Masterpiece Monday: Poems about Racism

So I have a team presentation in my Media Ethics class tomorrow, and it’s about the ethical issues surrounding a radio talk show host who holds very bigoted views, but also makes the station a ton of money. My partner and I essentially take Voltaire’s position of “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Even though we do not respect the Don Imuses and Rush Limbaughs of the world for their hate speech, they still have the freedom of speech.

However, that does not make their comments moral whatsoever. I chose to look at three famous poems that deal with the personal effects of racism. Note: the first poem listed does use a racial slur, but since I don’t advocate artistic censorship, I will include it in its original form. Please understand that I do not mean to offend, but only to preserve the poet’s intent.

“Incident” by Countee Cullen (1925)

Once riding in old Baltimore,   
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,   
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.

Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, “Nigger.”

I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.

“We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1896)

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
       We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
       We wear the mask!

“I, Too, Sing America” by Langston Hughes (1926)

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

These three African-American men highlight how racism has affected their lives. Cullen never forgot an instance of discrimination as a child, Dunbar reflects on the emotional struggle African-Americans experience with white society, and Hughes remains optimistic for racial equality.

While the content revolves around the same issue, the poems’ forms differ greatly. Cullen creates a childlike sing-song effect by rhyming every other line. This rhyme scheme enhances the speaker’s youth. Dunbar writes in couplets but repeats the line “We wear the mask” to stress how hiding their true feelings is a constant battle. Lastly, Hughes’s free-form poem emphasizes short, powerful phrases instead of a rhyming structure.

I think that all these poems are beautiful in their own way, and I believe that all high school students should experience them like I did at that age. Too many of my students are under the impression that racism does not exist anymore, that it’s only a thing that we study when discussing the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement.

Although I am grateful that equality has increased legally and socially over time, I am disturbed by this promotion of ‘color-blindness.’ We should celebrate, not ignore, our racial differences, because race is an essential factor to who we are and how we perceive reality.

Right now,  everyone is infuriated over the death of Trayvon Martin (rightfully so, in my opinion), and while I won’t digress into a political debate, I’d like to ask: What do you think these poets would say about this controversial tragedy? How far have we really come since their era?

It saddens me that these events still occur in the 21st century, but we are also capable of inciting sociopolitical change. Going back to the reason I wrote this post, if you find that a media professional (whether he’s on TV, radio, or an internet blog) is spouting off racist opinions, do your part and refute. If enough people post their comments and write their political representatives about fighting racism, then slowly that change will happen.

And when it comes to promoting racial equality, it’s better late than never.

1 thought on “Masterpiece Monday: Poems about Racism

  1. Pingback: Happy 3rd Blog Anniversary! | Book Club Babe

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