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The writing styles of Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes are very similar, evident in Angelou’s poem, “Africa” and Hughes’s poem, “Negro”. Even from the titles, you can see that these poems will be about African Americans, unsurprising considering the authors. Both are activists of letting the world know of the abuse that African Americans have suffered. Many aspects of their works are very similar, including the repetitional usage of words, stanzas, or phrases.
They both speak out about slavery, they both use a broadened form of their topics and they both have interesting uses of the past and present tenses, making you relate to the poem on a very personal level, while at the same time, forcing you to see that there is a much greater thing happening right before your eyes.
While containing less differences than similarities, it is very fun to notice that while Langston’s poem is very self reflective and personal, Angelou’s is grand; speaking outright of an entire continent instead of one person.
The difference then, turns out not to be a difference at all, just another similarity in disguise. Both authors are heading in the same direction, for the same conclusion, yet in different ways.
First, I want to analyze the historical context of the poems. Hughes was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance and Maya Angelou did not acquire fame and recognition until 1969, with the publishing of her first autobiography, I Know Why Caged Birds Sing. Even though both authors’ works were decades apart, they both speak of history that was way before their time.
Most of “Africa” takes place in the past, evident in the first line of the poem, “Thus she had lain”(1). With the verb tense indicating the past tense.
Hughes’ poem differs in that the poem is told from the first person point of view but is not referring to just Hughes himself. The second stanza provides the first evidence of this, “I’ve been a slave/ Caesar to me to keep his door-steps clean/ I brushed the boots of Washington”(4-6). Hughes wasn’t literally speaking of himself being a slave in that context, as it would have been impossible for him to have been in the time of Julius Caesar. This is where the historical context comes in. Both poems speak of past transgressions that are affecting how we live our lives today, which makes sense because of the intense slavery that the African Americans were faced with in the early times of history.
Another important aspect of both poems is the repetitions that are used, which happen to be the first and last lines. Maya Angelou’s poem is different in the what that the tenses are changed to signify that despite the long history of sufferings and being victimized, that a change is happening. Langston’s repetition is also memorable in the fact that they are the only stanzas in the poem that are in the present tense. The use of repetition is often used to reiterate something, some important fact. Both of them in these poems’ reiterated parts neatly summarizes what all has happened to black people throughout history or in the poem. Take Hughes’ first stanza for example, “I am a Negro/ Black as the night is black/ Black like the depths of my Africa”(1). Throughout the entire poem, Hughes has told the history and all the backstory of what it really means to be a Negro and here he finalizes his statement. He describes that the skin of African Americans is black and their origin is from Africa.
In Maya Angelou’s poem, she reiterates her first stanza not only once, but three times, some in different tenses to let us know that even though time has passed, and the country of Africa has suffered so much through the years, the nation and her people will no give up, not back down. Each time we revisit the line, “Thus she has lain” it encompasses a different emotion. The first time, it is of unawareness, and contentment, innocent. When the line pops us again, at the end of the first stanza, with the tense changed to present, it emphasizes a passivity and that something is hovering on the horizon; an omen. The strangest though is when the line is placed in the ninth line of the second stanza, after the horror of the lines it followed. It is hard to distinguish the tone of this one, which could be anything from sorrow to anger. Without further explanation from Angelou though, it’s hard to tell. the last one, the first verse of the poem, is very comforting though, leaving us with an assurance that things are getting better and that they are changing in a positive way.
The main focus of both poems, the thing that ties both of them together though is the way that they both focus on the suffering of the African American people. Hughes’ poem in particular, highlights the sufferings of the African American through stages of early civilizations such as the Romans, Egyptians, Belgians and Americans. What’s intriguing is the fact that all of those empires have fallen with the exception, of course, of America, while the African American people still endure. Hughes’ poem illustrates how somehow, Africans have had their hands in all sorts of civilizations and have contributed a lot to history even while they were being used as slaves. Angelou’s “Africa” three stanza have clear themes, one of an innocent beginning, are tragic enslavement and one of rebuilding and rising up.
In conclusion, it was very interesting to see how the two poems had many similar themes and how similar they were written. Both were and are still considered great works of their time and with good reason. I just a few lines, they managed to captured snippets of all the suffering that had be done not only to the Africans themselves, but to the country as well..
Hughes, Langston. “Negro”. Literature; Reading, Reacting, Writing. Ed. Laurie Krisner and Stephen Mandell. Boston: Thompson Heine, 2001. 746-747.
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