Race in Poetry a Topic of Constant Essay

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Race in Poetry

A Topic of Constant Relevance

The importance of race in the United States is discussed on many levels, from nightly newscasts to political campaigns to courtrooms. It is the conversation that never ends in this nation. The particulars change, a little, but the cadence is the same, and the sorrows are the same, and the regrets and anger persist. It seems likely that in a thousand years (if there is an America in a thousand years) that our national dialogue will still be about race. This paper examines a set of poems that take up the issue of race.

While poetry is hardly likely to be the first thing that one thinks of when seeking to understand race in America, the two poems analyzes here both make trenchant points about what it is like to be a person of color in the United States. This paper analyzes two poems -- Langston Hughes's "Theme for English B" and Li-Young Lee's "Persimmons" -- to explore some of the many discussions about race that make up the national dialogue on the topic.

Hughes's poem is a study on the relationship of an African-American man who finds himself alone -- although alone only in the sense that the narrator of the poem finds himself in a classroom in which he is the only black person. Lee's poem is written from a perspective of being inside a family. While Hughes writes how race divides Americans, Lee focuses on how race unites him with his family and their past.

One of the most famous and skilled writers about race as a fundamental element of American life was Langston Hughes. Writing from his own experience as an African-American man in an era in which the lives of black Americans were harshly constrained, he was able to write about a broad slice of American life as lived through the lens of race. Hughes wrote "Theme for English B" in 1951, long after he was himself the age of the student in whose voice the poem is expressed.
He is participating in a sort of time travel as he wrote this, taking himself (and us) back to a time before World War II. The voice of the poem is analytical and distant, entirely aware of the injustices of the world, and just as aware of the slowness of change.

The poem begins with an assignment given to a student in what must be a sort of remedial English. The instructor tells the students that if they write what is in their hearts, then what they write will necessarily be true. The first evidence of how race shapes the world of the speaker (and the instructor and the other students who are the inhabitants of the poem and us as readers) is that he questions the idea of a guaranteed truth.

Hughes opens the poem with a statement and a response, a miniature dialogue between the teacher and the student that only the student can hear.

The instructor said,

Go home and write a page tonight.

And let that page come out of you-

Then, it will be true.

I wonder if it's that simple?

The poet's experience of the world is a world in which certain people's stories are taken as truths and the stories of other people (that is, people like the poet, people who are not white) face a far less certain fate. The black student does not bother to speak outloud: His race ensures that he will not be heard.

Lee takes up the same idea of how race makes it hard for other people to listen and to hear. In his case, there is the additional complication of language. Hughes's narrator does not even try to be heard, perhaps because as a black man he has the knowledge of generations and generations of his family's being silenced. Lee still has some faith that if he just says things clearly enough then his race….....

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