African American Literature can often be characterized by having a dual identity, especially in the early to mid-twentieth century. This dual reality is reflective of the African American’s heritage and present circumstances. With a heritage of forced immigration into the country, and limited rights and racism after slavery is abolished, there is a borderline pride and hatred. It is very possible to have both of these feelings, and authors reveal this confusing notion through the expression of poetry.
Yes, the writers are proud of being Americans, but at the same time, are always conscience of the fact that in the land of opportunity, the color of their skin will perhaps always be not only noticed but also will limit them and their children. There are many texts that portray this dual identity of the African American, including Langston Hughes’s “Theme for English B” and Claude McKay’s “America”. Through “Theme for English B” Hughes explores his mixed identity: “So will my page be colored that I write? Being me, it will not be white” (26-27).
Before this, he identifies himself as the only black student in his class, which seems to be away from Harlem, and that he resides in Harlem. He spends his time both in the majority black Harlem, but he is learning in a mostly white area, from white professors. He hears both Harlem and New York, and therefore can identify with the black (Harlem) and the larger picture of New York (America). He explains this is part of being American, different and yet working together, if not for the benefit of each other, then for the benefit of the country.
He understands that his professor and himself often “don’t want to be a part” (35) of each other, but neither of them have a choice. I think that it is important to note that Hughes emphasizes his own unwillingness to be a part of the white man This may reflect the forced immigration of slavery, or simply his own deterrence away from “whiteness”, even though it is necessary for him to achieve his education. McKay has a much bitterer viewpoint of his America. The poem “America”, as compared to “Theme for English B” has a much darker and critical tone of America, beginning with the first line “Although she feeds me bread of bitterness”(1).
Starting off the poem like this immediately creates the feeling of paradox that McKay is trying to convey. Although the speaker is being fed, it is with foul tasting nourishment, not the kind that you would expect in the United States. The paradox is further heightened through the idea of life and death occurring simultaneously: “Stealing my breath of life, I will confess I love this cultured hell that steals my youth” (3-4). A “cultured hell” is an interesting phrase to use because it is so unexpected. It highlights the culture of America, perhaps both of black and white culture that is creating such a tumultuous environment.
But, I doubt that this would be any better than an uncultured hell. It is this country that creates and destroys, loves and hates at the same time. It is in this paradox of impossibilities that unlocks multiple possibilities. It is all of this confusion and acknowledgement of inequality that creates the speaker “strength against her hate” (6). But this one man going against the country and the culture of hate and appeasement of that hate can hardly make a dent if “Her bigness sweeps me like a flood” (7).
The stand that the speaker is taking against and for the country may not be going anywhere, but the can see a time in the future where “beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand, like priceless treasures sinking in the sand” (13-14) America’s current culture would be buried. Although this can be interpreted as the downfall of the country, I see it as the downfall of the current culture of America. This is not an anti-America poem, but rather one dedicated to a better one, and towards the construction of a culture that embraces all Americans.
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