With pure heart, passion, and honesty, Claude McKay offers an acute reflection on the complex nature of racial identity in the Caribbean diaspora, encompassing issues such as nationalism, freedom of expression, class, gender, and sex. The collection’s eponymous poem, “Harlem Shadows,” portrays the struggle of sex workers in 1920s Harlem. In “If We Must Die,” McKay calls for justice and retribution for Black people in the face of racist abuse.
Juxtaposing the cruel noise of New York City with the serene beauties of Jamaica, McKay urges us to reckon with the oppression that plagues a “long-suffering race,” which he argues has no home in a white man’s world. Poems of Blackness, queerness, desire, performance, and love are infused with a radical message of resistance in this sonorous cry for universal human rights. Simultaneously a love letter to the spirit of New York City and a list of grievances with its harsh cruelty, Harlem Shadows is a stunning collection that remains all too relevant one hundred years after its original publication.