Poetry is usually made interesting by deciphering the symbols used by the writer in bringing out abstract meanings. It is through certain choice words that the full meaning and inspiration of the poet’s background, nationality, and even personality traits. It is these attributes that make a reader associate with the meaning and gain a personal understanding of the literary effort that suggests something larger (Ray 504). Maya Angelou is renowned for her poetic justice, using her talent to describe how the history of the black community has been disfigured, not only in America but also back home in Africa. It is through her symbolism that she describes the magnitude of the oppression of the black community not only today but also in the past by White imperialists. The writer has indicated that she is proud of her history, owing to the fact that her people bought it with their blood, sweat and tears and everything that they came along with from Africa. It is within this frame of mind that the writer travelled all the way to Egypt and Ghana, returning with a changed mindset (McCluskey 3). Symbolism is rife with beginning with the allegory that Africa is a woman, full of beauty from head to toe.
To begin with, the poet mentions in the 16th line that Africa was bloodied by guns, which made it possible to capture even strong men and sons of the motherland (Beaty and Hunter 216). The guns have been cleverly used as a symbol not only to indicate superlative attacking prowess but also the difference in technology between the black and white visitors. Guns are symbolic for the fight for freedom in the West, which is ironical since the same weapons were used to capture others instead of setting them free. It is also worth noting that it is through the might of the armaments that multitudes of Africans were captured, only to be given hoes and other farming implements in the course of slave labor. The guns symbolize not only the difference in weaponry but also mindsets when it is considered that the invaders also came by other technological wonders at the time, such as long-distance marine vessels. It is these guns that would have astonished the primitive population who were well versed in face-to-face combat using short spears and swords. Picturing the battle between the two sides leads one to overwhelmingly recognize the inequality of the fighting forces.
It is worth noting that the poet also notes how guns have the power to separate people from their loved ones. Guns could easily kill people or force a community to submit to the person wielding the weapon. It is through guns that African children were left orphans, husbands widowed and parents dejected after being compelled to leave their homeland by brute force. In fact, if it was not for the guns, there is a very higher chance of history turning out differently as maybe the African defense forces would have endlessly fought to protect their black communities in the remote African villages of the time. Coming back to the present, the issue of guns has evoked endless debate, especially due to the misuse and proliferation of terror attacks. The mainstream media coupled with public platforms are all awash with debates about gun control, which is threatening to disintegrate the western society. In fact, the issue is so grave such that law enforcement officials are jumpy when faced with civilians since they could easily be shot in the back.
It is also important to note that another symbol used in the poem revolves around sugar, which has been utilized in the second line. Sugar as a commodity is one of the most traded goods in the world, which is even credited with bolstering the efforts of early international trade. It is worth noting that it is through the increasing profitability of the international trade that increased demand for sugar cane and other agricultural products, leading up to the oppression of the black community through the slave trade. The sweetness associated with sugarcane is a contrast to the pain and suffering endured by Africans captured to work in sugarcane plantations. It is also through the sugar trade that early forms of capitalism took root, ensuring the neglect of vulnerable segments of the population.
It is also worth noting that sugar is processed by machines, which marks the onset of the technological revolution. The number of products that use the resource as a raw material is countless in the world, increasing the need for machine processing to satisfy increasing demand of sugar to the international community. Such scenes are brought to light following the realization that too much sugar is not good for a healthy body, leading up to complications that change the quality of life.
Another symbol used in the poem revolves around the color white, repeatedly in the second stanza. White is a symbol of peace and was historically associated with surrender, especially when under imminent threat of defeat. In other words, advancing armies used to march along with a white flag, useful in sparing their lives in the wake of defeat. It is the same symbol that has been used by the poet in a different meaning, associating the arrival of Europeans with carnage. When the white skinned people arrived at the shores of the African coasts, they were hell-bent on capturing young women and at the same time killing strong and abled African men. Such a symbolic color makes the audience easily associate with the stanza and also helps the ability to remember.
Color White has also been extensively represented by the raging seas, which is typical of the rough ocean-straddling the British Isles. The representation here comes from the fact that the white men were able to safely traverse the oceans even in the face of unfavorable navigating conditions. The engineering feat needed during those times to make water resistant boats capable of cruising even on torrid sea conditions highlights was not enough to give the visitors moral superiority and treat Africans better. The nature of the brain capacity needed to design and build such ships does not correspond to the barbaric mentality of capturing Africans for personal if not imperialistic gains. It is also notable that the poet decided to use such symbolic words, which offer multiple meaning and ingredients to poetic justice.
Additionally, by using the color white, Angelou has gone a long way in trying to represent the certain energy of illumination and enlightenment. The Europeans were quick to look for raw materials and minerals instead of helping Africans do away with ignorant attitudes and mentalities. These symbols aim to help the reader associate the incursion of the white skinned imperialists with favorable traits only to discover that the reality was much different. The need for the poet to include such symbolic parables also hint at the way in which Europeans exploited the African lands and population, which is still evident even in recent times in during the colonial period (Nunn and Wantchekon 3221). The South African government was associated with apartheid, which is in line with supporting the society discriminate other members of the population (Coetzee and Nuttall 2).
Ultimately, it is important to recognize the potency of the symbolic words, phrases and even stories about the reality of things that occurred in the past. The writer and others have continually championed the rights of vulnerable segments of the society, which has historically tied white races on the upper echelons of society. These attitudes are destined to change following the introduction of other writers inspired by these symbols to associate deeper meanings in their literary pieces. The creativity needed to uncover such symbols in any artistic creation builds or rather harnesses the interest of the audience, invigorating the industry in the long-run.
- Beaty, Jerome, and J. Paul Hunter. New Worlds of Literature: Writings From America’s Many Cultures. Norton, 1994.
- Coetzee, Carli, and Sarah Nuttall. “Negotiating the Past: The Making of Memory in South Africa.” Cape Town: Oxford UP, 1998.
- McCluskey, Audrey T. “Maya Angelou: Telling the Truth, Eloquently.” Black Camera (2001): 3-11.
- Nunn, Nathan, and Leonard Wantchekon. “The Slave Trade and the Origins of Mistrust in Africa.” The American Economic Review, vol. 101, no. 7, 2011, pp. 3221-3252.
- Ray, S. M. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, 1997.