Friday, April 19, 2013

Notes on racial poems

The poems ‘Epitaph’, ‘Dreaming Black Boy’ and ‘Theme for English B’ have
similar themes.

They express discrimination and intolerance in human relationships and reflect
the denial of the basic human rights of recognition, justice, equality and freedom.
The three poems are treated differently.

You will observe that in the poem “Epitaph” the image is vivid, stark and
gruesome. Amidst the beauty of the “falling sunlight” and the swaying cane”,
the dead body of the slave hung. The image evokes in the reader anger against
human brutality and compassion for the fate of the slave. Through the sad tale,
the poet achieves his intention of giving the reader insights into the brutality
meted out to slaves in their days of enslavement.

The poem is a tribute to the dead slave, and is melancholic in mood and tone.

Someone Else's View

They hanged him on a clement morning, swung
between the falling sunlight and the women's
breathing, like a black apostrophe to pain.

The poem begins with an indefinite pronoun "they" which does not have a clear antecedent. One may assume "they" refers to the masters who have hanged the slave on a "clement morning" which implies justice (clemency) but is also an ironic detail about the weather. The speaker also uses the word "apostrophe" to introduce the difficulty of writing about slavery (an obvious trope), and the hanged slave (imagine his body curled in pain) becomes a "black apostrophe." An apostrophe is not only a symbol of punctuation, but is also '"the addressing of a usually absent person or a usually personified thing rhetorically" (Webster's)

All morning while the children hushed
their hopscotch joy and the cane kept growing
he hung there sweet and low.

The emotional impact of the hanging results in the children's "hushed" hopscotch joy." Added to the previous statement of the "women's breathing," the speaker highlights the physical/emotional effects of the hanging balanced against nature's indifference, " the cane kept growing" and the slave becomes part of the oral histories of so-called Negro spirituals, swinging "sweet and low."

At least that's how
they tell it. It was long ago
and what can we recall of a dead slave or two

The speaker reinforces the idea of the master's version of history, "at least that's how they tell it," which implies emotional distance and doubt, "it was long ago" and indifference, "and what can we recall of a dead slave or two."
except that when we punctuate our island tale
they swing like sighs across the brutal
sentences, and anger pauses
till they pass away.

The tone of the poem changes with "we" --those who "punctuate our island tale," and the emotional difficulty because "they,"' the hanged slaves, "swing like sighs across the brutal/ sentences." "Brutal" contradicts the idea of clemency and "sentences" is pun not only on the idea of justice, but a clear reference to the writing trope. However, the last line of the poem is ambiguous because it raises the question, how will the text be written after "anger pauses? The speaker's word choice emphasizes the uncertainty because "they," could refer either to the slaves or masters. Both masters and slaves have become joined in the detritus of memory.

Never a facile polemicist, Dennis Scott's Epitaph," explores the complexity of memory and the emotional difficulty that "we" as inheritors of the island's history have in writing about the period. In fact, the complexity that marks much of Scott's work is reflected in Uncle Time (from which this poem was taken) winner of Commonwealth Poetry Prize (1972) and an International Poetry Forum Award.

Dreaming Black Boy

In the poem ‘Dreaming Black Boy’, the boy expresses his thoughts and emotions
in abstract images. He dreams and wishes for the rights that should be accorded
to all human beings - recognition and love, and the freedom of movement and
speech. These images appeal to the emotions and the reader empathizes with
the boy who is being denied these rights.

The poem is written in blank verse. This makes the tone of the poem

Another Person's Views

The poem expresses a child's wish to be free of physical and emotional pain. It is written from the perspective of a child in the first person narrative voice of the child himself.
The title of the poem immediately provides the context in which the child's "dream" or "wishes" are framed. The title reveals that the speaker is a boy, and he is of the black race.

Each verse of the poem begins with the repetitive, "I wish". In total there are five wishes varying from a wish for some type of encouragement by his teacher, to his wish for freedom from the "terrible burdens of life". All of the child's wishes are for good and positive things. Essentially he wishes that living was easier, or less problematic than it really is.
His childhood wishes brings into question the role of adults in the lives of children. It is clear that the role of adults in the poems about the experience of growing children is to love,  care, compliment, protect and encourage them.

