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A Rhetorical Analysis of Claude McKay's "Africa"

In this critical essay, student Heather Glover offers a concise rhetorical analysis of the sonnet Africa by Jamaican-American writer Claude McKay. McKays poem originally appeared in the collection Harlem Shadows (1922). Heather Glover composed her essay in April 2005 for a course in rhetoric at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, Georgia.

For definitions and additional examples of the rhetorical terms mentioned in this essay, follow the links to our Glossary of Grammatical & Rhetorical Terms.

by Heather L. Glover

1 The sun sought thy dim bed and brought forth light,

2 The sciences were sucklings at thy breast;

4 Thy slaves toiled at thy monumental best.

6 New peoples marvel at thy pyramids!

7 The years roll on, thy sphinx of riddle eyes

8 Watches the mad world with immobile lids.

9 The Hebrews humbled them at Pharaohs name.

10 Cradle of Power! Yet all things were in vain!

11 Honor and Glory, Arrogance and Fame!

12 They went. The darkness swallowed thee again.

13 Thou art the harlot, now thy time is done,

14 Of all the mighty nations of the sun.

Keeping with Shakespearean literary tradition, Claude McKay’s “Africa” is an English sonnet relating the short but tragic life of a fallen heroine. The poem opens with a lengthy sentence of paratactically arranged clauses, the first of which states, “The sun sought thy dim bed and brought forth light” (line 1).

Referencing scientific and historical discourses on humanity’s African origins, the line alludes to Genesis, in which God brings forth light with one command. The adjective dim demonstrates Africa’s unlighted knowledge prior to God’s intervention and also connotes the dark complexions of Africa’s descendants, unspoken figures whose plight is a recurrent subject in McKay’s work.

The next line, “The sciences were sucklings at thy breasts,” establishes the poem’s female personification of Africa and lends further support to the cradle of civilization metaphor introduced in the first line. Mother Africa, a nurturer, raises and encourages the

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