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Discrimination is a social issue that has burdened numerous cultural groups in North America for many years. “not an elegy for Mike Brown” by Danez Smith and “Three Trees” by Wanda Coleman are two poems that bring up social identity and what it’s like to be black through the use of emotion-stirring and symbolic imagery. Although Smith and Coleman engage the use of imagery in completely different ways, their intentions in acknowledging discrimination and the contrast between black and white culture remains clear. In this essay, I am going to compare the different ways in which Smith and Coleman use imagery to portray their different perspectives on black culture and racism in today’s society.
In the initial poem mentioned, “not an elegy for Mike Brown”, written by Danez Smith, the reader is able to recognize the perspective of black culture through the portrayal of visual and organic imagery. The use of visual imagery is first revealed when the speaker introduces the dead boy in the poem, “…ordinary, black / dead thing…” (3-4) In these lines, the speaker uses the words “ordinary” and ‘thing” to describe the young dead male. They use these words to emphasize how, through the eyes of humanity, a black person’s life is insignificant due to the increase of black individuals being murdered. When one person dies, we remember his name; when a group of people die, we see them as a collective and they are no longer individuals. Not only is this description of the deceased visual, but it is also an example of organic imagery in the poem since it holds the ability to stir one’s emotions. The idea that the more often a black person dies, the less of a person they become is absurd because every life matters. However, due to the discrimination in society and the fact that young innocent black men are constantly being murdered, it seems as though black lives don’t matter.
Another strong example Smith uses to portray racism towards black people is when he uses visual and organic imagery to compare the results of white and black tragedies. This comparison is shown in lines 12-17: think: once, a white girl was kidnapped & that’s the Trojan war. Later, up the block, Troy got shot & that was Tuesday. are we not worthy of a city of ash? of 1000 ships launched because we are missed?
In this passage, Smith uses the image of the Trojan war to represent the result of a white girl’s kidnapping. He uses this comparison to underline the heartbreak and misfortune society feels when a white girl is abducted. In contrast, when a black male is shot, society is able to live life as if it were an ordinary day. Not only is society chauvinistic for judging people based on their race, but the Trojan war can also be a symbol for the actions of higher authorities. If a white girl was shot to death, it would be all over the news and everyone would want to find justice for her. On the other hand, some shootings and deaths of black men aren’t even broadcasted. In addition to a racist society, it is a shame to admit that there is also discrimination in the political system.
Similar to Smith’s work, Coleman also uses imagery in her poems to discuss life from a black individual’s point of view. However, in her poem, “Three Trees”, Coleman goes a different route from Smith and expresses a more positive perspective on black culture in today’s society. She does this by using visual and gustatory imagery. The first thing to note in Smith’s “Three Trees” is that the poem is divided into three sections which are represented by the fruits from different trees: lemon, peach, and fig. In each segment, the speaker uses visual imagery by expressing different memories that they had with each tree. An example of this are lines 1-7: lemon: we could never climb you standing like an impossible challenge with prickly limbs to tear black flesh
In this passage, the speaker talks about the difficultly they had trying to climb the lemon tree. The visual imagery is especially brought up in the last line when the speaker says describes the lemon tree having “…prickly limbs to tear black flesh.” (7)
Along with the speaker’s different memories that the trees represent, another use of visual imagery is with the three trees themselves. With the progression of memories, the colour of each fruit gets darker: lemons are yellow in colour, peaches are a peachy-orange colour, and figs are brown. The gradual change in colour is possibly a representation of society slowly becoming more diverse and more accepting of black people. To prove this theory, in the last section of the poem, the speaker mentions playing with a white boy, “i would be be wendy and the / little white boy up the street / was peter.” (23-25) The speaker then expresses that “the neighborhoods changed and more blacks came.” (26)
In relation to the differences in colour, another use of imagery is gustatory imagery as the fruits also become more sweet. Lemons are sour, peaches can either be sweet or sour depending on its ripeness, and figs are known to be sugary. Just like the colour, the different tastes of the trees can symbolize how life progressively becomes better for black people in society.
In conclusion, there are always multiple perspectives to different topics and situations and it’s always interesting to explore these point of views rather than limiting ourselves to knowing about one side. In regards to black culture in today’s western society, some African Americans may see humanity as progressing the right way and others may see that nothing has changed due to the fact that discrimination still exists. Danez Smith and Wanda Coleman do a great job in using visual, organic, and gustatory imagery in portraying this contrast.
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