Rhetorical Analysis of Claude McKay's 'Africa'

"Africa’s Loss of Grace" by Heather L. Glover

Claude McKay (1889-1949)

 Public Domain

In this critical essay, student Heather Glover offers a concise rhetorical analysis of the sonnet "Africa" by Jamaican American writer Claude McKay. McKay's 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.

Africa’s Loss of Grace

by Heather L. Glover

1 The sun sought thy dim bed and brought forth light,
2 The sciences were sucklings at thy breast;
3 When all the world was young in pregnant night
4 Thy slaves toiled at thy monumental best.
5 Thou ancient treasure-land, thou modern prize,
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 Pharaoh's 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 practically 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 “sciences,” actions that foreshadow another brightening of the world to come in the Enlightenment. Lines 3 and 4 also evoke a maternal image with the word pregnant, but return to an indirect expression of the African and African-American experience: “When all the world was young in pregnant night / Thy slaves toiled at thy monumental best.” A subtle nod to the difference between African servitude and American slavery, the lines complete an encomium of Africa’s success before the advent of “new peoples” (6).

While McKay’s next quatrain does not take the drastic turn reserved for the final couplet in Shakespearean sonnets, it clearly indicates a shift in the poem. The lines transform Africa from the enterprise’s champion to its object, thereby placing the Mother of Civilization into an antithetically lower position. Opening with an isocolon that stresses Africa’s changing position--“Thou ancient treasure-land, thou modern prize”--the quatrain continues to demote Africa, placing agency in the hands of “new peoples” who “marvel at thy pyramids” (5-6). As the cliched expression of rolling time suggests the permanency of Africa’s new condition, the quatrain concludes, “thy sphinx of riddle eyes / Watches the mad world with immobile lids” (7-8).

The sphinx, a mythical creature often used in caricatures of Egyptian Africa, kills anyone who fails to answer its difficult riddles. The image of a physically and intellectually challenging monster risks undermining the gradual degradation of Africa that is the poem’s theme. But, if unpacked, McKay’s words reveal his sphinx’s lack of power. In a demonstration of anthimeria, the word riddle acts not as a noun or verb, but as an adjective that invokes the sense of perplexity usually associated with riddles or to riddle. The sphinx, then, does not invent a riddle; a riddle makes a confused sphinx. The “immobile lids” of the dazed sphinx frame eyes that do not detect the mission of the “new people"; the eyes do not move back and forth to keep the strangers in constant sight. Blinded by the activity of the “mad world,” a world both busy and crazed with expansion, the sphinx, Africa’s representative, fails to see its imminent destruction.

The third quatrain, like the first, begins by retelling a moment of Biblical history: “The Hebrews humbled them at Pharaoh’s name” (9). These “humbled people” differ from the slaves mentioned inline 4, proud slaves that “toiled at thy monumental best” to construct an African heritage. Africa, now without the spirit of her youth, succumbs to a lowly existence. After a tricolonic list of attributes linked with conjunctions to convey the magnitude of her former excellence--“Cradle of Power! […] / Honor and Glory, Arrogance and Fame!”--Africa is undone with one short, plain phrase: “They went” (10-12). Lacking the elaborate style and obvious devices contained throughout the poem, “They went” powerfully understates Africa’s demise. Following the pronouncement is another declaration--“The darkness swallowed thee again”--that connotes discrimination of Africans based upon their skin color and the failure of their “dark” souls to reflect the light offered by the Christian God inline 1.

In a final blow to Africa’s once shining image, the couplet offers a scathing description of her present state: “Thou art a harlot, now thy time is done, / Of all the mighty nations of the sun” (13-14). Africa thus seems to fall on the wrong side of the virgin mother/tainted whore dichotomy, and the personification formerly used to sing her praises now condemns her. Her reputation, however, is saved by the couplet’s inverted syntax. If the lines read “Of all the mighty nations of the sun, / Thou art the harlot, now thy time is done,” Africa would be rendered a wayward woman worthy of scorn because of her licentiousness. Instead, the lines state, “Thou art the harlot, […] / Of all the mighty nations of the sun.” The couplet suggests that Europe and America, nations enjoying the Son and the “sun” because they are predominantly Christian and scientifically advanced, pimped Africa in their quests to own her. In a clever positioning of words, then, McKay’s Africa does not fall from grace; grace is snatched from Africa.


McKay, Claude. "Africa.” Harlem Shadows: The Poems of Claude McKay. Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922. 35.

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Nordquist, Richard. "Rhetorical Analysis of Claude McKay's 'Africa'." ThoughtCo, Oct. 29, 2020, thoughtco.com/rhetorical-analysis-of-claude-mckays-africa-1690709. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, October 29). Rhetorical Analysis of Claude McKay's 'Africa'. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/rhetorical-analysis-of-claude-mckays-africa-1690709 Nordquist, Richard. "Rhetorical Analysis of Claude McKay's 'Africa'." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/rhetorical-analysis-of-claude-mckays-africa-1690709 (accessed March 28, 2023).