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What are the allusions in Nikki Giovanni's "Mothers"?

The allusions in Nikki Giovanni's "Mothers" include references to "the samson myth" and a traditional nursery rhyme that contains the words "i see the moon / the moon sees me."

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In the poem "Mothers," published in the 1972 collection My House, Nikki Giovanni's narrator recalls a moment from her childhood when she sees her mother as an individual and not simply as someone who exists to attend to her needs: "i remember the first time / i consciously saw her."

The poem, which is a tribute to resilience of mothers, makes two key allusions that illustrate this point. An allusion is a literary device in which a writer refers to something or someone without describing that person or thing explicitly.

The first key allusion is to "the samson myth." On the night that the narrator "sees" her mother for the first time, she observes her mother's hair, which is "three-quarters her height... and very black." This observation made the narrator "a strong believer in the samson myth." The myth to which the narrator refers is the Biblical story of Samson and Delilah. Samson was an Israelite and one of the Last Judges. Delilah, his Nazirite lover, cut his hair—his source of strength—while he slept, so that she could turn him over to the Philistines.

Giovanni upends our understanding of this allusion to Samson by making a black woman's hair the source of her strength. This is revolutionary, because black women have traditionally been told that their hair is a source of shame—unkempt, nappy, and unacceptable. Though Giovanni writes of a mother who was young long before the Afro came into fashion, the image of her hair standing so tall on her head does conjure the natural hairstyle. The hair is both tall and "very black." Here, "black" doubly refers to the color of her mother's hair and its connection to a racial identity.

The second allusion is to the poem that the mother teaches the narrator: "i see the moon / the moon sees me." This poem comes from a nursery rhyme that dates back to the eighteenth century, though it has appeared in song form for many years since. The rhyme is intended to bring both the narrator and the mother, who is up awaiting her husband, comfort in a world that is indifferent to the poverty and racism with which they must contend. It is assurance that somewhere in the universe, there is recognition that they exist and will make it.

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