Claude McKay’s “Enslaved” discusses exactly what the title suggests, slavery. In this poem, McKay utilizes repetition of various hard and soft consonant sounds to contribute to the general theme of oppressive white power over the despondent blacks. One of the most noticeable patterns in the poem is the constant hissing sound produced by the “s” in various words in each line. This hissing sound generates the image of a snake in the reader’s mind.
Oh when I think of my long-suffering race
In this line, the poet uses the words “suffering” and “race” in their connotative meaning to emphasize the importance of this opening line. These two words now assume different qualities, those of a slithering snake.
For weary centuries despised, oppressed,
The poet is taking the reader on a journey; the snake is the tour guide. In this line the repetition of the hissing sound is heard in the words “centuries”, “despised”, and “oppressed”. However, the poet also introduces contrast between soft sounds and hard sounds. The “d” sound in contrast with the “s” sound represents the contrast between the white oppressors and the enslaved blacks.
Enslaved and lynched, denied a human place
The contrast between hard and soft (blacks and whites) continues. The reader realizes the importance of the continuous hissing as it is repeated in the word “Enslaved”, the title of the poem.
In the great life line of the Christian West;
The poet introduces religion in this line. In keeping with the contrast he has established, the poet uses one word to demonstrate it in this line. “Christian” contains both the hard and the soft sound, representing the contrast between prayer that black slaves constantly employed, and the slithering snake, symbolic of the devil, which is commonly associated with white oppressors.
And in the Black Land disinherited,
In this line, McKay employs the hissing sound in the word “disinherited”. Interestingly enough, the hissing sound is employed in the part of the word that negates it. The implications of an inherited land would be that slavery did not exist.
Robbed in the ancient country of its birth,
Here, the poet introduces the liquid sound “r” in the words “robbed”, “country”, and “birth”. Along with the fricative, “s”, it symbolizes the continuity and longevity of the period of slavery. The ever-present hissing sound heard in the word “its” is a reminder if the serpentine beast that stole blacks from their home.
My heart grows sick with hate, becomes as lead,
This line directly addresses the poet’s contempt for all that blacks, as a race, endured throughout slavery. The poet’s contempt for the white oppressors prevails as the hissing “s” continues in the words “grows”, “as”, “sick”, and “becomes”. It is in stark contrast to the hard sound “k” in the latter two words. This contrast continues to represent the difference between the white oppressor and the enslaved black.
For this my race has no home on earth.
The slithering tour guide moves along on the journey, making blacks homeless. In this line, McKay refers to the non-placement of blacks in a white man’s world. It is also possible that he is alluding to his Jamaican heritage, indicating that black non-Americans don’t have a home in Africa, or America.
Then from the dark depths of my soul I cry
In this line, the hissing “s” in the word “depths” symbolizes the level of pain that the enslaved people felt. The poet also introduces another repeated sound in the words “I” and “cry”. This repetition is symbolic of the repeated abuse and torture that the slaves endured.