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The poem “Blackberries,” by Yusef Komunyakaa, deals with a number important social issues and life experiences. Two of the most significant of these are work as well as economic and social status.
The young, ten-year-old boy in the poem who picks blackberries not only eats them but sells them. He eats as he picks, but at the end of his hard work he has two cans filled with blackberries which he can sell to strangers who pass along a road in cars.
As the poem opens, the speaker compares his blackberry-stained hands to the hands of a printer or a thief, stained with ink. It soon becomes clear, however, that the picker is young, so that these images of adulthood are, at this point, merely fanciful comparisons. He is not yet old enough to have a real job (like a printer) or to steal money (like a thief). He has not yet entered the period of his life when earning or stealing money is crucial to his survival or existence.
For this reason, he can pick the berries in a fairly leisurely fashion and enjoy the pleasures nature can provide, including not only the taste of the berries themselves but also the
. . . early morning’s
Terrestrial [that is, earthy] sweetness . . . (3-4)
Other pleasures experienced while picking berries include the feel of the “damp ground” (5), the anticipation of “pies & cobbler” made from the berries (12), the companionship of his dog (13), and the presence of birds and frogs (14). While picking the berries, the boy is surrounded by natural beauty and seems to feel in harmony with nature.
Later, however, he is standing beside “City Limits Road” (16), trying to sell some of the berries to the passengers of passing cars. He is no longer surrounded entirely by nature, and now he feels the need to work to try to earn money. In a sense, he has begun to move into the realm of adulthood and adult responsibilities, although at this point he seems to feel no discomfort with this transition. He sells the berries for a dollar per container, perhaps to earn a little spending money.
It is only when the occupants of a large blue air-conditioned car pull up to buy some berries that the boy suddenly feels uncomfortable. The car symbolizes the wealth and privilege of the people inside. They are wealthy (or at least well-off) and he is comparatively poor:
When I leaned closer I saw the boy
& girl my age, in the wide back seat
Smirking, & it was then I remembered my fingers
Burning with thorns among berries too ripe to touch. (21-24)
Only when he sees the other children "Smirking" does the boy suddenly think about his relatively low social and economic status in life. He, apparently, has to work to earn a little spending money; the other children, apparently, do not. He, apparently, has to labor outside, while they enjoy the comfort of an air conditioned car. (Presumably the poem is set during a time when air conditioning was far less common than it is today.)
The disdain and sense of superiority exhibited by the other children suddenly make him feel inferior. Or, at the very least, their attitudes suddenly help remind him of the physical pain he has had to endure when picking the berries -- pain he had been able to overlook or ignore until now. The ending of the poem implies that the pain we feel is determined in part by the ways others see us. The young boy has now truly begun his entrance into the often painful world of adulthood, in which work and social class play such large and sometimes painful roles.
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