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The nineteenth-century sparked an era of expression in America. During this time, the release and interpretations of literature, music, stage performance, and art flourished, especially in black communities throughout the country. Because of this, young black poets such as Claude McKay and Gwendolyn Brooks used their literary talents to highlight the oppression constantly present around them. Both authors embody Shakespeare’s writing style of writing compelling poetry that questioned the social narrative of the time. When comparing “If We Must Die” by Claude McKay and “Piano After War” by Gwendolyn Brooks, readers can understand how African-Americans struggled with adapting to the harsh racism in America during the 1900s.
Jamaican-born poet and novelist Claude McKay was one of the most influential black authors of the early 1900s. Raised in Jamaica, McKay’s racial pride and sense of his African heritage was instilled at a very young age and manifested in his works many years later. Local educated gentlemen helped McKay study the British Masters and Romantics and European Philosophers. These men advised aspiring poet McKay to cease mimicking the English poets and begin producing verse in Jamaican dialect. He was educated in America at Tuskegee Institute (1912) and Kansas State Teachers College. In 1914, he left school entirely for New York City, where he faced racism, which compelled him to continue writing poetry. After only knowing the traditionalism in Jamaica, the shock of American racism changed his perspective. In his poetry, McKay wrote of both the simple peasant life in Jamaica and poems questioning the racist structure of authority in America. Throughout his career, communists attacked MacKay for his refusal to adopt their convictions and by liberal whites and blacks for his criticism of integrationist-oriented civil rights groups. Despite this opposition, McKay remained an advocate for full civil liberties and racial solidarity. The publication of “Spring in New Hampshire” (1920) and “Harlem Shadows” (1922) allowed McKay to emerge as the first and most active voice of the Harlem Renaissance – a golden age in African-American social and artistic culture in the early 20th Century. After a few years working in New York, McKay befriended Max Eastman, a communist sympathizer and the editor of the magazine Liberator. McKay published poems in Eastman’s magazine, most notably “If We Must Die,” which is known for defending black rights and threatening retaliation for discrimination and abuse.
“If We Must Die” takes the form of a Shakespearean sonnet. The old-fashioned form of the poem is elegant and refined, an attempt to bring the middle age prestige to a desperate and dark fight for justice. Using alliteration, Shakespearian rhyme scheme, and meter, the poem cries for political resistance. Calling for oppressed minorities to resist their oppressors, violently and bravely, McKay insists that they must try to gain respect and equality, even if they die in the process. As a result, the poem has served as an inspiration to a wide variety of oppressed people around the globe as they fight for their rights and freedom. McKay accomplishes this by writing in a desperate voice, addressing a group of oppressed people. Because they face death, the speaker argues that the group must not die “like hogs”. This reveals the speaker’s fear that the group will be slaughtered or hunted, allowing those who are left behind to be stripped of their humanity.
An alternative interpretation concludes that he does not want these people to die for nothing. Hogs are slaughtered all the time. With this analogy, he could be saying he wants their death to have purpose. In later lines, he calls on them to fight back despite being “far outnumbered”. In the final two lines, he anticipates their defeat, but unceasingly encouraging them to fight the “murderous, cowardly pack.” The poem makes no clear accusation of racial discrimination. Therefore, it is widely known as an inspiration to persecuted people throughout the world. It showcases the innate will of Americans to resist oppression while voicing the will of oppressed people of any and every age who are fighting with their backs against the wall to win their freedom.
Chicago native, Gwendolyn Brooks was another of the most notable African-American authors of the 20th century. According to D. H. Melhem, her father was a janitor who had hoped to become a doctor; her mother was a schoolteacher and classically trained pianist. The creative atmosphere supported their daughter’s passion for reading and writing. Her works portray the everyday life of urban blacks from 1917 to 2000. Her first works focused on the challenges of women facing racism in America, but she subsequently represented male soldiers returning from war. Brooks’s later work took on politics more overtly, displaying what National Observer contributor Bruce Cook termed “an intense awareness of the problems of color and justice.” For all of her projects, she adopted the unique perspectives of those around her. Describing her own style as a type of folksy narrative, Brooks varied her forms, using free verse, sonnets, and inspiration from iconic poets. Using this eclectic method, many of Brooks’s works present a political consciousness, especially those during the Civil Rights Movement – with several of her poems reflecting the activism of that period. One of these works was Gay Chaps at the Bar. By writing from the perspective of black soldiers who are experiencing the intersecting violence of war and racism, Brooks addresses their complex relationship to their “home” in a country that was still segregated and still motivated by racism, hate, and fear. A home is supposed to be welcoming; America at this time was not.
The most Shakespearean sonnet of Brook’s poetic collection, ‘Piano After War’ mimics Shakespeare in both structure and style. Although she adopts Shakespeare’s style, the poem is clearly penned by Brooks because of the political tone. A soldier imagines what peace will be like in a room where a woman plays the piano, retrieving the ‘old hungers’ which ‘will break their coffins.’ The first few lines of a celebration of life before war quickly fall into ‘A cry of bitter dead men.’ This postwar reappraisal questions the racism in America, with the blatant disrespect and injustices highlighted by the Civil Rights Movement. The premature, useless death serves as an embittering retrospect to survivors and casualties alike. These soldiers feel their future will always be signified by the cold. The ‘thawed eye will go again to ice. / And stone will shove the softness from my face.’ ‘Shove,’ crudely suggesting ‘shovel,’ provides the poem’s inexorable moment. Although all African-Americans struggled with adapting to the harsh racism in America during this time, these soldiers had it worse. They went away to war and returned to hostility from the people they were protecting. Paused in a moment of the piano’s music, Brooks makes it seem as though the soldiers would rather die in the freezing temperatures of the front lines, where everything was routine, than emotionally perish fighting the stone-cold racism in America.
Both Gwendolyn Brooks and Clause McKay used their circumstances to represent the discrimination around them. McKay lived in urban New York, and voiced the concerns of those around him during the early 1900s, while Brookes did the same during the second half of the century. Both adopted Shakespeare’s style to portray their perspectives of daily injustices. Although they both represented African Americans in America, their delivery through poetry was different. McKay’s perspectives shifted after the jarring move from rural Jamaica to New York, the social hub of the world at the time. The sharp contrast created a picture of the injustices his people faced. Gwendolyn Brooks chose to write from different perspectives, no matter the gender or race. This allowed her to help others “walk a mile in one’s shoes” in order to gain empathy for those being discriminated against. Despite these differences, both Brooks and McKay created a new narrative that challenged the status quo and contributed to the Civil Rights Movement and equality for all.
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