We know, based on the title of the poem, that the boy is of the black race. This contextualizes the ethnicity, and, therefore, the experiences that are particular to a child of that racial ethnicity. The child is not only black but also male. Armed with this information one is forced to think of the implications suggested by such awareness, implications regarding the specific types of problems and experiences that are particular to a boy child belonging to the black race. What is absolutely clear is that the poem is about a child's fears of the suffering he could possibly encounter as a result of things happening around him. His final wish is to escape the "terrible burden" and of having( as a boy) the burden of pretending to be brave, which is an expression of the fears and concerns of a child, particularly a male child in what is obviously an extremely unstable and chaotic environment. He dreams of a better, safer life, and he thinks that education will enable him to escape the chaos.

There are really no bright spots in the poem, except the dream of the child which may or may not materialize. The tone is empathetic and heavy with emotional pain, psychological stress and fears. We are reminded early in the poem that his ancestors also had very strenuous lives. The poem reminds us that children do think about what they witness around them, and that their fears and concerns are real. They wish to be assured, whether by their teachers or the adults in their lives that all will be well. The writer's intentional use of the repetitious, "I wish" is as painful as the fears of the child himself.

Another Take

The poem is about a black boy who wishes that he could have the regular things in life: things such as a congratulatory hug, to be educated to the highest level and to travel without harassment. The persona yearns to stop fighting for the basic right to be successful as well as to suffering.


The constant repetition of the phrase 'I wish' points to a yearning, a desperation even, for the basic things that life has to offer. The repetition gives credence to the idea that the persona might believe that his wishes are actually dreams that might not come true.

Stanza 1, lines 6 and 7, alludes to slavery, the state of lacking control over one's own life and destiny. The fact that reference is made to this hints to how the persona feels about his life. He does not feel as if he has control over it.
  • Stanza 3, lines 19 to 20, alludes to Paul Robeson, a black intellectual, who attained success despite difficult circumstances. The persona yearns to be like this person. He wants room to stretch intellectually.
  • Stanza 4, lines 22 to 25, alludes to the klu klux klan. Burning lights refers to the burning crosses and the pyjamas allude to their white outfits that look like pyjamas. The persona wants them to leave him alone, find something else to do other than make his life difficult, as well as contributing to his wishes remaining a dream.  


3.'not sink to lick boots':
This refers to the concept of being subservient.  To have no choice but to bow to people in order to get ahead.
4. 'Inside eye a sun ':
This refers to the persona's mind. He wants to show how intelligent he is without fear. He wants his mind to be a sun. Sun represents brightness and light, that is how he wants his intelligence to shine.


The tone/mood of the poem is one of sadness. The persona is thinking about how he is treated and he reacts to this in a sad way. He keeps wishing that things were different.

Racism, and its effects, is the major theme for this poem. The persona's yearning for 'ordinary things' highlights how contained the boy's life is. It is a cry to be free. 

Theme for English B

In the poem “Theme for English B” the poet deals with a student’s feeling of
frustration and disappointment in the society. The thoughts which he expresses
on the “page” echo the issues that confront him in an environment of whites.
The mind of the student is confused. Though he was born and bred in a society
of white people, and educated in a school among whites, yet he feels a sense
of alienation.

In the page that he writes, he is justifying his right to acceptance and equality, on
the basis that all people share a common natural heritage of instincts, emotions
and tastes. He firmly believes that each race impacts on the other and learns
from each other. Perhaps he is questioning whether discrimination should give way to harmony
among the races.


1. Describe the image presented in stanza one of the poem.

2. Which of the following best defines the feelings evoked by the image?
(a) elation and despair
(b) compassion and anger
(c) hatred and defeat
(d) disappointment and disbelief

3. Identify words and expressions which describe the morning’s atmosphere.

4. The poet compares the swinging body to “a black apostrophe to pain”,
most likely because “the swung body”
(a) resembled an apostrophe mark.
(b) was prominently positioned as a mark symbolizing pain.
(c) was at the heart of two elements.
(d) was the cause of much agony and pain.

