What does the poem "On the Subway" by Sharon Olds mean from a historical point of view?
"On the Subway" is about the long-standing unequal power dynamic between black and white people in the United States. White people have privileges simply because of their skin, and they have historically profited from the labor of black people. The white woman in the poem wears a coat of black fur, which is symbolic of the way in which whites have historically tried to profit from black labor during slavery and even after slavery ended. The white laces of the black man's shoes make a pattern like "intentional scars," a reference to the beatings and whippings that blacks were subjected to during slavery and in the Jim Crow south.
Olds writes that the black man "absorbs the murderous beams of the nation’s head, as black cotton absorbs the heat of the sun and holds it." The use of "cotton" is apropos here, as many black slaves picked cotton, and many black people were employed as sharecroppers picking cotton after slavery ended. In a larger sense, black people had to absorb the anger and heat of white Americans over the centuries.
The poem "On the Subway" provides a historical point-of-view is regards to how Whites have, and still continue to, regard African-Americans. The poem beings with the speaker stating her fear that the youth across from her may attempt to rob her given he "has the casual look of a mugger." She, dressed in her furs feels obviously threatened.
The poem shifts toward the middle where the speaker recognizes that the young man may be regarding her with the same concern with which she regards him. She admits that he may be looking at her in such a way that would lead him to believe that she "is taking the food from his mouth."
In the end, the speaker recognizes that the color of her skin makes his life very easy; this mirrors that fact that the color of the boys skin makes his life very hard.
Historically, the most prominent happening which began the equality movement was that which happened on December 1, 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. This event lead to the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Therefore, it could be seen as mirroring the Park's incident by placing the poem in a similar setting. While it does not take place on a bus, it does take place on a subway. This shows the current mode of transportation used by the masses today (in larger cities). This being said, this transfer to the subway also symbolizes that the prejudices of today's people still exist.
The only difference between the poem and both the past and today is that the speaker is able to put herself in the shoes of the young man.