During the Harlem Renaissance, the black body was considered exotic and the 'flavor' of the week. Society had an obsession towards black women, in general, blackness. However, the white race wanted to listen to their music, mingle with the women, and enjoy the other finer luxuries that the black society could afford. Even the art was captured by this idea of the exotic and contentment in being 'black.' The masquerade began as members of the white race tried to pass as black and during that experience gain some satisfaction from their own lost and confused existence. Claude McKay was unique in style and tone, yet still followed the other artists by topic. The exotic in Claude McKay's 'Harlem Shadows' is apparent.
McKay is developing the exotic throughout the text and saying that black exoticism is the only way that Africans can survive in America. McKay wants the African American to embrace their bodies, but there is an element of pity to the work. He feels that embracing the exotic in your own body is the way that the black person can become African American. Ignoring the culture fails to guide black Americans to discovering his or her identity. As a Harlem Renaissance writer, Claude McKay tried to guide African Americans to accept the African culture along with the exotic characteristics involved in it. In 'Harlem Shadows', McKay tries to express how a black woman survives everyday life in America.
He writes, 'I see the shapes of girls who pass/ to bend and barter at desires call.' McKay identifies with the black desires that these women can not avoid. It is in their nature to turn and exchange their bodies. However, the most important reference McKay makes is the use of the word barter. The dictionary meaning of bartering is to exchange services without the exchange of money. These girls are not receiving money for each desire they fulfill. For the girls to continue satisfying desires without receiving anything in return, McKay implies they are enjoying the act.
Also, that these woman need to complete these desires to survive. Another prominent aspect of the line is that McKay uses the term girls instead of women. Thus proving that even from an immature age, black females are not able to suppress their exotic nature and desires. Therefore, McKay is encouraging women to embrace their own African roots, natural sexual desires included.
Another notion to consider is that society is going to overlook that these acts of fulfillment are even occurring. Society expects this behavior from the black culture. This is made perceptible when McKay says, 'In Negro Harlem when the night lets fall/ Its veil.' The veil goes back to the idea that eyes are covered. Therefore, society's eyes are covered at night when all of the exotic behavior arises. This shows an unsympathetic side towards society and the role of the black woman. McKay further displays this towards the end of the poem by saying, 'Ah, stern harsh world.' He is reiterating the point that people will look the other way towards the natural behavior of the black woman and black in general.
Claude McKay restates the insensitive world making sure that the reader understands his feelings because he wants people to recognize the treatment that the black race receives. Claude McKay adds another aspect by saying after the long night the girls have lost their innocence. He shows this by stating, 'Through the lone night until the last snow-flake / has dropped from heaven upon earth's white breast.' The statement just explains that the girl's purpose has already taken place. They are tainted and can not return to their previous state. Their innocence has been given up to satisfy and meet all their desires. He also states, 'Are trudging, thinly shod, from street to street.' This points out that these girls are worn.
They are sparingly protected. McKay can be implying the thin aspect of many parts of the girls. The girls are physically worn and in that respect are thin. Also, McKay could be making reference to the lack of clothing that the girls are wearing. The unique aspect to Claude McKay's 'Harlem Shadows', is the tone that he uses throughout the poem, but mostly in the end. McKay possesses sympathy and some pity towards the African in general.
This can mean that society is to be blamed for encouraging the girls. However, when it says, '... that in the wretched way/ of poverty, dishonor, and disgrace.' McKay is touching on the shameful behavior that the girls partake in during the night. It should bring each girl humiliation.
These girls are selling out on their culture by indulging in their natural exotic needs with any man race was not specified. While, these girls should be keeping the culture within the Africans, the girls are allowing the culture to be spread among the white race. In this respect, the girls are becoming truly African American. McKay is implying that only the African race should enjoy these exotic black women.
The white race should be limited from this pleasure. In 'Harlem Shadows,' McKay does not offer an extension into the minds of the girls. All that is known is the girl's enjoyment and need to participate in sexual exotic behavior. 'Harlem Shadows' further adds to the objectification of the black woman's body during the time. Also, it provides a look into what the black woman is good for.
Once her innocence is gone, she is tainted and completed. Her sexual nature, the girl's purpose, is the way that society wants each girl to identify herself. By not giving the girls a voice, McKay just subtracts from the girls believed value in society. Another layer that the poem addresses is the status quo. If all of these men are participating in exotic acts with the girls, McKay questioned what made them different from the black race. During the time, the white race was apparently superior, yet was altering appearances to become their inferior.
McKay pleads, 'Ah, heart of me, the weary, weary, feet.' McKay identifies himself with the girls trapped in fulfilling their desires. His usage of the word weary can explain the girl's physical exhaustion and can also begin to explain the mental. McKay is jaded by the constant alterations that occur in Harlem when it becomes dark. During the day, the white race will order the men and women to complete everyday chores. The black race undergoes prejudice whenever the sun rises.
However, once night falls, the white race is along side the black race instead of dominating above. The white race is no longer an element of work, but instead a companion participating in the same dances, listening to the same jazz, and being with the same women. The line, 'Ah, heart of me, the weary, weary feet' is extremely important. When McKay admits to being connected to the girls he earns credibility. Also, he is showing the girls just how to accept the African culture. It is at the point that he makes the poem his own.
McKay is saying, 'Follow my example.' That is how the girls can save the culture and realize their identity. He wants the girls to find a better way to exhibit their sexual tendencies and embrace the culture. The girls nightly behavior is shameful and not the way to living the culture. Throughout 'Harlem Shadows,' McKay is telling the young girls to express their natural sexuality, but to find a different way. The behavior that they are displaying is more disgraceful and should not be considered Black culture.
McKay shows how the girls have lost their innocence and spread the black culture to the white race, yet McKay implies that their idea of the culture is tainted as the girls themselves are. Claude McKay makes reference to his example being the girl's saving grace to the true black culture and each girl's true identity. However, in his message McKay has to make the girls exotic ized and objectified before he can explain the way to change and the ultimate survival. By objectifying the girl's McKay attaches his poem along with the rest of the writers at the time. He is writing the same topic of exoticism, black culture, and resuscitation from a lost and confused existence.