Hughes and McKay

I’m curious about the speaker of the poem in “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” It’s in first-person point of view, and the title describes “the Negro”, so you would think that the speaker is one individual. But then the speaker describes having known rivers from different time periods, from “when dawns were young” (5) to the time of honest Abe. So I think the speaker is the collective voice of the black race, from the beginning of time until now. “I, Too” seems to be similar in this sense. The speaker represents the entire black race, “the darker brother” (2). To put this poem into historical context, it was written in 1925. After the abolition of slavery, but black people were still very much discriminated against. The incident described in the poem – being sent to the kitchen to eat because he’s black – is just one of many ways they were discriminated against. However, the speaker is optimistic about the future. Soon, his oppressors will realize the errors of their ways: “they’ll see how beautiful I am/ And be ashamed” (15-16). Something I find interesting about this poem is that it starts with “I, too, sing America” but ends with “I, too, am America.” What’s up with that?

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“The Harlem Dancer” by McKay left me feeling unsettled. The speaker describes the dancer as beautiful and graceful, mesmerizing to the people watching her. But the last two lines paint a more dreary picture: “But looking at that falsely-smiling face, I knew her self was not in that strange place” (13-14). The dancer is putting on a show, but is secretly miserable. This situation is representative of the black race at the time. They put on a show for white people, pretending to be happy to serve them and perform for them, but secretly wanting to escape. They were not allowed to have an identity outside the identity that white society has constructed for them. This reminds me of “the veil” described by W.E.B Dubois. This Harlem dancer, and others like her, are looking at the world through the veil.

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“The Lynching” is similar in that it ends on an ominous note. The condemned man is depicted as Christ-like: “His Spirit in smoke ascended to high heavens” (1). But because this man is black (his “awful sin”), his death is celebrated: “And little lads, lynchers that were to be, danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee” (13-14). It’s very disturbing that children, who are normally described as innocent, would get pleasure from dancing around a dead body. It goes to show how prominent racism was, and that it showed no signs of getting better.

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