Equality: From Dreaming to Demanding

“Harlem Subway Mosaic [part five]” by Troy Tolley (Creative Commons)
By Johann Smith

As conscious beings we observe our surroundings, reminisce about the past, and anticipate the future. Culture is our form of expression that encompasses everything from language to the arts. The art that emanates from our souls is deep and far reaching. It is used to inspire and to tell a story of who we are. Art can also be used as weapon: malleable, formless, and penetrating in its nature. Freedom in the so called “Land of the free” turned out to be a farce and bold faced lie. The United States has been trying to convince itself since the landing at Jamestown and Plymouth Rock that this country is a safe haven of equality where you are not judged by your history but on your merit. Robbed of their freedom, put in chains, and held down socially at the hands of the subhuman schizophrenic giant that is the United States, men and women of African descent turned to the arts. Those who were enslaved while working in the cotton fields sung songs of freedom. They brought their culture across the Atlantic and told folklore stories in cabins at night. They went from dreaming of equality to demanding it. The following poets fought oppression through their powerful words.

All of the poets I have chosen come out of the Harlem Renaissance. Their poems contain a passion that is tangible. Their words reach deep within your heart and mind leaving the reader no choice but to think deeply. A message of hope and freedom arises from the oppression suffered by blacks in this country for centuries. All of the works I have chosen are lyric poems and all use a rhyming scheme. The demand for equality and the hope of a brighter future are expressed in “Dream Variations,” “I, Too,” “Let America be America Again,” all by Langston Hughes as well as in “America” by Claude McKay.  In “Song of the Son” by Jean Toomer, a story of hardship and resilience is told about a people who have endured hell and whose past shall never die. Different techniques such as caesura, metaphors, and conflict are all used to capture the reader and highlight the experiences of a silenced people. What is incredible is how these poems are relatable to any people who are being oppressed; they do something special and transcends “race.”

Langston Hughes’ “Let America be America Again” strikes forcefully yet eloquently at the ideals America was supposedly founded on. Of all the poems, this one goes into the most detailed history of America’s past and how it has spectacularly failed itself. “Let America be America Again” relates to all the other poems in its shout for equality, justice, shining a light on the past, revealing the crimes committed against humanity, and the poet’s optimism for a brighter future. There are 17 stanzas in this Hughes poem with three of the stanzas being single lines. These single line stanzas are a running commentary that makes it not just personal for the poet but for all the disenfranchised Americans who can relate. There are some stanzas that contain 12 lines, 8 lines, and the repetition of words which almost reads like a song at times. The first six stanzas set the tone to remind the reader of what America was supposed to be. The speaker is almost asking you “do you remember?” At the sixth stanza, a mirror is held up and thrust into the face of America demanding for this country to take a look at itself. From the sixth stanza on, as if gaining momentum, Hughes does not let up until the very end, his words prying open America’s eyes and holding her head still so that she cannot look away.

In the opening six stanzas the poem takes you to the very core of what America is supposed to be. The word “dream” in the beginning takes the reader back to when America was in its infancy, still in the minds of those who dared to dream for a brighter future. It is no coincidence that pioneers are mentioned in the first stanza. These were the first outsiders to come to the shores of America with a dream “Seeking a home where he himself is free.” Hughes follows this up in the third stanza by explaining that people initially fled their homelands because “kings connive,” “kings scheme,” and the fact that any man could “be crushed by one above.” The beginning is laid out in a unique Shakespearean sonnet with the speaker voicing his frustrations at the fact that he has been let down. The single line stanzas can be seen as an inner monologue sharing the unfortunate personal experiences that have been endured. The speaker finally reveals these voices with a fire that transcends all racial lines. He states, “I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart, I am the Negro bearing slavery scars, I am the Red man driven from the land, I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek-.” It is brilliant how Hughes does not divide, but unites which is what makes this poem so special. The caesura in this stanza gives you time to let everything sink in. These Americans are united by the fact that they are “finding only the same old stupid plan, Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.” This is both informative and a call to come together because of the shared injustices they all experience.

