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American African Heritage
The Courage that Lies Beneath
Martin Luther King once said, “We have flown the air like birds and swum the sea like fishes, but have yet to learn the simple act of walking the earth like brothers” (Carson 23). This quote seems to be one in what Hughes and Sanchez want to address in their poems.
Throughout history, African Americans struggle with racial segregation, slavery and continual quest for freedom. This constant discrimination seldom makes the “Negros” proud of their heritage. However, two powerful writes of Afro-American literature have come to realize that black heritage is vital and important, thus need to be respected and cherished. Langston Hughes “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and Sonia Sanchez’s “An Anthem” are good examples of poems that paved way for black s to proudly celebrate and appreciate their heritage. Both poems were written by African American writers standing as Afro- American’s representatives to gain peace and freedom. These poems urge blacks to value their heritage, be proud and hope that their dreams may come true. It also gives us insight into the lives of African Americans in the 90’s when segregation, constant ignorant and denial right of the “Negros” were enforced. Interestingly, Hughes is the corner stone (influence) in Sanchez’s writing about blacks (Kelly) because he was the first black voice to be hard in America, writing about Black experience and History. Despite certain structural and semantic differences, the poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes and “An Anthem” by Sonia Sanchez are in one in uplifting the spirits of the black people who have been victims of discrimination for the past decades.
As one goes over the poems, certain details would suggest that these are two unlike poems but vital elements like its image, tone, symbolisms and its theme seem to be unified.
Aside from being known as writers that advocate the rights of the African-American people or the blacks in general, it is quite evident that their poems are dedicated to the black people who have lost their senses in the midst of the clamor for equal treatment in a world, which was dominated by the white people. Certain details in the poems refer to the black people in a highly significant manner that empowers the way one must look at these people. The poems of Hughes and Sanchez did not use the word black in referring to the people but they used points of references that trace the root of the people. Hughes refers to these people as the people who “built my hut near the Congo” (line 5) while Sanchez refers to them as people who “are like Shango” (line 28) who is an African god that was venerated by the people of Nigeria.
Hughes traces back to the history of African Americans and acknowleges the different black society that existed since history even though they often go unnoticed. “I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older that the flow of human blood in human veins” (line2). He uses rivers to speak of black history and memories of captured slave. Likewise Sanchez who used rivers to demonstrate the African culture and pride for existence. “We are secret rivers/ with shaking hips of crests” (line 12-13). Both poets recognize the rivers as path of African society and civilization.
Just like the quote by Martin Luther King, these poems call for the African American people who have been victims of repression. If Martin Luther wants everyone to be one as brothers, the poems speak in such a way that it calls for the black people to be one in its endeavors to be at peace or to be on the same plane as that of the other people in the world. Since the black people have been victims of repression, the poems call for these people to know their essence and their greatness so that they may be able to push themselves to rise to the ranks that they deserve just like any other people in the world.
According to Edward Sullivan, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” seems to be highly historical in such a way that it insinuates the roots of the black people as something deep and established through time. The metaphorical use of the river amplifies the greatness of the black people that was marked at the beginning of time and should continue on as how the rivers flow.
Sonia Sanchez’s “An Anthem” provided a different approach as it is more direct in its tone and its theme. Her words speak directly of how great black people are by presenting ironies that emphasize the essence of every African American or any black person. She asks African Americans to celebrate their heritage, have courage and fight for peace as they are people who deserve dignity in the society. Sanchez is an icon where the racial self may be heard, affirmed, and strengthened justified by her sense of justice and her legacy of love, Sanchez stands as an inspiration, an example of what it means to survive a troubled world. Sanchez has great value for her heritage and Culture while Hughes has a strong sense of racial pride and heritage.
Sanchez’s poem emphasis peace and courage in other to obtain peace. “We are people made of fire/we walk with ceremonial breaths/we have condemned talking mouth” (line 4-6). Sanchez proclaims the blacks as winners even though they are being labeled as “losers’”, and they also condemned inequality and slavery and it is time for blacks to be free. Hughes emphasis similar freedom when Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery by signing the Emancipation act of 1960 since slavery was still legal and enforced in the south. To Sanchez and Hughes, this was a moment of freedom for the black people. Hughes said, “I heard the singing on Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to/New Orleans….” (Line 7). After this, came the civil right movement, since black had no civil right rather they were slaves left to suffer.
Both poems utilized various symbolisms that serve to uplift the African Americans so that they would be reminded that they were not born in the world as mere slaves. Hughes made certain references to the contribution that these people made for the great pyramids of Egypt as well as by being a major witness to the unfolding of the history of the United States of America. “I looked upon the Nile and raised the raised the great pyramids above it” (line 6). Sanchez also noted that discrimination and segregation of the blacks existed, yet it was ignored and nothing was done to stop it. “For the world is split wide open/ and you hide your hands behind your backs/ for the world is broken into little pieces/ and you beg with thin cups for life” (line 16-19). Here we can see that the people are begging for peace, stability, freedom and hope for life so they can leave to see another day.
Although Sanchez shared the same thoughts as to that of Hughes, Sanchez became more direct in saying that the black people are not just ordinary people as for Sanchez they are “more than hunger and music… color and drums… anger and dance…” (Line 20-23).
With all these lines, both poems speak of the empowerment of the black people as brothers who should fight for equality. Different rivers that should empty in the same bank and a prayers for strength to ensure through hard time, and eventually embrace freedom. After all both poems emphasize peace, freedom, history and hope for African Americans.
Carson, Clayborne. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr. Warner Books: NY, 1998.
Sullivan, Edward. “Celebrating Langston Hughes.” 6 Dec. 2007 <http://www.ala.org/ala/booklinksbucket/langstonhughes.pdf>.