The theme I chose for the anthology is African American poetry. I did not choose this topic to enhance my knowledge of other cultures or to deepen my understanding of other races or ethnicities. No, I cannot take credit for that. Rather, I chose this topic for the simple reason that it was different. I had gotten bored of reading poems by the same type of people in similar situations in life. So, I found poems written by poets from distinct backgrounds and a different different way of thinking and presenting ideas. For this reason I chose African American poetry.
And what a pleasant surprise. Although the poetry may not be as well written as many of the poems we have read in class, these poems have something that the others were lacking. These poems are emotionally powerful. The sheer emotion with which these poems were written jumps out at the reader, making the reading of the poems a very captivating experience.
What is also wonderful about these poems is that the poets who wrote them were not scared to face the problems of their day head on. They did not avoid their problems by writing about flowers and rainbows. The poems talk about slavery, murder, familial problems, etc. They also face the issues in an emotional manner instead of reserved philosophical style making the poems extremely more personal and engaging.
One can follow the path of the history of African Americans in America through these poems. Their passage from Africa to America is cleverly described in "Root Song", by Henry Dumas. Following this one can continue to trace their path to "The Slave Auction", by Frances E. W. Harper. The fears of the slaves are seen in such poems as "Bury Me In a Free Land" or "Tomorrow". We then see the rise of African American pride in "Still I Rise" and "Phenomenal Woman", both by Maya Angelou. After these the poems discuss more private family problems in "Picture of a Man". Some modern day racism also makes an impact in "The Test of Atlanta 1979-" and "Ballad of Birmingham". Finally, the last poem describes America and its future from an outsiders point of view in "American Journal", by Robert Hayden
This poem is Almost an odd one for me to start out with because it doesn't have that pure emotional content that many of the others have. However, it was so skillfully written that I had to include it in the anthology. In this poem Dumas brilliantly uses the tree to represent the African American transition from Africa to America. By showing the difference in the way a tree was treated in Africa than in America, Dumas is showing the reader a total difference in life, philosophically as well as physically.
Although, this poem treats the subject in a rather abstract way, Dumas still interjects a personal effect by making the poem a narrative by the tree. In this manner the reader is brought into the man-tree relationship by the constant use of the word "I". Due to this the reader also feels for the tree when the humans change their treatment of the tree.
It is also interesting to note the constant reference to humans as "flesh". This represents the superficial and materialistic people they have become. It is time for humans to return to the "spirits", the exact opposite of the outer "flesh". This represents the basic difference between the two countries and the path African Americans were forced to take.
The Slave Auction
In this poem, Harper does a wonderful job of portraying the agonies of the slave auction. He talks of the separation of mother and child and husband and wife. One sees the innocence of these people "whose sole crime was their hue, The impress of their Maker's hand". Harper then tries to put everything into terms we can understand, stating that
"Ye who have laid your love to rest,
And wept above their lifeless clay,
Know not the anguish of that heart,
Whose loved are rudely torn away."
Harper also does a fantastic job of setting a gloomy tone through his use of diction. He describes "anguish and distress", "screaming eyes", and "frail and shrieking children". How can one help but be affected by such horrifying descriptions.
Bury Me in a Free Land
This poem does an outstanding job of getting inside the mind of a slave. One can clearly feel the fear of a slave in this poem. The slave in this poem does not ask for a beautiful and grand grave, but rather simply wants to be out of the bounds of slavery. Slavery has had such a terrible impact on these poor slaves that even their spirits have been affected. Normally a spirit would rest in peace after death, but not in this situation. This spirit "could not rest" in "a land of slaves". This is the tremendous impact that slavery has had on these innocent souls.
Once again Harper masterly uses diction to portray slavery. He talks of "the mother's shriek of wild despair" and "drinking her blood at each fearful gash". These phrases would send quivers up anybody's spine.
This poem is obviously not of the highest quality, but the imagery used is so fabulous that I had to include this too in the anthology. Miller describes the slaves as "packed like spoons" on the boats. This is a perfect metaphor. One can see the slave lying down one beside the next with their knees somewhat bent, just as the bottom of the spoon rounds out. The slave goes on to say that he would rather return in that horrible boat than "to continue to live among knives and forks". It is plain to see how this characterizes the Americans "cutting into" their slaves.
Still I Rise
This poem symbolizes a change of mentality of the African American race. In this poem, for the first time, one sees a pride that hasn't been seen before. The poem explains that although everyone has tried to keep the Africans down, they still persevere and "rise". Angelou uses wonderful imagery for this when she writes, "You may trod me in the very dirt, But still, like dust, I'll rise".
Angelou also does a terrific job of pacing the poem. When one reads it, one can hear Angelou jumping out of the page at you with these words. It is almost like a sermon. One can hear the anger and also the confidence in her words. Finally, at the end Angelou declares:
"I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
One can actually feel themselves rising with these words.
Once again Angelou is writing of an inner confidence. But, this time it refers more specifically to women. She describes what it is to be a "Phenomenal Woman". It is something rather hard to comprehend as "Men themselves have wondered what they see in me." What it is, is simply an "inner mystery" that women possess.
"It's in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style."
Once again Angelou uses the perfect word choice and beat to make her words come alive.
Picture of a Man
This poem is very unclear, so one can get imaginative in its meaning. I believe this poem is full of imagery. The poem is about a baby living alone with his mother. This is the reason why he "draws a man". The tree then represents the stability that a father usually represents in a family. Then he asks "why in his story book the big boats have little boats"? This seems to be asking why do parents have children. Now, this is obviously an abnormal question for a child to ask. I believe he asks this because his mother physically abuses him. We begin seeing that something is wrong when he is so scared of the lights being turned off. Then we get an incite from the mother when she states "maybe I could have loved better but I couldn't have loved more." In other words, this could very possibly mean that she mistreated her son, though from purely good intentions. However, at the end she realizes that "This child is all I have left."
Ballad of Birmingham
This poem does a superb job of showing some modern day racism. Randall writes the first half of the poem in the form of a dialogue. This immediately gets the reader more involved in the story and more attached to the characters. Then Randall shows the reader how ugly the racism is by describing the innocence of the church. The Church is contrasted to the Freedom March through diction. Whereas the march will have "clubs and horses, guns and jail" at the church one may "sing in the children's choir." Now, one can truly understand that the racists have attacked the completely innocent instead of those who are rallying (not that that would have been right either, but this is worse). Then at the end, the reader is drawn right back into the poem with the mother's plea, "O, here's the shoe my baby wore, But, baby where are you?"
The Test of Atlanta 1979
I personally found this poem to be the most powerful in the anthology. This poem also describes modern day racism, but in a totally different manner as "Ballad of Birmingham" did. Whereas "The Ballad of Birmingham" was more of a story of two people involved in the incident, this poem actively questions the morals of every person. At first the questions don't really personally affect us, "What kind of a person would kill a black child?" But by the end the questions become more personal:
"What kind of a person are you?
What kind of a person am I?
What makes you so sure?
What kind of a person could save a Black child?
What kind of a people will lay down its
life for the lives of our children?
What kind of a people are we?"
The American Journal
In this poem, Hayden uses the first person of an alien studying Earth in order to give the reader an outsiders view of America. He describes the Americans, as people who really don't understand their own identity, yet have a tremendous pride. Once again America is attacked for its superficiality and lack of spirituality, as we had seen before when comparing America to Africa. The Americans brag of freedom, yet the ghettos persist. What is so special about America is its diversity. In the end he concludes that although the Americans are a violent people, the alien is attracted to their diversity, ingenuity and something he can't describe, the essence of America.