The Portrayal Of The Personal Identity in Selective American Poems

Categories: Personal Identity

The portrayal of the Personal Identity in Selective American Poems

With the end of the 19th century, a time has emerged in which poets provided a historical and cultural overview of America via poetry while assessing the importance and meaning of them. American poets of the 20th century like Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Emily Dickson are iconic poets of the century which pushed the conventional limits of poetic composition and its style while pointing out that the poetry is not just a product of imagination or an interaction between the real world and imaginative world, but a new form to aware the readers about personal, social, political and intellectual contexts.

With this new vision, poets like Gwendolyn Brooks who is an African- American writer, denotes the necessity of having a personal, racial and cultural identity to them within the White American regime. Accordingly, this paper focuses on the yearnings of the poets who were longed to have their own recognition without any discrimination based on sex, ethnicity and the color of the skin.

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Most of the poems directly represented their struggles to live with the White American society and the clash between the White American culture and the African American culture.

Brooks starts her poem, “My Dreams, My Works Must Wait Till After Hell” with an anguish and despair while suggesting her agony and torment through the topic itself. The word “Hell” suggests the distress and anguish in the speaker’s mind and it is an implication of the poet’s journey that filled with hardships in order to cling to the White culture that is unknown for her, “I hold my honey and I store my bread/ In little jars and cabinets of my will/ I label clearly, and each latch and lid”.

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The above lines suggest an idea of incompleteness or her alienation from confinement in this unknown American culture. Honey and bread which are symbols of representing their African culture, now have to label them and latch them due to the fear that they will lose them like their identities.

At one point, it can be referred to her locked up desires and dreams that she is waiting for so eagerly. “I am very hungry. I am incomplete” conveys the fact that the poet is hungry because of trying to pursue her dream of having equal rights and to have their own identities despiting the fact that they are African Americans. This poem does not only focus on the dreams of the poet but it collectively brings the thoughts of all the African Americans who are isolated in between their native culture and the White American culture.

In one hand there is a direct representation of the poet’s struggle to protect her identity and culture while on the other hand, there is an indirect portrayal of her determination, commitment, and endurance of holding her indigenous African culture in this alienated environment. “The punny light, I keep eyes pointed in;” brings out the poet’s courage, valour, and bravery who is impatiently waiting to obtain a recognizable self-identity and a cultural identity. Though the poet is lost in between two cultures, she is managed to keep positive hopes for the future. Moreover, the word choice of the poet also indicates the struggle of searching the African- American identities to themselves. The comparison between the “hell” with the “home” indicates a positive future. “My taste will not have turned insensitive/ To honey and bread old purity could love”. No matter how hard the situation is, the poet is waiting anxiously until she finds out her self via finding the cultural and racial identity in this American culture which is the only way to recognize her self-identity.

The poem “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” written by Emily Dickinson, reflects the feelings and the thoughts of the poet herself. The title itself denotes Dickinson’s view of herself and she is questioning your place in the society or the placement given to you by the society. The title of the poem with an exclamation mark signifies the idea that the poet is enthusiastic to be nobody which is quite questionable because the majority of people would like to be recognized and to be known by others. Therefore the title suggests the idea that the poet needed to conceal her identity by being nobody!In the first stanza, the poet is speaking to another person who is similar to the poet.

“Are you- Nobody- too?”. She warns the outsider not to reveal their identities to the outside world out of the fear that “[…] they’d advertise” them. Here advertising can be referred as her fear towards being rejected or avoided by the society or they would advertise as “Somebody”. Therefore they try to be anonymous but still in a way she tries to build relationships in covertly. Hence it is contrasting because even though she is claiming the fact that she needs to be “nobody”, she consoles herself when she found someone quite similar to her. “Then there’s a pair of us!”.

The exclamation mark signifies the poet’s happiness and contentment but here in a way, it reflects that even though she doesn’t like to be recognized, she is building a recognition by being “Nobody”. Dickinson describes being “Somebody” as dreary because in her real life too she lived a reclusive life. Here in the poem too, she needs to highlight her personal identity as anonymous. In the second stanza the poet compares that being “Somebody” is similar to being a “Frog”. The significance of using the frog is that it is croaking and reminding the other frogs of their identities. In the real life too, people are bragging of themselves and trying to boost the reputation of themselves just like frogs while staying in an “[…] admiring Bog!”.

Accordingly, Dickinson in a way criticizes society and hints at her own identity. These persuasive thoughts of the poet make her future readers to question their own place in a society and make them think twice before trying to establishing their identities as “Nobody” or “Somebody”. According to the poet Langston Hughes “I live in the heart of Harlem. I have also lived in the heart of Paris, Madrid, Shanghai, and Mexico City. The people of Harlem seem not very different from others, except in language. I love the colour of their language: and, being a Harlemite myself, their problems and interests are my problems and interests” (qtd. In Davis 276).

