“To Hell and Back, with Cake” By: Safiya Henderson-Holmes

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In To Hell and Back with Cake,” the young girl goes through obstacles to get a desirable treat, cupcakes. The poem deals with racism and discrimination, using various poetic techniques such as alliteration, sibilance, and personification. The girl’s desire for cupcakes is contrasted with the bakery counter lady’s racist view of black and white cupcakes, representing the difference between childhood and the real world. The rejection the little girl feels does not take away her life but stops it from blossoming, symbolizing the reality of living with discrimination. The author, Holmes, was born in the Bronx and had an interest in literature and performance, leading her to an MFA in Creative Writing from City College of New York before her death in 2001. Overall, the poem is beautifully written, and the author’s personal experiences may have influenced its powerful message.”

Table of Content

The title of the poem “To Hell and Back, with Cake” is exactly what the young girl in goes through to get cupcakes, a desirable treat or reward. The poem has a lot to do with racism and discrimination. It is written in first person and as a narrative with many different poetic techniques such as alliteration, sibilance, oxymoron, personification etc. Holmes offers very vivid and descriptive details explaining what these cupcakes mean to this little girl. Being the reader, you can almost smell the cupcakes with the visuals the author gives.

Holmes uses many different metaphors and similes leading this poem to be a very emotional and dramatic poem. The tone of the poem goes from happy and joyful to sad and angry. The little girl has her mouth watering for these vanilla and chocolate cupcakes yet the cruel and racist bakery lady diminishes her desire for black and white cupcakes, since that is all the bakery had. The contrast between the bakery counter lady’s and the little girl’s view of the cupcakes signals the difference between “childhood” knowledge and the “real world” knowledge.

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The cupcakes are called chocolate and vanilla by the little girl who is viewing race as differences in flavor. Both the cupcakes are desirable and are a baked good, but they are different in flavor. The point is that they still are both cupcakes. The little girl is forced to reconsider her ideas when the bakery counter lady tells her sharply that they sell only black and white cupcakes. This is to symbolize that in the real world outside of childhood truths, people are viewed and judged according to their color–and not what they are made of.

People are not seen as all being people, but are separated by skin color; they are black, brown, or white. This is different from the child’s view of the cupcakes differing only by flavor. The last line is interesting to note, “the dead sweetness, bloated / belly-up, in waves, carried me / out the bakery door, alive, / but holding my breath. ” The rejection the little girl feels doesn’t take away her life, but stops it from blossoming. She is alive but with held breath.

Her dreams must be deferred, and she must live with her blackness without it being given its true flavor, without her establishing her true identity. This is her reality, an ending that does not comply with the happy expectation of Spring. Although I could not find much information on Holmes, I think that she may have faced discrimination as a child or her parents very well might have. Holmes was born December 30, 1950 and grew up in the Bronx.

She worked at Harlem Hospital as a physical therapist for many years. She strongly believed in natural birth and so she also worked as a natural birthing coach. Holmes had an incredible interest in literature and performance which eventually led her to the MFA in Creative Writing from City College of New York in the 1980’s. She worked at Syracuse University in her later years before developing cancer and dying in 2001. Her poem is beautifully written and whatever inspired her truly made her a great poet.

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“To Hell and Back, with Cake” By: Safiya Henderson-Holmes. (2017, Mar 25). Retrieved from


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