The language we use in speech and writing often provides clues as to the culture we live in or the one we’re representing. This is true regardless of the author or the style of writing. For example, there is a particular style of speaking that particularly relates to the black or, to be politically correct the African American, vernacular. However, even when two authors are from the same culture, such as Langston Hughes and Roger Abraham, the language used can be quite different, reflecting changes in the region, time, or other factors. This can be seen most clearly when comparing poems by these authors that are using as their subject the same theme, such as “Sinking of the Titanic” by Langston Hughes and “Shine and the Titanic” by Roger Abraham.
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In both poems, the main character is a black man named Shine who works in the boiler room of the Titanic and attempts to inform the captain of the impending disaster. His words are disregarded as the captain insists the ship has enough pumps to free the ship of water but does not realize the extent of the damage. When this is finally realized, Shine has already jumped overboard to begin swimming for shore. Several characters in both poems call out for Shine to come to help them, all of whom he turns down as he makes his way to safety, primarily as a result of their inability to offer him anything of value on the open water. In the end, the news of the Titanic’s sinking is spread about as a great tragedy through the land while Shine is seen to be drinking heavily somewhere.
While the storyline and the characters are very similar in both poems, Hughes’ poem is intended to be a parody of Abraham’s, the language is much different, perhaps reflecting the difference between a cultured and educated man and an uneducated one unconcerned with white opinions. Abraham’s poem is much more carnal, concerned greatly with the physical things an individual can give to another. Examples of this include the offerings of the captain’s daughter, who promises she’ll “give you more pregnant pussy than a black man want to see” (Abraham, p. 22) and the captain’s wife who says, “I’ll let you eat pussy like a rat eats cheese” (Abraham, p. 26), relating Shine’s appetite to that of a rat. This is much cruder than the language used by Hughes, who suggests the offers made to shine include making him “as rich as any man can be” (Hughes, p. 22) and a banker who offers “a thousand share of T and T” (Hughes, p. 26). In addition to this change, Hughes removes a great deal of Abraham’s curse words, giving the black voice a calmer, more pacific outlook than the truer expression represented in Abraham’s poem.
While Abraham focuses on physical desire and Hughes focuses on monetary desire, they each suggest the unequal dichotomy that exists between the black man and the white. Despite Hughes’ changes to make the poem more acceptable to a wider audience, though, several lingual elements are left alone as a means of retaining the black voice. These include grammatical structures such as the cries of the other characters who call out to him “Shine, Shine, save poor me” (Abraham p. 15, p. 21, p. 25; Hughes p. 21, p. 25). A comparison of these two poems thus represents the accepted stereotypical black voice as opposed to a truer, less constrained, and more blatant voice.