When comparing and contrasting the content, style, tone, purpose, and cultural contexts of African American poetry and Native American songs and poems, various factors come to mind. The most significant difference, however, is the writing style that each group employed to get their messages across. Early African American poets most notably wrote in conventional verse; in other words, they followed the standard poetic conventions of the time. Native Americans, however, pursued a more rhythmic style of writing. Although Native American songs and poems reflected a sense of poetic convention, it more freely reflected the idioms and rhythms of its beholders’ culture (Gray). Both cultural groups experienced adverse conditions between 1773 and 1929, and their discontent, hurt, and anger is accurately expressed in their poetry and song. However, African American poetry tended to reflect a more somber tone whereas Native American songs and poems reflected a more optimistic viewpoint, despite their dismal circumstances. This paper will compare and contrast the similarities and differences between African American poetry and Native American songs and poems between 1773 and 1927 by addressing the content, style, tone, purpose, and cultural contexts of two African American poems and two Native American poems.
African American Poetry v. Native American Songs and Poems
Joshua McCarter Simpson wrote “Away to Canada” in 1852. Although he was born free, all his work had an anti-slavery tone. “Away to Canada” is an example of a quatrain, where each stanza consists of four lines and lines two and four rhyme. This was a conventional means of poetry penmanship at the time. His poem, although somber in tone, is a combination of simple diction and repetition. The purpose of this particular poem was to reiterate the personal freedoms and liberties that could be found for a Black man in Canada. At the time the poem was written, slavery in America was still very much alive. The poem was later made into a song which gained tremendous popularity among Underground Railroad workers; specifically for its use of angry protest in the form of a patriotic hymn. The theme illuminated in this poem is one of personal freedom and hope.
“Hymn of the Horse” is a song about a Navajo singer who scatters pollen among his horses and sings for the prosperity of his animals. At the time it was written, Native Americans were ousted from much of their natural land. However, instead of writing somber songs about their dire circumstances, they focused on the things that could aid in their prosperity; such as their animals. The song therefore has a positive tone. “Hymn of the Horse” is an example of a lyric blank verse, in which the verses are written in an unrhymed iambic pentameter. In other words, the verses, or lyrics, represent the rhythms of ordinary speech. The song also exhibits repetitive alliteration to create a visual imagery of the horses the narrator sings about, as well as the natural environment in which he stands. For instance, “Rich blankets and hides, hides of the buck, the beaver, buffalo and mountain lion” indicates the robust nature of the horses, whereas “spring water snow water” indicates the serenity and calm of the water (Curtis). The theme illuminated in this poem is one of hope and prosperity.
Phillis Wheatley wrote “On Being Brought from Africa to America” while enslaved to a White family. The poem is short, but powerful. She writes that her being bought into slavery created a path of enlightenment, and that regardless of race, each person must answer to the same God one day (Wheatley). The short poem is filled with metaphors; for instance, in the fifth line Wheatley uses the phrase “sable race” to refer to Blacks. Her choice of words indicates that she, like her slave owners, likens Black people to animals. Perhaps she is being sarcastic, or perhaps she is engaging a subtle attack on White people. The tone of the poem is one of anger and displacement. Considering her circumstances, such a tone can be expected. The overall theme of the poem is one of eventual redemption.
“Deer Song” is another Navajo song written in free form to represent the manner in which a deer would prance around, or in which a bird would fly. The hunter, who sings the song, likens himself to a blackbird, who is a friend of deer. Through his song the hunter attracts deer (Curtis). Although this song is about hunting, it has a more uplifting tone than the African American poems of the time. The Native Americans seem to focus much more on nature and that which they can control, than on their own specific circumstances. Additionally, the manner in which the poem is written creates a visual image of the hunter’s surroundings and the movements of the deer and of himself. The overall theme of this poem is victory.
Curtis, Natalie. The Indians’ Book. New York: Dover Publications, 1968. Book.
Gray, Richard. A Brief History of American Literature. Malden, MA: John Wiley & Sons, 2011. Book.
Simpson, Joshua McCarter. “Away to Canada.” 2011. Poetry Foundation. Electronic. 29 April 2012.
Wheatley, Phyllis. “On Being Brought From Africa to America.” 2011. Poetry Foundation. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174733. 29 April 2012.