Poetry is a unique art form because it usually captures the feelings of a particular individual. Therefore, two poems that share the same genre and themes can have substantial differences. On the other hand, two poems that seem different can share striking resemblances. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is a poem that was written by Langston Hughes during the Harlem Renaissance.
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The poem was written in 1921 by the young Hughes who was just adding his voice to the plight of the African Americans at the time. “We Wear the Mask” is a poem by the famous author and activist Laurence Dunbar. The lyrical poem was written twenty-five years before Hughes published “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”. These two poems bear both similarities and differences. This paper will compare and contrast these two poems with the view of understanding the message they carry.
These two poems were written in the period between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. This period was characterized by deep emotions concerning the struggles of the African Americans. Each of these poems represents the poets’ feelings towards the struggles of the African Americans. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” chronicles the speaker’s historical journey from Africa to the West. The speaker refers to African Americans, their history, and their heritage.
The poem captures this rich heritage albeit in a nostalgic manner. On the other hand, “We Wear the Mask” is a poem by one of the first African American writers to be accorded a national accolade for his work. Dunbar explores the coping mechanisms of the African Americans during their struggles. Both poems address issues that happen in the same period.
Dunbar’s poem was published at the turn of the century shortly after slavery was outlawed. This period was expected to be a victorious time for African Americans and everyone assumed that they were happy. “We Wear the Mask” disputes this idea and presents an argument that happiness among the African American population was a façade.
According to Dunbar, deep inside, African Americans have ‘torn and bleeding hearts’. The message in this poem is not direct and it is in line with the situation in the ground. When this poem was written, the fight for equal rights among African Americans had not started in earnest. Instead, the struggle for equal rights was just bubbling under the surface.
Dunbar’s poem hints at this discontent by claiming that African Americans were just masking their feelings. Dunbar digs deeper into the issue by claiming that most of the population at the time was hiding behind religion to avoid confronting the issues of inequality. In addition, the speaker accuses the African American population of misleading the rest of the population about their actual feelings.
Langston Hughes’ poem has a more melancholic tone. Hughes wrote “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” twenty-five years after Dunbar’s poem was written. Hughes’ poem uses a different approach to address the African American issues of the time. His poem highlights the pride of origin that African Americans have.
The speaker in this poem speaks proudly about his rich history and heritage and how it is closely connected to some mighty rivers around the world. Unlike Dunbar, Hughes does not hide the message of his poem. This is mostly because there was no need for indirect messages after the Civil Rights Movement had already taken shape. Hughes took time out of the equal rights struggles of the African Americans to reflect on this population’s prolific heritage.
By doing this, the poet was alluding to the fact that the Civil Rights Movement was a small hurdle for the population that had come so far. The message in Hughes’ poem is structurally different from that in Dunbar’s poem. Hughes is reassuring African Americans of their supremacy and the need to hold on to their mighty heritage while Dunbar is indirectly urging African Americans to do something about their veiled unhappiness.
The mask that Dunbar talks about hides a prolific history and heritage about the African Americans. On the other hand, Hughes reiterates the need for African Americans to hold on to their rich heritage. Hughes’ poem is also meant to remind the world that African Americans have contributed towards major civilizations around the world. For instance, the speaker reminds the readers that African Americans were part of the civilization that brought the pyramids.
Hughes’ point is that African Americans thrived through various civilizations around the world and the Civil Rights Movement is just another hurdle. The rest of the population at the time viewed the African American population as the recently freed slaves who were supposed to show gratitude. However, most people failed to put into consideration the fact that African Americans’ history predated slavery.
Dunbar’s poem is also structured in a manner that addresses African Americans and the rest of the population. Dunbar sends a call to action to African Americans although his message is not direct. On the other hand, Dunbar’s poem informs the rest of the population that the happiness they see among the African American population is not real. While Hughes’ message is assertive and direct, Dunbar’s message is provocative and indirect.
One of the most striking similarities between these two poems is the fact that they use a central metaphor. Hughes’ poem uses the River as the main metaphor. In addition, he includes it in the poem’s title. The river is used to show the passage of time in “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”. African Americans have come a long way and triumphed over several forms of adversity. However, just like rivers flow eternally, African Americans have kept on flowing.
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The metaphor of the river is also used to show that the existence of African Americans will outlast many things. At one point in the poem, the speaker says that he has seen rivers change their appearance depending on the time. This signifies that a time will come when the outlook of African Americans will be favorable. Dunbar’s poem uses the mask as the main metaphor.
The poet also boldly introduces this metaphor in the poem’s first line. The mask refers to the façade that prevents people from seeing the discontent of the African American population. According to Dunbar, African Americans use masks to hide their actual feelings and avoid provoking those who oppress them. The mask is a strong metaphor that also lends itself to the poem’s title. Use of metaphors gives these two poems a valuable outlook and helps the poets pass their strong messages to their audience.
“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and “We Wear the Mask” are two poems that address the plight of the African Americans albeit from different perspectives. The wishes of the two poets materialized with the success of the Civil Rights Movement. Both poets reckon that the struggle of African Americans is an ongoing process.