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The poet Federico García Lorca, when he was studying at Colombia University visited Harlem with a friend of his, Nella Larsen, a black novelist. It made a tremendous impression upon him and its influence is visible in some of the poems he wrote about New York. He could not understand the overt prejudice displayed by New Yorkers. One of the poems he wrote there is, ‘The King of Harlem’. In the English translation in The Selected Poems of Federico García Lorca, the first stanza goes:

With a spoon
He scooped out the eyes of crocodiles
and spanked the monkeys on their bottoms
With a spoon

And a later stanza goes:

That night the King of Harlem with a very hard spoon
scooped out the eyes of crocodiles
And spanked the monkeys on their bottoms.
With a spoon.
The negroes cried abased
among umbrellas and golden suns,
the mulattoes were stretching gum, anxious to reach the white torso,
and the wind blurred mirrors
and burst open the veins of the dancers.

What does Lorca mean by the image of ‘crocodiles’ here?

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The poem as a whole contrasts the experience of people of colour in their ancestral land with their experience of New York. The symbolic protagonist is a true "king" in his own land. But while he may also be "king" in Harlem, it is a far less noble office, one that is forced to play second fiddle to the of the white population.

In African myth, the crocodile serves two roles. In some legends, such as those of Nigeria, it is associated with kingship. More commonly though, due to its man-eating tendencies, it is a monster, a symbol of evil.

A spoon, meanwhile, is a pretty ineffectual tool for taking on a crocodile.

By conquering the crocodile with a mere spoon, the protagonist is thus displaying his strength and prowess. He has mastered the symbol of kingship and of evil, demonstrating his own right to kingship and his ability to protect his subjects. While he retains his prowess in Harlem, it is far less vital since his subjects are "abased" and struggling to be taken seriously compared to whites.

It is worth mentioning that the poet was Hispanic, not black. So while he attempts to tackle racism in the poem his vision of the black experience is, itself, racist, playing heavily to the "noble savage" stereotype.

References:
- Lynch, P.A. and Roberts, J. (2010). African Mythology, A to Z
- St John, David (2014). In Reality Meager: Eluding Death Anxiety In Walt Whitman And Federico García Lorca’s Poetics of the Body. The University of Tennessee.

  • I'd disagree that Lorca is being racist by playing towards the notion of the noble savage - if that is what he is doing. Are you saying that merely that a white spaniard cannot speak for black others when they are voiceless? – Mozibur Ullah Nov 14 '18 at 12:47
  • What Lorca is noticing is that the King of Harlem who would be King in in his native nation has been reduced to a kind of idiocy in a brutal, racist and savage city. Lorca could not believe how a people could be 'cruel' enough to divide people from each other by the colour of their skin when 'colour was the sign of Gods artistic genius.' – Mozibur Ullah Nov 14 '18 at 13:04

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