Questions 19 and 20: We The People

The nine poems in the packet are all written by African Americans but they also have more in common than just that. There is an underlying tone of pride through survival in all these poems. Not only have they suffered, but also because they have survived, they then have history to write about. In Langston Hughes’s poem “I’ve Known Rivers,” he talks about where Africans have gone and how they have spread their culture through rivers that run forever. Tom Oristaglio said that this poem gives the reader a sense of time and history, and Andrew Beck said it’s because water can’t be separated, like the African race, one continuous flow. “Like a Strong Tree” by Claude McKay also gives the reader a sense of history because he writes, “Like a strong tree that in the virgin earth / Sends far its roots through rock and loam and clay.” Just as Hughes uses water, McKay uses roots.

There are differences in their tones also as time passes. The earlier poems displayed the tone of a victim who has survived, while the later poems show that time has passed, we have survived, and we can go on. In “Southern Mansion” by Arna Bontemps, there is a sense of emptiness but a feeling that something still exists. The description of the mansion, perhaps a plantation house, shows what once was. It proves the survival of the race, even through slavery, and that now it’s just time to move on, while not forgetting the past.

Imagery is another element of all these poems that makes the poems especially powerful. The first poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar, “Sympathy” says, “Till its blood is red on the cruel bars.” Just with that, the reader is able to paint a picture of a bird, locked in a cage, trying desperately to get out. This also stands for oppression of the African race, and their suppression from living. Any color words, action words, or emotion words are imagery. “Deep in my wrathful bosom sore and raw” a line from “White Houses” by McKay portrays pain as does the Dunbar line, by using words such as “deep,” “sore,” and “raw.” But as time passes, the pain somewhat subsides and emerges, “And slice her apples, and find her four. / Continuing her part / Of the world’s business.” Gwendolyn Brooks shows everyday life instead of just suffering from the past. As Beck also said that the coffee stain is a symbol of tarnished white American, but I believe it is also proof that life can still go on with imperfections.

Imagery changes to more abstract forms through time as Ishmael Reed writes, “you are into this poem from / the waist down / nobody can hear you can they?” There is the same sense of power and emptiness as in “Southern Mansion” but the nouns used are not so concrete. This plays on emotions through images of being lost and confused, while Bontemps plays with emotions through “ghosts,” “echoing music,” and “chains.” In Alice Walker’s “Good Night, Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning,” imagery is no longer through a lot of action, but through emotions, such as “forgiveness.” The five senses are not stimulated directly, but first through memories, and then these memories might provoke other memories of sound, touch, and smell. Tone and imagery cannot be separated, because the tone of a poem comes through by the imagery used. The tone represented by the theme of a shameful attitude, in “We Wear the Mask” by Dunbar comes through with lines of imagery such as “With torn and bleeding hearts we smile.” Ryan Ignatious said there’s a denial of their own culture and a wanting of being white, shown in lines such as “We wear the mask that grins and lies, / It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes.” This conveys a tone of shame because of the need to hide, by using the obvious image of a mask and the different shades of eyes seeing different shades of colors in people.