Mar 2, 2010

Langston Hughes' "Dream Deferred" and Countee Cullen's "Incident"

For Black History Month in February, I thought of referring folks to one or both of these poems, but I wondered if they were angry downers more than celebrations. I also reasoned that everyone already knows both poems and the arguments behind them. I’ve changed my mind.

Incident by Countee Cullen : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

Harlem by Langston Hughes : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

A few weeks ago at a gas station on I-95 in Florida, the vehicle in front of me was a large black pick-up with Florida plates and a West Virginia sticker in the rear windshield. Pumping its gas was a broad-shouldered white woman with short, straight, salt-and-pepper hair. She appeared not to have smiled in years. (I always smile while pumping gas).

Her bulk suggested that in her time she’d wrestled a few critters into the slaughter pen. When the gun jammed, she used a hammer.

Her bumper sticker read, “Don’t blame me. I voted for Jeff Davis.”

I was dumbfounded. I thought of saying something to the woman, trying to open a dialogue. I always think that and always return to this: What could I have said that would have mattered, would have done more than make me feel good? What skills do I have that could have made her question herself, her thoughts, feelings, motives?

Who hurt her so badly that she needs to parade her anger that way, to strut her festering rage?

Had I said something, how long could I have remained non-confrontational? Though larger than I, and probably capable of pounding me into pink flakes, she was a woman. How would that aspect of the situation have played out? Can a male take a tire iron to a racist’s pick-up if the fart-mouthed racist is female?

Did she mar the day for anyone else? Did somebody else call her on it? If so, who will narrate that episode?

As of the 1980s, a stale, stereotyping quip about the (Caucasian) South was, “They’re still fighting the Civil War down there.”

I know the limits of such slogans; I've lived in the South, have often traveled in the South, and have probably seen as much evidence of racial harmony there as in the North. After all, the cities of Pontiac and Howell in Michigan were centers of KKK activity not so far back. About 20 years ago, I went to a bluegrass concert at a county fair in central Michigan, and just as I heard the music from the parking lot, I also saw the confederate flag flying. (I haven't been back; they miss me desperately).

So my brain knows better than to over-generalize because of one pickup owner who might be somehow connected to Florida and West Virginia.

I just checked the facts and discovered my brain . . . (that sounded so cute I decided to let it linger. Forgive me).

I learned that my brain is less than 2% of my body weight. The thinking part of the brain is about 10% of that 2%. I guess Madam Pickup, that muscular Ma Kettle, and I share a limitation. I wonder if she knows.

* *


Anonymous said...

Well, Hamlet's a downer too. I love these two poems, they make me ache.

Jeff M said...

The best thing to do regarding racists is to laugh at them; they want your anger.

You smile when you pump gas? That's interesting. I always look at the pump and watch the cents accumulate, then pump my fist at the sky when, for $30, I only get 11 gallons. Then I fart, get in my car and leave.

For the record, I don't think you were generalization regarding that woman. Sounds like you were right on target. First impressions are usually correct, for they are thoughts unimpeded by cognitive sloppy joes.

You should go back to the bluegrass festival. Who cares about that flag. Good music.

Brenda's Arizona said...

I have loved both these poems since 10th grade.

In 11th grade, I went to high school in Tennessee. My english teacher called me a yankee, even though TN was the farthest north I had ever lived. He asked me where I was from, so I said my birthplace, Southern California. He called me a damn stupid liberal and told me to go home.

Some people still fight wars that never existed. Like "Incident", this has stuck with me and has defined high school to me.

Now I wonder how much his brain weighed.

Banjo52 said...

I'm rushing, so for these three excellent responses, I'll wait till tomorrow.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Gosh, I hope I didn't sound like a 'whiner'. To this day I am amazed at the attitude SOME teachers 'used to take' with students (our school still had 'paddling' - a loud WHACK reverberating down the hall was heard hourly). The
north-south intolerance' attitude made the biggest impression on me. I still feel like I have on dirty underwear when I see confederate flags. We called 'em 'rebel flags'.

Anonymous said...

One of the most time-consuming things is to have an enemy. -- EB White

Banjo52 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Banjo52 said...

Too much good stuff here to skimp on it or my responses. I'm turning it into my March 3 post.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Regarding your comments... are you sure you aren't from California, too?
heeheehee. Sister-wimmin AH and I might just let you be.

Banjo52 said...

Brenda, let me be from California?

Let me be a wimmin??


That's OK. I don't wanna give up breakfast with the boys. Or chasing wimmin.

Banjo52 said...

OK, OK . . . LOOKIN' at wimmin. At the mall. On a bench. In my sneakers.

Anonymous said...

Paula's a sister wimmin, she lived in California

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