The four poems I have selected to focus on all portray a cultural identity in their own unique way. ‘Wherever I hang’ and ‘The Fat Black Woman Goes Shopping’, are both written by Grace Nichols, a poet of Guinean background. I have also chosen to explore ‘Dream Variation’ by Langston Hughes as well as ‘Half-Caste’ by John Agard. I have chosen this selection of poetry because I feel that each poem has great merit in successfully challenging the racial disparities of the modern world.
Grace Nichols unsurprisingly tends to base her poems around the inequality between the black and white communities; this is reflected in her poem ‘Taint’. The poems I have chosen to investigate by her are ‘The Fat Black Woman Goes Shopping’ and ‘Wherever I hang’. I chose to include these poems because they are in contrast to many of her other poems and it’s content mainly comments on how white and black lifestyles differ rather than her usual theme of black persecution. The other two poems I have chosen by the two different poets both concentrate more on black discrimination like ‘Taint’ and are more similar to that poem, in this respect, than the two poems I chose by Grace Nichols.
Langston Hughes writes a detailed analysis of the desires of the average Black man in his poem “Dream Variation”. Hughes was related to John Mercer Langston, who was the first Black American to be elected to public office, in 1855. Born into a family with a strong sense of culture but a desire to be accepted, it is foreseeable that his poem reflects his aspiration of cultural freedom. Hughes uses representative imagery to portray his thoughts to the reader. “To whirl and to dance” represents his desire for freedom to be himself and in many of his essays; he shows a yearning to be seen as an individual, arguing, “no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself.” This strong sense of self and underlying cultural identity is reflected in his poetry.
“Dream Variation” creates a dreamlike mood suggesting his idea of the White world is, although slightly unrealistic, like a dream life in comparison to a Black mans, such as himself. The use of random rhyme adds to the dreamlike state in which the reader is welcomed into, via the imagery. The irregularity of the rhyme also adds to the surreal atmosphere and the boldness of the casual rhyme portrays the confident and positive tone of the poem. In some respects, this is suggestive that Hughes feels culture is ones own identity but acceptance throughout all cultures is vital.
Language is one of the key tools in which Hughes reflects his cultural identity. Metaphors are used as a tool to subtly apply the idea of white supremacy throughout the poem. “In the face of the sun” creates the image of a bright white sun, with the metaphorical meaning of a white dominated world in which white people are overbearing and untouchable. This metaphorical imagery is also used to echo the idea of Black inferiority, “Night coming tenderly” as if A Black man belongs to the night because the Whites rule the daylight. Similes such as “Black like me” emphasise the division between White and Black cultures.
Half-Caste is in stark contrast to “Dream Variation” in terms of content. This poem investigates the issue of mixed race parents and the specific word ‘half-caste’ that is considered very offensive. Agard’s tone in the poem is irate and resentful as he explores this sensitive and emotive issue: “I close half-a-eye, consequently when I dream, I dream half-a-dream”. This obviously bitter attitude towards the issue implies the poet feels strongly about this issue and that perhaps this subject touches his own sense of cultural identity.
The challenge to the reader to answer the unspoken question is echoed throughout the poem; “Explain yuself, wha yu mean”. The question put forward is why are children from mixed race parentage regarded as “half-caste”? Notice the “yu” in the quote implying the reader; this creates a sense of guilt and shame when reading the poem, as if the reader is personally responsible.
Furthermore, through careful language use, Agard continues his attack on the term, emphasising its negative connotations “yu mean when light an shadow mix in de sky is a half-caste weather”. This strong imagery is a powerful tool in creating a sombre atmosphere. This quote also shows the use of dialect, which is a more evident portrayal of cultural identity in this poem. Cultural identity is depicted through the sense of incompleteness throughout the poem and the general lack of acceptance of his culture.
Agard’s negative portrayal of the variation in cultures and the lack of acceptance are applied in a sardonic fashion. This is similar to Grace Nichols “The Fat Black Woman Goes Shopping”, who uses a combination of sarcasm and humour to depict her opinion. Her poem also has a fairly bitter undertone but at face level is far less ruthless then Agard’s aggressive approach to cultural variation.
Nichols poem is an account of her personal experience in the United Kingdom and almost an epilogue of her feelings about the change she endured doing her transition from Guyana to England. The poem focuses on contrasting the cultural differences between these two countries. The sardonic and confused tone promotes sympathy in the reader; the humorous tone develops this sense of empathy,” Look at the frozen thin mannequins”.
The confusion and disorientation felt by the woman in her search for the clothes she desires is mirrored by the occasional rhyming which echoes the idea of this chaotic content. The language is also a critical way in which cultural identity is represented. The alliteration of ‘b’ is used to emphasise that she is Black and to remind the reader of this fact. It also lays emphasis on the fact that being Black is a permanent issue in her everyday life in Britain. The use of alliteration is also used in a positive manner, “Nothing soft and bright and billowing”, as if she is proud of her background.
The mix of dialect: Creole and Standard English, emphasises the confused tone but also underlines her cultural identity. The loose use of rhythm symbolises the more relaxed lifestyle in her past life in Guyana. The concluding line “Nothing much beyond size 14”, is the underlying metaphorical message of the poem, she cannot get a dress to fit and she does not fit in Britain. Her search for a dress like those she wore in Guyana is a metaphor for her search for an identity in Britain. Cultural identity is portrayed particularly strongly in this poem and the contrast between Guyana and Britain particularly obvious.
“Wherever I hang” is also a poem about this same transition. As it is by Grace Nichols, the poem has similar qualities to the last, using a satirical tone to attract the reader. However, this poem does appear to be more sympathetic towards the country than the previous poem with a much more humorous undertone than bitter. Nichols again creates an uncertain mood but the mood is also fairly positive. Various statements, “waitin me turn in queue”, mock the English culture and the dialect highlights the division between the cultures.
The dialect also reflects her alienation in this country, “To tell you die truth, I don’t know really where I belaang”. This poem reflects an absence of identity, although in some ways she is still connected to her past life, ” I sending home photos of myself”, notice the use of the word “home”. The poem depicts a certain lose of cultural identity despite the finishing line “Wherever I hang me knickers-that’s my home”. This finishing line is the hint of a subtle rebellious tone, stating that wherever she wants to live she will live despite all obstacles-despite all cultural differences.
The four poems use various methods to convey their points, overall the most effective being the humorous approach. Grace Nichols most effectively conveys her cultural identity via her sarcastic and amusing method of writing. This encourages the reader to think more deeply about the poem and understand the idea of culture identity, which could help acceptance of various cultures in Britain. Despite this, I personally feel “Half-Caste” is the most striking poem, stirring emotions deeper than mere amusement. The poem allows us to understand how people of mixed race must feel when this term is used and the implications of such a word. Although fairly aggressive, this poem conveys most constructively the message of the necessity for acceptance, to whoever the reader may be.