Tuesday, January 26, 2010

James Wheldon Johnson

In reading these poems, I was struck by the role of gospel music their structure. The rhythm and scheme, while not beholden to the musical genre, definitely played an influential role. This was reflected, I felt, in both of the poems that I read. The theme of self-pride and racial consciousness runs strong through these poems. I thought that in comparison, the poems were very different, though, with one describing the power of a humble and oppressed people to overcome the obstacles set before them through an internal belief; and the other a warning against succumbing to the temptations of the oppressor. One had positive connotations, the other negative.
I enjoyed seeing the juxtaposition of imagery between the two poems, with the positive reinforcement of ideals in “O Black and Unknown Bard” reversed in “The White Witch.” The idea of weakness is also reversed between the two poems. In the former, the weak are shown to have inner strength which allows them to overcome the evils and perils of their oppressors. The same relationship exists in the latter poem, with the black race subdued and oppressed by whites, though it appears differently. In the first, the enslaver is straightforward and evil, and in the latter is cunning and duplicitous. In the former, the inner strength allows the oppressed to regain their humanity and freedom, and in the latter the only option is to avoid contact and seduction.
In the first of these poems, Johnson seems to say that it doesn’t matter what white society does, that African Americans will be successful because of their inner strength, then undercuts that message in the latter poem by presenting the lures of white women as irresistible and to be avoided. These two poems definitely feel like a mixed message to me, and I look forward to discussing Johnson’s intent in them.

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