the social inequalities signified by his exclusion from the white house, with its overtones of economic and political influence” (Keller). Even though the speaker does not show his “discontent” he still struggles within with the thoughts of injustice. As the speaker passes by the white house “passion rends [his] vitals” but he “search [es] for wisdom every hour, Deep in [his] wrathful bosom sore and raw/ And find in it the superhuman power/ To hold [him] to the letter of your law!”(McKay). The speaker is utterly angry but he finds the strength to uphold the laws that were made to keep him discontent.

The poem ends with “Oh I must keep my heart inviolate/ Against the potent passion of your hate” (McKay). This last couplet of the poem is ironic because “contrary to false stereotypes about the people of African origin, McKay maintains control even when he has great provocation toward violence, while the white power structure, having no provocation at all, constantly succumbs to brutality against minorities” (Keller). In this poem the blame is put on America, not its people and “invites the power structure to amend social inequalities, to develop a consistent and truly equal policy toward all Americans” (Keller). D. L. Crockett-Smith conveys this same theme of injustice and redemption for America in his poem, “Homestead, USA.”

In D. L. Crockett-Smith’s poem “Homestead, USA” he uses a city and a street of wealth to represent the injustices of America. The poem starts with “Along the cracked seams of Wall Street, the poor multiply, evicted from slums and psych wards,” Wall Street is in New York and it is a representation of one of the richest countries in the world, yet on this street are the poor and mentally disturbed (Crockett-Smith). It is ironic that the street that represents wealth and power has homeless people living on it and it is full of poverty. “A gaunt new disease sucks the marrow from men’s bones” is the next line and ends this first section of the poem (Crockett-Smith). But what is this “new disease?” It is greed. The next section starts “Is there no cure for this sickness that flushes citizens into the gutters?” (Crockett-Smith). Once again the White House is mentioned just as it was in McKay’s poem. “We peer through the iron bars around the White House,” the white house is out of reach (Crockett-Smith). If it were in reach the “doors [would be] shut against [their] tightened faces” anyway (McKay).

Both of these poems share a common trend, which is, the White House represents inequality instead of what it is supposed to represent, equality for all Americans, including the Negro. The next couple of lines say, “The bankers clutch their squash rackets. The guards clutch their guns” (Crockett-Smith). The wealthy are going to play squash while being watched over by guards but who is watching over the poverty infested streets of the most powerful and richest country in the world? Not the White House. Not the place where the laws are made and decisions about the citizens of the USA. The poem ends with “O pioneers, who settle this new frontier,” this phrase represents how people intended to travel westward and grow up with the new land and be successful, but how can people be successful in a country that hates them (Crockett-Smith)? Only change from within can do so.

In Claude McKay’s poem “The White House” and D. L. Crockett-Smith’s poem “Homestead, USA” is the underlining fact that in America, a place where freedom and the pursuit of happiness are supposed to be abundant, but, there was a point in time when one had to be a certain color for it to apply to them. Only change from within could change the fact that America, the richest and most powerful was a place of inequality and injustices for the Negro race.


Works Cited

Crockett-Smith, D. L. “Homestead, USA”. The Oxford Anthology of African American

Poetry. Ed. Arnold Rampersad. New York: Oxford, 2006.

Keller, James R. “The Politics of Compromise in Claude McKay’s Protest Sonnets”. African

American Review, Fall, 1994. JSTOR. 13 March 2006.

McKay, Claude. “The White House”. The Academy of American Poets. Google.

USCUPSTATE. 13 March 2006. <http://www.poets.com>.

Smith, Felipe. On “The White City”. Modern American Poetry. JSTOR. USCUPSTATE.

16 March 2006. <http://www.english.uiuc.edu>.

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