Black civil rights campaigner Jesse Jackson once said, “I am black, and I am beautiful…so I must be respected.” In their poems ‘Still, I Rise’ and ‘I, too, Sing America,’ Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes also illustrate the idea of celebrating black pride to overcome racism. Through the use of metaphor, repetition and symbolism in their respective poems, they show the reader the significance of the African American struggle for equality.
In ‘Still I Rise,’ Maya Angelou illustrates how the black race is battling to overcome the racism and hardship. She employs the extended metaphor of the wave, “I’m a black ocean,” to show how the black race has been oppressed, just like a tide is pushed back, but they have come back stronger, like waves that crash back to the shore. The rhyming line, “welling and swelling,” symbolizes the “past that’s rooted in pain” of the black people – how they have been hurt, bruised and destroyed by the “hatefulness” expressed towards them and the “swelling” of these bruises have still not fully faded.
Black history is “welling” over with tales of injustice – in The Hurricane, a true film directed by Norman Jewison, Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter was sentenced to 30 years imprisonment for a murder he didn’t commit just because of the colour of his skin, and there are many more victims of racism just like him. Angelou concludes the wave metaphor with “I bear in the tide” to allow the reader to see that despite the black race being victims of slavery and racism, they are able to use their unique history to move forward in life to strive towards an equal society. Like the wave metaphor, Rubin Carter overcomes the hatred shown towards him and eventually gains the ultimate reward for this; he achieves freedom.
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Angelou further reinforces the black race’s victory over racism by repeating the simple sentence “I rise” throughout the poem. The repetition of this sentence emphasizes that blacks are “leaving behind” the “terror” of their past. The race as a whole is rising above the inferiority and discrimination they have faced to claim their own rights and identity. The use of this simple sentence is elegant and direct, making it powerfully reach out to the reader. We are inspired to rise above our fears and the prejudice present in our society today because, like the black race, we too can “rise” to achieve our goals.
Equality was “the dream and the hope of the slave”, and the black race has allowed this dream to come true through people like Angelou actively fighting for their rights. Angelou teaches us that if we stand up for what we believe in, there is no reason why our own dreams and hopes cannot be achieved. Like Angelou, Hughes also comes from a background of inferiority. He wrote the poem, ‘I, too, Sing America’ in the 1930s, a time when blacks were treated as slaves and were seen as the property of white men. He opens the poem with the line “I, too, sing America” to express that though the black race is treated as inferior, they still sing America’s praises.
Blacks of the 1930s were patriotic to their country because they looked towards a promising future of equality, where they would finally be regarded as the “darker brother.” This metaphor refers to the fact that in the 1930s, blacks were not considered a part of the American ‘family’ by whites; they were shunned and abused, creating a division between white and black society. Hughes’ use of personal pronouns highlights the imbalance between the races. He says, “They send me to eat in the kitchen” to show how “they,” being the whites, have control over him (the persona of the poem).
Hughes illustrates the division between blacks (“me”) and whites (“they”) – the whites are ashamed of him to such an extent that they will not even allow him to eat with them. He is seen as the personal property of whites, a chattel to be bought and sold. However, like Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes believes the black struggle against racism will only make his race more victorious as he is able to “laugh”, “eat well” and “grow strong”. Hughes shows the reader that the black race can gain equality after years of oppression just as a wave crashes to the shore after being pushed back.
He teaches us never to give up and fight for what we believe in because although our struggles may not be as extreme as Hughes’, we can still learn from his history. By taking negative comments in our stride, by still being able “to laugh and grow strong,” we too will be able to overcome our struggles. In his second stanza, Hughes expresses his hope for a better future. He changes to future tense saying, “Tomorrow, I’ll be at the table.” This shows us that in the future there will be change and he will be equal because he too is part of “America”.
He looks towards a future where America will be a country and symbol of equality and diversity – a multi-cultural nation where all cultures are equally “beautiful”. He uses the metaphor “I, too, am America” to conclude the poem to leave the reader with a defiant statement of equality. Hughes, as a black person, is claiming his rights. But, instead of just singing America’s praises, he is saying he is “America.” America, being a symbol of freedom, dreams for the future and most of all, equality.
Both Hughes and Angelou urge the reader to look past skin colour’s facade and embrace our “black brother.” We live in a multi-cultural nation so we must learn to accept the differences in others and recognize that each race is unique, but that uniqueness is what makes us special. They criticize those who cannot overcome prejudices, saying they will be “ashamed when they finally see how beautiful I am.” They show the reader that we need to overcome our prejudices and look for the good in people because when we finally see it, we will be ashamed that we didn’t see it earlier.
In ‘Still I Rise’ and ‘I, Too, Sing America, ‘ Hughes and Angelou allow us to learn from their unique black history and how the black race could triumph over injustice in society to gain freedom and equality. Through the effective use of language techniques, they inspire the reader to be victorious over our struggles and rise above the prejudice in society to see the good in everybody.