5. Explain the meaning of each of the following expressions:
(a) punctuate our island tale
(b) brutal sentences
(c) anger pauses till they pass away

6. Do you think that the title of the poem is appropriate?
Give a reason to support your answer.

7. Which of the following best expresses the theme of the poem?
(a) a sorrowful tale
(b) man’s inhumanity to man
(c) victory and defeat
(d) a blot on our history

8. What is the mood experienced throughout the poem?

‘Dreaming Black Boy’

Answer these Questions

1. What is the theme of the poem?
(a) disappointment (b) relationships (c) alienation (d) injustice
2. Why do you think the “black boy” has dreams and wishes?
3. What does the boy wish according to stanza one (1) of the poem?
(a) opportunity to compete
(b) recognition and warmth
(c) freedom to play
(d) to forget his ancestors

4. Why does the boy wish for an opportunity to be educated?

5. Identify two pieces of evidence which show the boy’s feeling of rejection.

6. Identify the lines in which the boy feels that his freedom of movement and
speech have been suppressed.

7. Who are the “torch throwers” and the “plotters in pyjamas” alluded to in
stanza four (4)?

8. What do you think is the tone of the poem?

9. (a) What terrible burden does the boy suffer?
(b) What is his attitude to suffering?

‘Theme for English B’

Answer these Questions

1. What does the word “true” in line four (4) -“Then, it will be true”, imply?
(a) authenticity (b) reality (c) credibility (d) integrity

2. Identify the aspects of the student’s life which seem to make the
assignment difficult.

3. The student’s page would be based on
(a) life at the college
(b) his instincts and emotions
(c) a resolution of the conflicts in his mind
(d) the Harlem experience

4. What does the student wish to say by listing the things he likes?

5. What makes the student and the instructor part of each other?

6. According to the student’s page, which of the following statements are
(a) The page on which the student writes is coloured.
(b) Feelings, natural instincts and tastes are manifested by all people.
(c) Sometimes whites and coloured cannot tolerate each other.
(d) All people are not born equal.
(e) Each race impacts on the other and learns from each other.

7. Which words best describe the character of the student?
impulsive, rational, obstinate, compromising, intelligent, outspoken,

8. The poem is written in Blank Verse form. What does this lend to the style
and tone of the poem?

Oppresion and Racism
Consider the poems "Dreaming Black Boy" and "Epitaph".

a) Compare the ways in which these two poems deal with the experience of oppression and racism.
b) State which of the two poems you find more disturbing, and give reasons to support your answer.
c) Identify and comment on TWO poetic devices used in each poem to highlight the workings of oppression or racism.

"Dreaming Black Boy" and "Epitaph" are two poems which address the issues of oppression and racism. though they both deal with the same problem, it is handled and discussed differently.
   In " Dreaming Black Boy", the persona, a young black boy in school, talks about his aspirations and dreams. He hopes for an end to racism. The persona tries to use his education to try to escape the harsh reality of racism. He not only mentions what is going on around him now, but also the past and even how he would like things to be in the future. He longs for acceptance, a good education, success, to travel and a break from mental slavery. He fails to grasp that despite his intelligence and physical maturity, the racist treatment will continue. Thinking that what he experiences as a young boy is the worst, he has yet to find out how it is in the future. On the other hand, "Epitaph", a significantly shorter poem, is about a black slave who was hanged. People stop what they are doing  to watch the sight, yet the rest of the world continues to go on. the sugar cane continues to grow. Unlike in "Dreaming Black Boy", the persona in "Epitaph" is an adult, looking on a past occurrence and commenting on how these types of events have impacted on our lives today.
   "Epitaph" appears to be the most disturbing as it suggests that many of these slaves' deaths are forgotten. The idea or notion that life goes on after you die and all you are awarded is a "pause". The images in "Epitaph" are also more graphic. In "Dreaming Black Boy", the poet uses euphemism to down play the harsh reality of the young black boy. For example, "plotters in pajamas" is used to refer to the klu klux klan, a group infamous for the terror they caused on the black race.
    The main literary device used in "Dreaming Black Boy" is allusion. The persona alludes to white supremacy groups, a famous singer etcetera, to express the things he would like to change about his reality. "Epitaph" uses the "apostrophe" to give a visual image of the black slave hanging and swinging as he is hanged. This metaphor is effective in showing also how the slave has taken on the problems of the black race as his own. And his death belongs to the blacks. It is their history.
    Racism and slavery are two of the most controversial and oppressive elements in human history. Though both poems differ in style and technique, both successfully describe the physical and emotional effects of racism and oppression (slavery). This success is achieved through the use of allusions, vivid images, symbolic language and even euphemism.

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