Most well-known voices in African-American literature tackle themes about the plight of the people, from the time they were uprooted from their original African homes, the decades of slavery in their adopted lands, to their continuous struggle to gain acceptance and be treated as equals in society. The works of three writers—Gwendolyn Brooks, Zora Neale Hurston and Maya Angelou—echo this longing and dream to be better and to rise above the social blights of poverty and inequality that most of them are experiencing.
The speakers in Gwendolyn Brook’s poem, Kitchenette Building, is a group of kitchenette workers expressing their frustration over their tedious work. They have lost control of their lives because they have become “things of dry hours and the involuntary plan (line 1)”. There is always so much work to do; however, work that would not change their lot in life. The word “dream” is “a giddy sound (line 2)”. They all think about it but it has become muted and undefined. It has become synonymous to “rent (line 3)”, “feeding a wife (line 4)” and other real-life responsibilities and practical priorities, instead of an ambition to better one’s self as all dreams should mean. The building is a metaphor of a trap that chains them physically and psychologically. The very nature of the place itself, a kitchenette, connotes a constricting place. Like most of her poems, Brooks writes Kitchenette Building as a first-hand experience description of her own life living in a kitchenette building during her early marriage years. The poem expresses the frustration of African-Americans like her to better their lives. It is not so much because they do not want to, but because most of the time, they cannot find the means. A very few, like the poet herself, actually rise from this type of existence but Brooks write the poem for the majority who do not.
The short story, “Sweat”, by Zora Neale Hurston explores a similar plot of oppression, this time through the character of Delia, a hardworking wife who has to wash white people’s clothes because her lazy husband is not bringing enough money for household expenses. Sykes does not like her washing white people’s clothes. He represents those black people who share a collective anger brought about by years of slavery and who could not get over this ugly period in history. Instead of work for them and further promote the culture of subservience or work with them and try to rise to be their equals, he simply chooses not to have anything to do with them. Like the Kitchenette Building in Brook’s work, Delia’s trap is her marriage. She sums up her life as “sweat, sweat, sweat! Work and sweat, cry and sweat, pray and sweat.” She has taken abuse both physical and verbal from her husband. She does not move out of the house because it symbolizes her dreams, although these are of dreams she made in the past during the first years of her marriage. She had hoped for good things then, like love and children, all of which did not come to pass. Like the workers in the kitchenette, dreams are made in the beginning after which they are slowly set aside, covered by mountains of responsibilities and present concerns. At the end of the story, Fate intervenes for Delia. The snake Sykes bought home to frighten Delia and make her more subservient to him, kills him with its poison. His death becomes her freedom. At least for her, it is simpler than for the workers of the Kitchenette, whose freedom would be more than what Fate could help deliver. Like Brooks’ poetry, Hurston’s stories are about the African-American experiences; but having lived at a way older time, during the early years of black freedom, Hurston was able to write about slavery and segregation with a painful sincerity and truth which the newer writers of the genre could only reinvent and generalize. Brooks and Maya Angelou wrote about the latter struggles of their people to strive for equality, but Hurston wrote about the transition, from the confusion about the black situation to the awkwardness and even resistance of others to accept the concept of equality and non-segregation.
Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise, provides the most hopeful and optimistic look at the same dreams that Brooks’ poem or Thurston’s story talk about. Angelou’s poem is grand in scope but this only mirror the tone of pride and celebration of the heritage and history of the black race mentioned in the lines. If the speakers in Brook’s poem express defeat from the onset, Angelou’s speaker expresses resilience from the very start. If Delia allows herself to be abused by her husband and prefers to keep silent and submissive, Angelou’s speaker fights and does not care what others say about her “sassiness”, “haughtiness” and “sexiness”. When she begins her poem, she talks about the sad and ugly history of her people because of others who tried to “trod me in the very dirt (line 4)”. Instead of being defeated, however, she rises “like dust (line 1).” The poet talks to a “you” in the poem. She is referring to the white race which has caused this history of slavery and oppression among the blacks. However, through the hatefulness and the disappointment of the whites over her unexpected behavior—the haughtiness that is uncommon among blacks—she shows them that she and her people will not be trampled upon anymore as before. According to her, she is “the gift that my ancestors gave/, I am the dream and the hope of the slave (line2 39-40)”. Her generation is the culmination of the struggles of the past. She is the realization of the dream that Brook’s poem or Thurston’s story could only imagine. Although Angelou also wrote about the sufferings brought about by the oppression of the race especially in her early novels, unlike the other two writers, most of her well-known works are celebratory and optimistic about the African-American culture instead of dwelling on the pains of the past.
The three literary works discussed all tackle the theme about the dream of the African-American to rise above a history of slavery and oppression. The tones may differ but the hopefulness is similar in all three. Even in the face of hopelessness, there is always a glimmer of possible change. Contemporary writers continue to write about the same subjects so that the world will not forget what African-Americans have gone through to gain what they have today and so that more cases of oppressions will cease to exist for these people.
Angelou, Maya. I Rise.
Brooks, Gwendolyn. Kitchenette Building.
Neale, Zora Thurston. Sweat.