Now that he has revealed himself, in the next stanza he states that the oppressed are “Tangled in that ancient endless chain Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!” Exploitation is the tool used in this endless chain “Of work the men! Of take the pay!” The perpetrators are those so-called Americans who decide on “owning everything for one’s own greed” while keeping others down. These are the same people who draw the “veil across the stars” and is the evil mysterious figure “who mumbles in the dark” in the seventh stanza. In stanzas ten and eleven there is much use of the phrase “I am.” The “I am” stands for “the young men,” “the farmer,” “the worker,” “the Negro,” and “the people” all who are “Hungry yet today despite the dream.” This again brilliantly connects all those who have been cheated out of what America was supposed to be. All this drudgery and only hunger and poverty to show for it. This is the tiger’s tooth that sinks into the throat in Claude Mckay’s poem “America.” History is intertwined with imagery when the speaker again defines himself as those who came to America with a dream “the one who left dark Ireland’s shore, And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea, And torn from black Africa’s strand I came To build a ‘homeland of the free.'” The reason why the descendants of Africa are mentioned last is to show that we are all one in the same. It illustrates that all these people who came to this country are immigrants and all were promised basic human rights.

In the last single line stanza the speaker questions the concept of being free. He questions the so called ideals America defines itself with. Again speaking for the voiceless, he asks, “Who said free? Not me?” indicating that he is disconnected from this freedom America promised to its people. The couplet at the end of this stanza keeps the reader in suspense, and then drops the fact that the oppressed have nothing to show for their hard work and optimism but a “dream that’s almost dead today.” Hughes starts off with an epic cry and passionate shout using “O” to capture the reader then demanding “America to be America again.” A caesura is used, there is a pause, and Hughes makes the bold but accurate statement “The land that never has been yet,” signaling America has never lived up to its ideals. In the next line, he says “And yet it must be.” Just like the speaker in “America,” they refuse to believe this idea of freedom and opportunity does not exist in America for them. A new message starts to take shape in the fourteenth stanza when it sounds as if the speaker is gathering an army to take back the country, stating that “The land that’s mine-the poor man’s, Indians, Negro’s, ME.” The ones who are oppressing the majority demanding their freedom by means of manipulation are described as “those who live like leeches on the people’s lives.” The last four stanzas bring together everything that has been said before with a call of action to take back their freedom. In the statements “I say it plain, America never was America to me” and “And yet I swear to this oath-America will be!” shows a mixture of reality and hope. The same hope we see in “Dream Variations” by Langston Hughes. In the last stanza, the septet concludes that through “rack and ruin out of gangster death,” “rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies” the people must rise to take back this great nation!

Both “America” by Claude McKay and “I, Too” by Langston Hughes speak of the want and hope of inclusion. They both relay the pain of being rejected with the speaker in “America” using graphic metaphors to describe the treatment he faces at the hands of America. Detailing how “she feeds me bread of bitterness, And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth, Stealing my breath of life I must confess.” “America” is a Shakespearean sonnet made up of two main stanzas. The first stanza shows the love-hate relationship the speaker has with this country. Even though she (America is personified as a woman) steals his breath of life, he still loves “this cultured hell that tests my youth!” It is almost paradoxical how he uses “her vigor that flows like tides into my blood” giving him “strength erect against her hate.” It shows the speaker’s resilience, craftiness, and intelligence in the way he can take negative energy and turn it positive. Besides the awful treatment by America towards in citizens, the speaker believes the country has so much to offer. “I, Too” uses a range of metaphors and acts as a time machine turning back the clock to a time of slavery. The speaker identifies himself as “the dark brother” or a black man. We know this refers to the times of slavery when he says “They send me to eat in the kitchen When company comes.” Slaves who worked in their masters’ homes cooked, cleaned, and set the table but were never present when the food was being eaten let alone at the dinner table. “They” not only refer to the slave masters in the past but those currently at the top who manipulate the system and the people of America. Just like the vigor that flows in the blood of the speaker in Claude Mckay’s “America,” this “darker brother” laughs, and eats well, and grows strong. Despite the ill-treatment he suffers, he still turns this negative energy into a positive. The next stanza starts off with “Tomorrow” bringing us to the future and a new day. Both hope and resilience are on display as the speaker says “I’ll be at the table When company comes” and “Nobody’ll dare Say to me, ‘Eat in the Kitchen.'” He wants to be at the table and not just give up and walk away. He values himself and just like in the poem “America” that bittersweet feeling will accompany him while fighting to be where he is not wanted. There is optimism in the fourth stanza that America will atone for its prejudice past and look at him without bias, “They’ll see how beautiful I am And be ashamed.” America will be embarrassed when they come to their senses and realize “I, too, am America.”

