Writersuse both music and language to explore race. They do this through the contentof their poem, context, themes, language, structure and imagery.
Two poems, inparticular, ‘Still I Rise’ by Maya Angelou and ‘Song for a Dark Girl’ byLangston Hughes use language to explore and convey a message about race. ‘StillI Rise’ is about a call for African Americans to be proud of their origin; itis against the prejudice and submission that African Americans had toexperience. It is also about overcoming oppression with grace and pride, havingno sympathy for the people who you put down and giving validity to the reasonsfor cruelty. ‘Song fora Dark Girl’ is about a black girl whose lover, who is also black, has beentortured, hung and then displayed for humiliation at a public place with a lotof traffic. For his murder to have occurred in such a public place implies thatthe mob had no shame and was intended not only to punish the victim but to warnanyone else who might somehow offend the mob.
By using lyrics from “Dixie”within this chant-like-poem, Hughes also juxtaposes the use of lynching asestablished entertainment from the perspective of the white community and as aparalysing form of control from the viewpoint of black people, perceiving whitepeople in a negative way because of their actions towards black people. Inaddition, ‘Still I Rise’ perceives this message too. Both poets believe that there is discrimination towards theirrace and culture as slavery greatly restricted the ability of African-Americansto practise their original traditions. The white people were believed to be discriminatingtowards the black people as the black culture had and continues to have aprofound impact on the American culture as a whole. Angelou questions ‘Why areyou beset with gloom?’ as the white people have no reason to be upset with her.She uses the noun ‘gloom’ to convey people’s sadness towards her culture andbeliefs. The ‘gloom’ is the result of an unwillingness to accept oppression anymore and to establish that the reader should feel guilt for trying to oppressthe freedom of the confident speaker.
Angelou expresses this through a bittertone to demonstrate her aggression towards people judging her of her beliefs,race and even colour. Angelou’s bitter tone is conveyed constantly by herquestioning the reader because she wants to know if her attitude causes thereader discomfort about the cruelty that her race has endured. However, thisconcern is seen as false to her oppressors as she inserts a sarcastic humourinto the poem to offset her anger and assuredness.
Incomparison, Hughes expresses his views on discrimination towards his racethrough the statement of ‘they hung my black lover’. Hughes uses the adjective’black’ to emphasise that being black was peoples only reason to accept thelynching of the woman’s lover, which Hughes, along with other black people,think is wrong. Here, the woman also does not accuse anyone specifically ofhanging her lover, just ‘they’. Although, the point here is being taken by anambiguous ‘they’, indicating that there are multiple people involved in thelynching but the woman may never know who ‘they’ are. Both poets weresuccessful in conveying their opinions upon discrimination towards black peopleas they described in such detail the horrors and events that they went through.This extreme detail concluded in the reader sympathising and empathising withboth poets. Both poets are not afraid to tell people how they are trulybeing treated just because of their race, they are standing up for what theybelieve in as they believe that they should be treated the way every otherperson gets treated regardless of their colour, race or culture.
The both poetsalso emphasise what they have to go through just to survive day-to-day life.Angelou states that people can ‘shoot… cut… kill’ but she will always riseabove the conditions that she has been forced to suffer in. Angelou uses asemantic field of aggression to focus the reader’s attention on the anger thatshe is withholding. Angelou includes words such as ‘broken’, ‘bowed head’,’lowered eyes’, ‘teardrops’, ‘soulful cries’ and ‘past rooted in pain’, whichall refer back to the atrocities subjected upon the African race. Moreover, sheis also referring to women that have been subjected to violence and abuse bymen in the past. She also uses hyperboles like ‘shoot’, ‘cut’ and ‘kill’, theuse of these powerful words add a subject or a feeling to the poem or evenemphasise the brutal treatment. Angelou’s air of angry confidence shows thatshe does not hold back telling her listeners or readers how she, along with therest of her race and black women, are truly treated. Her air of angryconfidence is peppered with sarcastic humour, which indicates that she realisesthat she is having an effect on the words and points that she conveys, like howshe will always rise above all discrimination.
In stanza one, Angelou statesthat she does not care what the history books say, for what she knows, they arefull of twisted lies. The adjective ‘twisted’ stipulates that the people whohave written the history books have twisted the truth in order to create aversion of the ‘lies’ that betters the white people and makes the black peopleseem as if they over exaggerate on the things they say that the white people doto them. However, Angelou opposes this and is not afraid to tell people how sheis truly treated. Correspondingly, Hughes describes thecorpse of the woman’s husband in the poem,’Song for a Dark Girl’ as a ‘bruisedbody’. The imagery in the quote highlights the brutality of the persona’s husband’smurder and the conditions in which he has to go through, just because he isblack. Hughes also shows that he does not hold back when revealing crucialdetails of how the black people were treated by describing shadows and trees as’naked’. The ‘naked tree’ that the black man was hung upon is an example ofpersonification and a metaphor that may symbolise the nakedness of the soul asthe husband was stripped before he was hung to a cross roads tree that was alsonaked, along with the man. The tree could also be naked, as it may have beenstripped of its greenery so it can be used for something awful.
