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Family in African-American Literature Essay

In literary pieces such as Alice Walker’s story “Everyday Use”, Langston Hughes’ “My People”, and Robert Hayden’s poem “Those Winter Sundays”, the theme of family relationships is significantly evident. In “Everyday Use”, Walker presents one stage and aspect of a family life when one adult child chooses to live on her own while the other one stays with the family.

Hughes’ poem portrays his love for his people which he considers to be a family as a whole. Meanwhile, Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays”, talks about the narration and description of a boy about his father whom he is not well acquainted with. As the first piece speaks of a story about a family in relation to their heritage, the latter speaks of a boy’s reminiscence of a father who was never able to show his love directly to his children. These two aspects of family relationships reveal several angles to look upon.  Such family situations are influenced by authors’ own race and heritage.

Alice Walker portrays the story of a fully grown-up daughter, Dee, who goes back to home to her home to visit her mother, Mrs. Johnson and her younger sister, Maggie. She arrives accompanied by an African American Muslim man who is currently dating her. She comes home to collect some family possessions which she intends to turn into artistic pieces to be exhibited in a museum.

Meanwhile, her sister Maggie grimaces as her sister takes some of their personal belongings including a quilt that her mother has promised to give her as a wedding present. Dee tells her mother that Maggie would only ruin the quilt by using it everyday which puzzles Mrs. Johnson as she could not think of any way to use the quilt than to spread them. When Mrs. Johnson sees the sadness in her younger daughter’s eyes upon Dee taking the quilt, she snatches it away and gives it to Maggie. Dee walks away after claiming that their problem is they do not understand their own heritage (Walker).

In this story, Walker portrays a family whose eldest daughter has become estranged from them. In the first part of the story, Mrs. Johnson recounts how Dee had hated living in their house and even almost set it on fire when she was young. The concept of a dysfunctional family is quite present here; however, it focuses more on the mother-child relationship rather than every member of the family. It is important to note that Walker made use of the damaged relationship of Dee to her mother and sister to show and illustrate the different types of African American people.

On the other hand, Langston Hughes shows his love and appreciation for his people in his poem “My People”. He does not speak of family but his tone and use of words make it seem as if he is speaking of his beloved family.

“The night is beautiful, / So the faces of my people” (lines 1-2). The possessive pronoun “my” indicates a certain intimacy between him and “his” people which is usually used for referring to a small group of people who shares something intimate and common such as “my family”. In this regard, Hughes speaks highly of his race as if he is talking about a family he loves most.

“The stars are beautiful, / So the eyes of my people” (3-4). The comparison of his people to the heavens indicates the depth of his love and care for them as he would to his family. “Beautiful, also, is the sun. /
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people” (5-6).

In the poem “Those Winter Sundays”, it can be assumed that Robert Hayden personally speaks through the voice of the speaker in his poem “Those Winter Sundays”. His distant relationship with his father is evident. In this melancholic poem, he narrates about the concealed appreciation of a son for his father’s acts of love by means of writing it in a prose. The narrator tells about the labors of his father even on a cold winter Sunday. However, in the poem, the speaker emphasizes that his father’s great efforts are usually ignored.

The title of the poem itself already suggests a background for the readers. The speaker is obviously focused only on the “winter Sundays” and why it means too much work for the father. In the first stanza of the poem, the detailed description of the speaker’s father is very noticeable. He illustrated him by means of mentioning his physical condition as he works on cold Sundays.

He could have described it in a clearer way by going straight to the point.  Nevertheless, he expressed his father’s poor countenance in a way that the reader can visualize the father’s hands cracked hands and the busy Sundays. The first two lines of the poem somewhat develops a thesis that would cover the whole idea in the poem. “Sundays too my father got up early / And put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,” (1-2). Sundays should be a day of rest but the speaker stresses that his father still wakes up even before the sun rose to go to work.

He further highlights the weary countenance of his father as he describes his father’s “cracked hands that ached / from labor in the weekday weather made / Banked fires blaze” (3-5). The poem further shows how heartbreaking the father’s situation must be by writing the last line of the first stanza with, “No one ever thanked him” (5). With the last line, it is reasonable to consider that the speaker is one of those people who failed to thank him. In this regard, it can be assumed that the speaker is already in his old or middle age when he remembers how his father has shown him love in his own way.

Clearly, these renowned African-American writers have frequently used the theme of family relationships to further address the problems of their society. The issues of racism, nationalism, and love are the implicit ideas which are present in the three literary pieces discussed. These authors portrays different types of African-American families which serves as the representation of the current society that they are in. since the family is the basic unit of society, it is the primary target of societal effects such as racism and other social issues. Every problem of the society can become the problem of the family which is why the most meaningful literary works of art somewhat involves the theme of family relationships.

Works Cited

Hayden, Robert. “Those Winter Sundays.” The Oxford Anthology of African-American Poetry. Ed. Arnold Rampersad, Hilary Herbold. United States of America: Oxford University Press US, 2006. 261.

Hughes, Langston. “My People.” Poem Hunter. 19 April 2009. <http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/my-people/>

Walker, Alice. Everyday Use. Ed. Barbara Christian. United States of America: Rutgers University Press, 1994.

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