How does the speaker in Claude McKay's "Harlem Shadows" represent the conflict between the environment and the working girls?

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McKay's 1922 poem "Harlem Shadows" uses images of night and darkness to describe New York City's Harlem neighborhood. He depicts the nights as "long" and "lone." He also describes night as a "veil" that obscures what is going on. The night's darkness contrasts with the dawn's "silver break," when the prostitutes can go home. It is cold as well at night—it is a place where it can snow relentlessly and the girls must still work.

Against this harsh background, the prostitutes are described using imagery that emphasizes their vulnerability and fragility. They are "little dark girls" who hurry through the streets in "slippered feet." Their feet are tired, and the repetition of the word "feet" shows that they are always in motion, always looking for the next client. Yet the girls are "timid" and their feet are "weary, weary."

McKay's imagery turns the streetwalkers from hardened prostitutes to frightened and shy figures who are barely more than children, forced to work to survive in a harsh environment. This builds our sympathy for these women, who seem more sinned against than sinning. They seem too fragile for the environment into which they have been thrust.

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These women who "bend and barter at desire's call"—who labor as sex workers at night in order to support themselves—are characterized as innocents by much of the poem's visual imagery. They are "little dark girls who [have] slippered feet." Later, the speaker refers to their "little gray feet" and calls them "dusky, half-clad girls" who trudge the streets for hours upon hours. He describes the women's "timid little feet of clay" which are "sacred" to him. These women are not belittled or demeaned; the speaker does not criticize them or judge them for the actions. He does not reduce them to their sexual organs or erogenous zones. Rather, he seems to raise them up as innocents of whom the world has taken advantage, describing their youth and the smallness of their feet over and over again. He inspires sympathy for them, these "thinly shod" victims of "poverty, dishonor, and disgrace," rather than admonishing them for being immoral (as many others might do). The environment is uncaring and the words "street to street" repeated in the final line of each stanza, emphasizing the size and scale of Harlem versus the smallness of these individual women and their plight.

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This powerful poem describing the prostitutes of Harlem who are forced to work during night in order to make ends meet describes the girls as innocent figures caught up in a messy world that reduces them to selling their bodies for sex. Note how these girls are described in the second stanza and in particular how such imagery clearly depicts them as being innocent figures:

Through the long night until the silver break

Of day the little gray feet know no rest,

Through the lone night until the last snow-flake

Has dropped from heaven upon the earth's white breast,

The dusky, half-clad girls of tired feet

Are trudging, thinly shod, from street to street.

Imagery such as the "half-clad girls of tired feet" with their "thinly shod" feet and the "little gray feet" that "know no rest" clearly place the girls at odds with their environment. Such delicate figures, the imagery seems to suggest, should not be "trudging" the streets of Harlem at night trying to raise money by selling their bodies. Such innocence should be kept safe and not exposed to the dangers of the endless streets of Harlem at night.

Note how this impression of innocence is confirmed and developed in the final stanza, which makes reference to "the little feet of clay" and the "sacred brown feet" of the girls. These examples of imagery both promote the fragility of the girls and their state of innocence. This causes immense sadness on the part of the speaker, who ends the poem deploring a world which forces such girls to engage in such activity. 

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