On the surface, Claude McKay’s sonnet, The Harlem Dancer describes an African American woman dancing at a bar. If you dig a little deeper you will find that the poem is describing class and division between blacks and whites. This poem was written in 1917 when Harlem was booming with jazz and black culture. The reader describes young white teenagers watching her, as well as prostitutes.
The wine-flushed, bold-eyed boys, and even the girls,
Devoured her shape with eager, passionate gaze;
The quote shows how drunken teenagers are gawking at this beautiful woman, just because they can. For a young white man during this time to be observing a black woman dance, it almost seems as if he is exerting his power over her by saying that he has the right to watch her dance. McKay also states,
Luxuriant fell; and tossing coins in praise,
That quote shows that the audience was throwing coins at her, which can be seen as degrading.
McKay also describes prostitutes watching her dance. This implies that prostitutes are above the dancer. Prostitution, which was very much looked down upon, was better than being a black woman. Another expression of power in the sonnet is the last two lines.
But looking at her falsely-smiling face,
I knew her self was not in that strange place.
This quote shows that although teenagers and prostitutes are gazing at her, she is still unobtainable. In this aspect, the Harlem dancer holds all of the power. It also seems as if the dancer is detached, mentally, from her current situation. The description of her “falsely-smiling face” could imply that she is not familiar with Harlem and her surroundings. McKay is originally from Jamaica and his dancer that he writes about could be, too. If the dancer if unfamiliar with her surroundings, she could not be familiar with how class and social status was defined in the United States during that time.