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How does withholding the speakers race until the final line affect the poem? What if...

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ahj006 | Student, Undergraduate | eNotes Newbie

Posted November 10, 2009 at 6:41 AM via web

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How does withholding the speakers race until the final line affect the poem? What if he was not black but was sympathetic to black poets?

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted November 10, 2009 at 7:17 AM (Answer #1)

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I think that by withholding the speaker's race until the last line, Cullen is able to conceal the main point of the poem and thereby make it more of a surprise.

As a reader goes through the poem, not knowing how it ends, he or she is likely to wonder where the poem is going.  It seems more like a reflection on the ways of the world, and about why God allows what the poet sees as injustice.  But then when one reads the last lines, one is struck dramatically by the fact that the poem is about race.

If the poet were not black, it would sound pretty patronizing and perhaps even racist.  It would sound like why would God make some black person (with the implication that they're inferior) a poet?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted November 10, 2009 at 7:22 AM (Answer #2)

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One of Cullen's strength is his ability to articulate a condition of pain and suffering which seems to transcend race, yet remind the reader of its pervasive reality.  The withholding of race until the last line accomplishes a couple of elements.  One such element is to hearken back to a condition of pain and suffering that is as old as Classical times.  The invocation of Tantalus and Sisyphus, who seem to be trapped in situations that represent a brutal combination of inevitability and agony, brings to light the idea that such a condition has been a component of human existence as long as hallowed antiquity.  In doing this, Cullen humanizes and universalizes the painful condition that recognizes individuals as inextricably linked to hurt and suffering.  The universality of this predicament helps to create several elements which help to understand the issue of race and its presence at the end of the poem.  The fact that this condition is applicable to all is something that Cullen takes into account.  At the same time, the inclusion of race at the end helps to bring light to how this universal suffering is convergent with the pain of being seen as "different" in a social setting where this contingency is not fully appreciated.  Even if the poet was not African- American, this pain of being different, seeking to have voice acknowledged and experience authenticated, would only add more agony to a condition where such reality is unavoidable, like blindness to the mole.

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