How is the speaker's attitude toward violence in the poem "Frederick Douglass 1817-1895" similar to "Harlem?"

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In Langston Hughes' poems "Harlem" and "Frederick Douglass 1817-1895," violence is present, but perhaps not as one might expect. Violence can be described as "an intense force," and instead of being used to describe physical strife, I believe Hughes describes Douglass' passion as "an intense force," and suggests that this is the legacy left to those seeking their dreams of equality—fight, but do not raise arms against another to do so.

In "Harlem" Hughes asks what happens when a dream is "deferred." He describes the things that could take place, and paints a picture that at first indicates trials, tribulations, and perhaps a broken spirit...until he reaches the end of the poem and introduces the image that perhaps the unfulfilled dream does not always quietly bend one in half, but pushes one to explode instead. But does explosion here mean that those abused explode? That people with dreams deferred become violent? Or does he, instead, suggest that the dream can only be tempered and suppressed for so long until it explodes beyond the confines of subjugation and makes itself known in such a way that it cannot be ignored any longer?

In "Frederick Douglass 1817-1895," Hughes writes a magnificent tribute to Frederick Douglass. In this poem, however, I do not sense an explosive reaction to injustices, but a long-abiding battle, requiring hope and dedication of those who wish to be free. Hughes describes all Douglass did in his life, giving always to others for the betterment of his race. "Bleeding hands" indicates that there will be continued suffering and need, but as he does in "Harlem," Hughes suggests that perhaps "an explosion" is not the only way to fight: violence usually brings to mind death and destruction, but I would suggest that both poems also promote a battle of commitment and a refusal to be broken. Violence is also described as "rough or immoderate vehemence, as of feeling or language." We may well assume that these words could illustrate the strategies Douglass' employed to turn the world "on its ear."

The warriors must do battle, yes, consistently trudging along a seemingly endless path toward "the goal." However, Hughes seems to state that Douglass did not conduct "combat" with violence, but with words and actions, delivering censorship where it was deserved, never wavering from his purpose, and always striving to buoy up the spirits of the suffering. He has left the world behind, but his mark and his example remain: it was what he did and what he said that were his call to arms.

Hughes raises his voice so those who struggle might hear: he insists that to realize their dreams of equality, freedom and justice, they must continue to fight, but as Douglass fought—not with literal violence, but with violent language and intense force of being.


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