Hughes wants tomake a point so the speaker gives us a metaphor, ‘love is a naked shadow on anaked tree, the speaker describes this shadow and this tree in a way that isvery specific to how the events in this poem have made them feel about love.The ‘naked shadow’ could be a reference to the body of the woman’s lover, butthe woman’s lover’s dead body now represents love. Either he has become ashadow to his lover because she is traumatised at the sight of him or she canonly bear to look at his shadow on the naked tree and not his actual body. Thebrutality shown in both poems, ‘Still I Rise’ and ‘Song for a Dark Girl’, canlink to the conditions of slavery that the black people had to go to in orderto survive and carry on living. In the two poems, ‘Still I Rise’ and ‘Song for a Dark Girl’,both poets use language to explore race. They do this by revealing veryintimate and gruesome details about how their races were and still are treated.Both poets try to convey a point about the discrimination, prejudice, racismand injustice that the black people suffered in.
In ‘Still I Rise, Angeloustates that every time she had to deal with another bit of racism ordiscrimination then she still ‘rises’, this is repeated throughout the poem toemphasise the point that she is trying to convey. The effectiveness of thisshort phrase highlights the great amount of hope and confidence that Angelouhas despite the difficult struggles that she was facing. This also underlinesAngelou’s message to the reader, which is that no matter how much racism,discrimination, prejudice and injustice is thrown at her, she will alwaysmanage to rise above it all to end the racism.
Angelou compares herself to ‘oilwells’ to symbolise that she is worth just as much as everyone else as oilwells are very expensive and valuable. This comparison emphasises that Angelou nowhas more confidence as a black woman because she has managed to express andconvey a point about her opinions and thoughts. Angelou describes herself as a’black ocean’ in her poem, the adjective ‘black’ creates a sense of evil andfear but mainly draws attention to her skin colour or race. A ‘black ocean’symbolises cruelty and how things occur unexpectedly which reflects on her ownlife. However, the phrase may also be describing her own race, which allows thereader to understand that the poem is about racism, linking to how writers uselanguage to explore race.
Throughout the poem, Angelou uses multiple rhetoricalquestions to connect with the reader; however, they may have other meanings.Angelou questions ‘Does my sexiness upset you?’ and ‘Does my naughtiness offendyou?’. She uses these rhetorical questions to make her point that her oppressor’sefforts to demean her are all futile. By questioning the reader, Angeloumanages to catch and draw the readers’ attention to the questions being asked. Theyare effective because it makes the reader realise how many people have beenaffected by the poem and have been made to feel as Angelou is feeling.
The mainreason Angelou uses rhetorical questions is to take the readers and herrelationship to a much more personal level, without realising. Similarly, in ‘Song for a dark girl’, Hughes uses language devices toexplore race and convey a point about racism. The repetition of ‘Way down southin Dixie’ lends itself to being chanted by the reader, which links to theironic force carried in the word ‘Song’ in the title of the poem as ‘Song’often suggests joy or celebrating, but this ‘Song’ proves to be extraordinarilytragic. The repetitiveness could also represent the fact that lynchings becamea common occurrence way down south in Dixie furthermore the structure certainlyhas a constant rhythm to it linking to the common occurrence of lynchings. Thoughlynchings were becoming common, people did not become numb to their effects. Also,the repetition of ‘break the heart of me’ acts as a reminder for the woman tokeep feeling some sort of emotion, as losing a loved one can seem like the endof the world. The persona has to acknowledge her feelings constantly, possiblyas a way to keep herself sane, or to reveal her helplessness.
In these lines,we get a glimpse into the mind of the speaker. The speaker of this poem haslost her lover and the parenthetical lines serve as the chant of her innermonologue as she grieves. She repeats this line in the first and last stanzaand it acts as a reminder to keep the emotion. The language used in both poemscan be analysed to explore race, Angelou and Hughes both do this purposely toconvey their points about racism and to end all discrimination against theirrace. To conclude, both poets are forceful to convey a directopinion of their views about race and the conditions in which they suffered in,in order to survive and to live their life fully without any discriminationagainst them.
To explore race, both poets wrote their beliefs about their raceand the discrimination, prejudice, racism and injustice that they are trying toovercome in a form of a poem. Another way both Angelou and Hughes explore raceis by not being afraid to tell their readers how they were and still are trulytreated. More importantly, both poets use language to explore race by usingunique language and language devices. By doing this both poets were able to successfullyexplore race. By Tara Atkins