As described above, Hughes’s identity is described as being a Harlemite. Harlem is a city which has been known as a major African American residential, cultural and business centre. The poet is aware of his African identity yet he brings the argument that everyone is same and the only difference is the language. In the same way, Hughes in his poem, “I, too, am, America” gives a picture of a “[…] darker brother” who was discriminated in the hands of the Americans who segregated the opportunities of the Black- Americans. Yet the poet demonstrates that they do not act violently towards the Americans but still considers that he is also a part of the America. Without any rage, the poet is “[…] laugh, / And eat well, /And grow strong” due to his patriotism towards America. The poet enhances his personal identity in the second stanza which emphasizes the fact that he is an African- American. “I am the darker brother”.

The third stanza gives the idea of hope in future as it was written in future tense. The idea of “tomorrow” does not mean that it is exactly on tomorrow but it conveys the idea that the poet is waiting patiently to be recognized as an African – American who is equal to the White American. “I’ll sit at the table/ When company comes. / No body’ll dare/ Say to me, / ‘Eat in the kitchen’,”. Here it is clear that the poet is optimistic and hopeful that he will gain his identity as an African- American with an equal position. The last line “I, too, am, America” is carrying a powerful message to the readers about his personal identity, that no matter how much he is discriminated, but he is important as everyone else in the American society.

“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is Hughes’s another poem which outlines the history and civilization of Black- Americans, their sufferings and recounts their identity as well. The word “Negro” in the title displays that the poet is an African- American and he equipped the reader with a story of the evolution of the civilization starting from Euphrates to New Orleans. At the same time, he brings the fact that he has “[…] known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins”. In a subtle way, he is implying the fact that they have a long history which indirectly portrays their identities should be recognized as African- Americans. On one hand, he places himself in important historical, religious, and cultural sites which gives the reader the idea that the poet too should be recognized same as those places. The line “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” is symbolical and meaningful because he connects himself to the ancient rivers like Euphrates, Nile, Mississippi as to drag a recognition to his identity. He is repeating the same line in the last stanza too as to hint the readers that as he has a long and strong connection therefore, he should be valued and recognized as an African- American.

On the other hand, he tries to highlight the fact that he has an equal position same as the White Americans by providing various evidences. The river Euphrates said to be the birth place of civilization while the river Congo considered to be the flourisher of various African kingdoms. At the same time, the river Nile stands for the Egypt civilization and Pyramids too represents the mas’s greatest architectural knowledge. Hence in a subtle note, he is convincing that he also should have a recognized personal identity due to this long history that has a connection with them. He is bringing the evidence that he was there with those creations and hence African- Americans should be recognized instead of devaluation and slavery.Moreover, his knowledge emphasizes his root and identity which might be improved with the generations of human veins and flowing rivers. The poem ends with the repeated phase “My soul has grown deep like the rivers” evoking their true identities as African- Americans.

The poem “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks starts with very short lines and the poem is limited to very few lines. yet the poem brings out some critical issues in that era through the usage of short lines. The lines, “The pool players/ seven at the golden shovel” is illustrating the readers that they are pool players. But apart from that there is no way to identify their identities. At the same time, there is no direct illustration that the poet is addressing to a group of Black- American youngsters. But there are connotations that the readers can guess that this poem is talking about Black- Americans. The main reason is that the poet being an African- American and the other is that the poem is emphasizing the fact that “We Left school”. This highlights the fact that these youngsters are group of Black- Americans who are school dropouts may be due to penury or due to the discrimination and segregation of that time. But still there is a confusion and uncertainty in their identities as who is this “we”? On one hand this dropping out shows the readers that though they have issues they manage to stay “cool” which enhances their identities as carefree and cool.

However, this “we” signifies a group of people that avoids schooling and wasting their young lives away. They do not have any personal intentions in their lives instead they “lurk late”. It is an implication that they might be in trouble sooner because they are lurking everywhere while engage in activities which are not suitable for them. “we/ Sing sin. We/ Thin gin”. They are aware that what they are doing is wrong yet they engage in them. They might be trying to won identities in this way. The poem does not provide enough evidences as to find out who these people are. Therefore, the poem brings lot of questions to the readers because of their life styles which are not similar to others. At the same time “sing sin” can be related with people who are going against the religion. On one hand they might not fear of God or else they can be atheists too. The readers feel free to decide their identities as the poet’s way of giving evidences are not clear enough. However, the last line provides the readers that no matter what you do or how you have engaged you lives but you have to face the death at last. Therefore, in a way they have identify themselves.

In conclusion, this paper serves as a guidance to show the readers that the above selected poems try to make the readers understand that the discrimination that they have gone through physically and mentally when trying to hold into their personal identities. These poets want to enhance the fact that no one should be discriminated based on their skin colour, language, sex or nationality. Everyone deserves to establish their identities in the way they want to.

Works Cited:

  1. Brooks, Gwendolyn. “My Dreams, My Works Must Wait Till After Hell”, “We Real Cool”David, Arthur. “The Harlem of Langston Hughes’ Poetry.” Vol. 13: pp.276- 283.
  2. Jstor. Clark Atlanta University. 07-09-2018
  3. Dickinson, Emily. “I’m Nobody! Who are you?”Hughes, Langston. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, “I, too, am America”.
Updated: Feb 02, 2024
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The Portrayal Of The Personal Identity in Selective American Poems. (2024, Feb 08). Retrieved from

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