In this poem “Exhortation: Summer 1919” McKay draws on the Red Summer when Americans attacked, killed, lynched, and raped African Americans.African Americans fought back in self-defense, the kind that McKay is calling upon in this particular poem:
Exhortation: Summer 1919
Through the pregnant universe rumbles life’s
And Earth’s bowels quake with terror; strange
and terrible storms break,
Lightning-torches flame the heavens, kindling
souls of me, there under:
Africa! Long ages sleeping, O my motherland,
In the East the clouds glow crimson with the new
dawn that is breaking,
And its golden glory fills the western skies.
O my brothers and my sisters, wake! Arise!
For the new birth rends the old earth and the
very dead are waking,
Ghosts are turned flesh, throwing off the grave’s
And the foolish, even children, are made wise;
For the big earth groans in travail for the strong,
new world in making─
O my brothers, dreaming for dim centuries,
Wake from sleeping; to the East turn, turn
McKay personifies earth, which in the very beginning of the poem, finds herself in the painful process of labor as she rumbles and quakes. The speaker calls for his motherland, Africa, to awake. He cries out for his brothers and his sisters to awake and rise as a revolution. The “new birth rends the old earth and the very dead are waking.” This new birth is one of revolution where consciousness meets militant resistance. This rebirth encompasses the old and the young, “even children, are made wise.” McKay’s extended metaphor makes his purpose prominent, “For the big earth groans in travail for the strong, new world in making.” She groans through this painful and laborious effort in creating the new world. This new world will not be possible if women and men both old and young refuse to become a collective and act radically against the violent oppression.
America and Africa are called to awaken in these pivotal moments. All three must lift their “heavy-lidded eyes” to become fully aware and alert in building this new world. McKay is alluding to the Black struggle that extends beyond domestic borders. The Black diaspora emerged from the trans-national slave trade and so we need a to use a trans-national frame of reference to understand the exploitation of black people. McKay knows that change does not come without its price of bloodshed and sacrifice. The “clouds [that] glow crimson with the new dawn” speak to the violence that accompanies change and revolution. McKay is speaking to his brethren and this, among many other reasons, is why his work should not be limited within the institutional frame of ivy halls and the sole purpose of literary scholarship. Rather, his poetry should move and stir the soul of people and generations who understand his exhortation and continue to fight and resist. This poem creates an opportunity of reflection and deep thought.
How would you read and interpret this poem during the current epidemic of police brutality against people of color in America?