Poetry About Struggle: The African-American Essay

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SAMPLE EXCERPT . . .
" The poem famously opens with a rhetorical question: "What happens to a dream deferred?" Then it lists various possibilities for the deferred dream. Although it is not specifically stated that the poem is about the African-American experience in the text of the poem, the title of the poem makes it clear.

Various striking images are used to characterize African-American's deferred dreams in the Hughes poem. "Does it dry up/like a raisin in the sun?" Implicit in the image of the dried, beaten-down raisin in the sun is that of a slave working in the cotton fields, drying up. The slave metaphor is further reinforced by the question. "Or [Does it] fester like a sore -- / And then run?" This refers to the attempts of slaves to run away North (and possibly black men and women who migrated Northward after the end of slavery to cities like Chicago in search of greater opportunities).

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The reference to covering over the misery of oppression with sweetness is referred to in the question: "Does it stink like rotten meat? / Or crust and sugar over -- / like a syrupy sweet? " The masking behavior referred to by Dunbar would seem to be a kind of 'crusting over' like a syrupy sweet. Finally, the poem raises the specter of angry violence after so many years of being beaten down and forced to smile. "Maybe it just sags / like a heavy load. / Or does it explode?" Hughes' reference to exploding could sound potentially threatening, but because it is expressed in a metaphor, it sounds more poignant. Also, by pairing it against the heavy load that metaphorically suggests how African-Americans are forced to bear so much literal and metaphorical weight in their servile occupations, Hughes explains why and how the explosion is likely to occur.

Essay on Poetry About Struggle: The African-American Assignment

Rita Dove's poem "Persephone, Falling" uses metaphors like Hughes, but Dove deploys a long, extended metaphor in her work to illustrate how women, specifically African-American women are judged harshly because of their sexuality. Any fall from grace is read as utterly ruining the woman, just like the mythical Persephone's life was destroyed by a single action -- her abduction and eating six pomegranate seeds in the underworld. And it is read as the fallen woman's fault. "No one heard her. / No one! She had strayed from the herd," Dove writes of Persephone, as the woman is pulled down.

Dove's poem sounds more like a conventional use of Greek mythology, in contrast to the more explicit use of images to speak about political situations in the earlier poet's works. However, when a speaker uses the example of Persephone to try to limit the actions of women in a scolding fashion: "Don't answer to strangers. Stick / with your playmates. Keep your eyes down," the reader senses a reference to something outside of the realm of pure myth. There are clear parallels with the cautions given to women to keep them in line, particularly nonwhite women whose sexuality is judged more harshly.

Works Cited

Dove, Rita. "Persephone, Falling." From Mother Love W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1995.

http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/19856 [21 Sept 2012]

Dunbar, Paul. "We wear the mask." From Literature: The Human Experience. Shorter Fourth

Edition with Essays. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988. http://www.potw.org/archive/potw8.html [21 Sept 2012]

Hughes, Langston. "Harlem." Selected Poems of Langston Hughes. Random… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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