African American Poetry


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
Root Song 

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

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. 

I rise. 

I rise. 

I rise." 

One can actually feel themselves rising with these words.

Phenomenal Woman 

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. 


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