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Twentieth Century Literature In English: How Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes, & Countee Cullen Explore & Question The Notion Of Racial Identity

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“People should not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character” is one of the famous quotes of Martin Luther King which explicitly demonstrates the frivolousness of racism. It shows how people blindly segregated themselves from each other based on their skin colour as Blacks and Whites though the blood of both parties bleeds in red. It is pathetic to state that some are unable to comprehend the fact that everybody are equal since all come to the world by birth and leaves it one day in death. Therefore, Racism can be illustrated as a kind of a treacherous disease which threatens the human rights of people based on their skin colour.

The Harlem Renaissance can be demonstrated as the turning point of the African American culture, society and artistic voices which have been previously suppressed from enjoying their human rights. However, The Harlem Renaissance in 1925 which is known as the ’New Negro Movement’ in Harlem can be demonstrated as a literary, intellectual as well as an artistic improvement in USA which offered the African Americans a new cultural identity. “My Dreams, My Works Must Wait Till after Hell’ by the African American poetess Gwendolyn Brooks is a poem which deals with racism. The poem depicts how the Black Americans like Brooks who are segregated from the white community are eagerly waiting for the return of the old “taste” of their Black American culture.

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The title itself, “My Dreams, My Works Must Wait Till after Hell” suggests the poetess’ needs, aspirations, desires and cravings which have been suppressed by an external force, here the American white community. “Honey” in the first line can be shown as a reference to the poet’s own culture which demonstrates the life style of Black Americans in general. Furthermore, Brooks states that storing her “bread” and “Honey” in “little jars and cabinets of (her) will” which really is a kind of her reminiscence of her root culture which is suppressed by the white. She locks the food in jars while labelling them which symbolize the memories of her root culture which are not accepted by the society. And also her “will” seems to be a very limited one which is symbolized in “little jars and cabinets” Hence, her identity as a Black American is also much more parallel to a reminiscence.

She asks the food to “be firm till (she) return from hell” and this hell symbolizes the American life style which Blacks are enforced to follow as a result of racial segregation. Brooks says she is “very hungry” and “incomplete’. This hunger refers to her emotional hunger for pursuing her dreams of making her identity as a Black American which is suppressed. She feels incomplete without her real identity. That is why she asks the stored food to be firm till she comes from the hell. The line “None can tell when I may dine again” suggests that the poet does not know when she will be able to enjoy her own culture again. The poetess is frustrated and everybody asks her to wait for the “puny light” which suggests the hope for a day which her root culture will be accepted by the society.

“The devil days” in line nine further points outs the days of Racial Segregation in America which hurt so many Black Americans both physically and psychologically. However, the poet is courageously waiting for the “last dregs” of the enforced devilish unfamiliar culture to go back to her own root culture. Moreover, the last three lines of the poems depicts how scared the poet is that she might forget her own root culture and lose track on it since the dominant culture gradually ensnares the sub culture. However, Brooks’ poem strongly expresses the notion that whatever the skin colour is people are connected to their root culture in order to create their identity no matter what tends to suppress their rights. Everyone loves his/her own culture as Brooks does as love does not have a colour.

“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by the African American poet Langston Hughes is another poem which demonstrates the issue of racism as in Brooks’. Throughout the poem, the speaker connects his ancestors to the ancient rivers of world which existed since the beginning of the civilization. The poem commences with the speaker saying he “know(s) rivers ancient as the world” and “older than the flow of human blood in human veins” and now his soul has deeper as those rivers. By stating that he has bathed in Euphrates “when dawn was young”, build a hut near the Congo and lulled by it, looked at Nile and the way pyramids near them were built and finally how the Mississippi sang to welcome “Abe Lincoln” when he “went down to New Orleans”. He ends the poem repeating the fact that his soul has grown deep like those ancient rivers suggesting he has watched the civilization from its beginning.

However, the speakers bath in Euphrates “when the dawn was young expresses the notion that his ancestors have been there in the country since the dawn of the civilization. Even the depiction of Congo River reminds the reader of the ancient African kingdoms which were powerful. And the Nile in where he watches the construction of pyramids suggests that his ancestors too have participated in it enhancing the long history of his own race’s civilization.

Finally, river Mississippi is brought to the reader while linking it to a leader, Abraham Lincoln. What is significant in the depiction of Mississippi is that the speaker witnesses the” muddy bosom” of the river turns “all golden in sunset”. The “sun set” always forms the end of something. Here, it might be the end of African American slavery where the Blacks have to suffer both physically and mentally. And the turning of “muddy bosom” into “golden” can be interpreted as the aspiration for freedom of the African Americans who are segregated from the white American society. The speaker’s deep soul too represents his desire to get rid of the white American dominance and to live as a free Black American.

