Steve Biko once said, “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” In this essay, the poem My Brothers in the Streets by Mongane Wally Serote will be analyzed critically by paying close attention to how various elements such as form, diction, design, and tone contribute towards the overall argument of the poem.
In addition, I will be discussing how the poem can be seen as intersectional as well as how the poet portrays the effect that the apartheid system had on the oppressed.
The argument of the poem will be traced, and the overall message of the poem will be uncovered.
The form of the poem is free verse. This makes the poem flow naturally and acquire its own rhythm. In the poem, there is a struggle of freedom taking place. Thus, with the poem being free verse, it emphasizes the concept of freedom where there are no rules or regulations controlling the flow of the poem. Figuratively, this portrays what the black people are fighting for a South Africa where there are no discriminatory rules against specific races and where everybody is free.
Furthermore, the poet’s choices of words and imagery in the poem is significant and adds to the effect that the poet wanted to achieve. For instance, Serote references to the wrongdoers as “black boys” which immediately indicates that he is speaking about the black young South African boys during apartheid (line 1). Later in the poem, the poet lists the various dishonorable actions of these boys.
By listing these actions, the poet conveys the idea that these boys have no sense of racial pride and have no purpose in life. The words “You horde-water that sweep over black pastures”, insinuates that the boys are robbing their communities from achieving growth and moving forward (Serote 11). In addition, “You bloody bodies that dodge bullets” conveys how tough the black boys are (Serote 12). Even when they are wounded and bleeding to death, they still continue fighting. Evidently, black boys are reckless and attach no value to their lives. In the line, “Who’ve tasted the rape of mother’s and sisters” (Serote 13), the poet plays on the word “tasted”. The first interpretation is that the black boys have raped women in their communities who are the mothers and sisters of their fellow black brothers. However, it can also be that their black brothers have raped their mothers and sisters. It is obvious that these black boys are self-destructive and have no sense of being their brother’s keepers as they are hurting each other’s families.
The tone of the poem starts off as very accusing. After every line where the poet calls them “you black boys” (lines 1,10 and 18), the poet’s tone is frank, and he attacks his fellow black brothers for all of the vulgar acts of crime that they have been committing. He shows distaste and disbelief that his very own people could hurt their community in such a way when they are already having to face racism from the apartheid government every day. On the other hand, after the words, “My brothers in the streets” (lines 5,13 and 21), Serote’s tone is more sympathetic and gentler as he states what his black brothers endure every day and how vicious the cycle of poverty is. In the last four stanzas of the poem, the Serote’s exclamation of “listen!” (line 20) indicates how exasperated he is for his black brothers to listen to what he is saying. He repeats “listen,” (line 22) again but with a gentler tone that shows how serious the issue is that he is addressing as well as how hopeless he has become.
Intersectionality is the interconnected nature of social categorizing such as race, class and gender, regarded as creating overlapping and independent systems of discrimination or disadvantage; a theoretical approach based on such a premise (Oxford Dictionary). It is a framework for conceptualizing a person, group of people, or social problem as affected by a number of discriminations and disadvantages. In My Brothers in the Streets, the various identity markers of the people in the black community determines the type discrimination that they face. For instance, black women in the community face gender and race discrimination whereas the black men only face racism.
Serote creates the image of young black boys during apartheid that has no racial pride, social consciousness or sense of purpose in life (Ndledla 16). Due to the workings of oppression during apartheid, these black boys have become self-destructive and have become violent within their own communities. They have surrendered moral and spiritual authority to oppression. In addition, it can be interpreted that the vulgar acts that these boys are committing is their way of protesting against the terrible apartheid system that has robbed them of their self-worth and prosperous futures. These acts are a cry for help.
By naming the various aspects of the black boys’ lives, such as “holiday in jails” and “rest in hospitals” (Serote 6-7), the poet emphasizes how their lives have taken a wrong turn and how they’ve lost their sense of direction in life. The argument that the poet is trying to make is that the black boys have to be proud of their identity and reclaim their self-worth for transformation to be possible. Subsequently, the poet mentions the various crimes and injustices that these black boys have committed against people in their communities. Ultimately, Serote ends the poem off with the words “Listen, it’s black women who are crying” (lines 22-23). This is significant because he is stating that these boys are letting out their frustrations on their fellow black people and harming them in the process.
Steve Biko’s definition of Black Consciousness is the realization of the black man of the need to rally together with his brothers around the fact that they are black, which is the cause of their oppression and work together to free themselves from the chains that tie them to everlasting enslavement (SAHO). In this poem, Serote is trying to open the black boys’ eyes to see Black Consciousness and work together to fight against the oppression of apartheid.
In conclusion, the poem My Brothers in the Streets by Mongane Wally Serote is an excellent poem that illustrates how white people did not only bring injustice to the oppressed people’s lives, but how Apartheid caused black people to harm each other too. Serote used various techniques such as form, diction, design and tone to convey various messages such as Black Consciousness. Ultimately, the core message in the poem is that no one but themselves can liberate themselves culturally, spiritually, politically and economically.