Jean Toomer’s “Song of the Son” uses metaphors of nature to connect the grim past endured by blacks in America and the importance of remembering this past to create a better future. In the first three stanzas, the couplet is repeated as it strongly reinforces the three lines that precede it. In the first line we are told that a soul is parting, but before it moves on it should be poured in a song, “in the “sawdust glow of night, velvet, pine-smoke air to-night.” The soul carries with it a story of hardships. The song is the history of his people, the valley is the vehicle that will carry it along. The valley could either be referring to him, those of African descent, or society itself carrying the story of a persecuted people. In the second stanza he continues the theme of staying connected to nature describing the land, soil, and trees. The sun is setting which could mean a life or an “epoch” is coming to an end. In the couplet in stanza two, the speaker says “Thy son” in which he refers to himself as having “returned to thee.” This a connection between the power of nature and the souls of a powerful people working symbiotically. Blacks who were enslaved are described as “dark purple ripened plums” denoting to their dark skin and strong healthy bodies. The speaker takes one of these plums that was saved for him and the “seed becomes An everlasting song, a singing tree, Caroling softly souls of slavery.” The seed is a metaphor for the story of slavery which can be planted again. The seed will grow into “a singing tree” and the cycle will continue as nature assists in beautifully embedding a people’s story into history.

“Dream Variations” by Langston Hughes paints a picture of a world where the black man is free. The description of physical movements in the first stanza of this poem expresses finally obtaining freedom. There is a sense of weightlessness as if the burden of racist America has been tossed off of his back. The way tones and colors are described goes against what has been taught in the west. Black is seen as sinister and evil while white is portrayed as pure but in “Dream Variations” the darkness of night “comes on gently.” In society, the connotation of dark and wicked has been transferred to skin color due to racism and colonialism. This has had an enormous negative impact both socially and mentally on the darker peoples of the world. The speaker unassigns such ignorant labels and assigns news ones. The night is now tender and it is “Black like me.” He “flings his arms wide,” whirls, and dances “till the white day is done.” In the days of slavery and many years after, blacks would be forced to work for whites during the day, using “the white day” metaphor for oppression. Unlike in the first stanza the second never mentions this still being a dream. The second stanza reads quick as if the speaker is now moving hastily. The words “Dance!” and “Whirl!” have exclamation points at the end as if he is being commanded and told instead of moving freely. The evening is now pale which is a metaphor for being depleted. After resting at pale evening, he searches for a “A tall, slim tree…” The ellipsis indicates that he is still searching and hasn’t found one. This is the reality the speaker experiences day to day, he dreams but he wakes up to exhausting work. What is important here is that despite the depressing conditions blacks live in, there is still a dream.

The rage that built up in the hearts of a people oppressed for centuries exploded in the form of poetry during the Harlem Renaissance. “The Land of the Free” never was and instead a “Land of Contradiction” emerged. Although all Americans are immigrants to this nation besides its original inhabitants, only certain people were free as Langston Hughes “Let America Be America Again” sharply points out. Hughes presents historical facts that the reader cannot deny and calls on this country to have some honor and be the America it says it is. He calls for not just those of African descent to rise up but for all who have been sold a false dream and left behind. This means the poor whites who have been lied to, Native Americans whose land has been stolen, and any true American who stands for justice. To unite, to take back this country, and “Let America be America again,” the land that never was. It must have been heart-aching to be in a nation with so much potential for freedom and success but having it not be available to you because of the color of your skin.  Claude McKay depicts this metaphorically in “America” as she steals his breath of life but also invigorates him against her hate.  “I, Too” epitomizes the resilience black people have shown to fight for their position at the table throughout American history. Refusing to be hidden away while others benefit at their expense. The future generations must not forget the brave struggle, lives lost, the pain, and suffering their ancestors have endured. This goes for all of society lest they repeat a hellish past marked by subhuman behavior. We must all be the valley in Jean Toomer’s “Song of the Son” that carries knowledge of the past to create a better future. With all that being said, it is essential we continue to dream even when in the most dejected states. For it is a dream, this unique phenomenon occurring outside of “reality” that will push our human race forward.

Course: ENG 102 Literature and Composition, Fall 2018
Assignment: Poetry Analysis
Instructor: John Christie
Instructor comments: Johann’s essay matches a powerful commentary on the ideas expressed in five poems from the Harlem Renaissance with a careful and detailed analysis of language and poetic techniques. He does a great job of engaging with five very different works in a way that brings them together and exhibits the poets’ collective resistance to American hypocrisy when it comes to race.

Photo credit: “Harlem Subway Mosaic [part five]” by Troy Tolley, licensed through Creative Commons.

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