On the other hand, the rivers used as metaphors too can be illustrated as the symbols of freedom. Rivers are natural resources which flow independently. If nature has privileged the rivers to complete their journey freely why don’t the humans? The nature should treat the human beings equally despite the colour of their skin. Hence rivers represent the Black Americans voice for freedom and to have their identity related to the root culture. What Langston highlights in the poem is that freedom is just a right since everybody is born and leaves this world alone. “I too” by Hughes is another poem which deals with racism. The title “I too” itself suggests the poets notion explicitly that the speaker is also a part of America, an American citizen though his skin is dark.

The poem commences with the speaker saying he “is the darker brother/ they send me to eat in the kitchen”. The speaker might be an African American male servant who is hidden away by the white community when guests (company) arrive. The phrase” darker brother” suggests the meaning that the speaker is also equal to the others as a human being, but sending him to the kitchen to hide him suggests that he is still not accepted as equal to the white society by the White Americans. He is pushed away aside by the dominant culture of his country and he is similar to an ostracized person in his own country. Yet, though the speaker is treated with cruelty, he still “laugh(s) and eat(s) well/ and growing strong” suggests his determination and perseverance as a Black American. He is still hopeful for the day which he will be recognized as an American citizen as the whites.

On that day, the whites who discriminated him will be ashamed of the cruel manner they treated him which is suggested by “they will see how beautiful (he) and/be ashamed”. This poem can be demonstrated as a strong depiction of how the African Americans suffered just because of the garbage called racism. What Hughes elucidates in the poem is that even though the speaker is dark, he too have the right to love his country, praise it and also to experience patriotism despite whatever his race and is suggested in the last line “I too, am America”.“Yet do I marvel” by the African American poet Countee Cullen too is another poem which discusses the racial inequality and the injustices created by the God.

Throughout the poem the speaker tends to understand the God and his creations and the reasons for the creations. The whole poem questions the creations of the God. The poem starts with speaker saying “I doubt not God is good, well meaning, kind” which suggests that the speaker is sure that God is good. But at the same time the speaker is confused why God has made his own creations suffer. “Tantalus” and “Sisyphus” which are allusions to the Greek mythology are two sinners who are subjected to never ending punishments. The poet questions why God created humans if they are subjected to sufferance. Furthermore, the “little buried mole continuous blind” in line three is a reference to the blind people in the world who are suffering throughout their life due to their disability. The poet is confused on how a good, kind and well-meaning God could create hardships to his own creations.

The final lines of the poem demonstrate the reason on why the poet questions God’s kindness. “Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:/ to make a poet black, and bid him sing!” suggests the poets question that why did the God make him a Black poet in a period when the Blacks rights are suppressed as a result of racism. He demonstrates his own struggle as a Black American poet to be recognized as a talented poet who is African in his root culture. The God in this poem seems to be actually not compassionate since he leaves his own creations suffer. Though God has made the speaker both a poet and Black at the same time but he does not seem repenting. What message the poet gives the reader is that even in darker period, among darker people, a beautiful poet can be born. It is not the race what is significant but the talent and compassion towards each other.

“A Brown Girl Dead” by Langston Hughes deals with the same issue of racism. Throughout the poem both darkness and white colour imagery have been utilized. The poem depicts a death of an African American girl in her youth. The skin colour of the dead girl which is dark and the way she dressed and the objects around her demonstrates a huge contrast. The dead girl is referred as “Dark Madonna” by the poet referring to her dark skin colour. But the “white roses on her breasts” and the “white candles at her head and feet” completely contrasts with her skin colour. ”The white refers to the purity of the dead girl though she is passed away. “Her mother pawned her wedding ring” to make the “dark Madonna” dressed in white. This suggests that when the girl was alive she never got the chance to wear white and show her purity. But in her death, her desire to be white has come true. “She’d be so proud she’d dance and sing herself tonight” suggests how happy she will be if she is alive to see her in white.

The deeper meaning of the poem suggest that the dead girl receives peace of her soul through her death symbolized by “white” colour. She no more has to subjugate to the dominant white culture and to be suppressed by their discriminations. This suggests that in 1920s Black Americans were only able to be free and gain peace only in their death as the dead “Dark Madonna”. The girl has become a part of the white colour but in her death. Therefore, through “a brown Girl Dead” Hughes demonstrates the fact that the racial oppressions imposed on the Black Americans by the white supremacy which will only disappear on the day they will die. The Blacks will create their own identity related to their root culture only in their death.

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