Sharon Olds

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What does the poem "On the Subway" by Sharon Olds mean from a historical point of view?

The poem "On the Subway" by Sharon Olds points to the historical struggles between Black people and white people. Olds uses metaphors and allusion to reflect on the injustices Black people have endured because of the actions and beliefs of white people. She positions the speaker across from a Black boy in this poem to demonstrate the historically adversarial nature of race relations.

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Sharon Olds's poem "On The Subway" was written in the 1980s and reflects a particular vision of intercity America during an era where crime was on the rise, especially in cities like New York. The racial element to the attitude towards crime cannot be underestimated. The speaker in this poem describes an uneasy power imbalance between herself, a wealthy white woman wearing the "taken and used" skin of an animal (suggesting that she is part of a group that benefits from the bodies and output of others) and a Black youth she deems to have the "cold look of a mugger." She assumes that he is a mugger largely because of his race. She is aware of her own privilege, that her white skin makes her life easy, while at the same time she feels that he could easily take her life from her. She knows that she profits from him and his people, but at the same time she is afraid of him.

Thinking about this poem in its historical context, you might consider the 1984 New York Subway Shooting, in which Bernard Goetz, a white man who had previously been the victim of a mugging, shot four young Black men in a subway car because he was convinced that they were about to mug him. Though his fear was arguably valid—he had previously been mugged, and the young men were known to be petty criminals—but at the same time, coverage of the trial showed that Goetz was certainly afraid of the young men because of their race, owing to his own racism. Olds's poem depicts this complicated balance.

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"On the Subway" explores the historically complex relationship that has existed between Black and white people.

The positioning of the speaker and the Black boy who faces her is significant: they face each other. This position connotes an adversarial stance, the two placed on opposite sides of an unspoken divide. The boy's black sneakers become a metaphorical representation of historical conflict. He wears black sneakers which are laced with white "like a / set of intentional scars." This simile alludes to the scars Black people have carried throughout history, the results of injustices inflicted through the actions of a white society. These scars have been "intentional" in their constructions, which signifies the historical sense of power whites have held over Blacks.

Near the end of the poem, the speaker refers to "black cotton," an allusion to the institution of slavery which established a historical power struggle between Black and white people. Images of death are woven into the imagery in this section as the speaker considers the "murderous beams of the / nation's head" and the way she feels she must "profit from his darkness."

This is a complex and silent battle. The speaker and the boy never speak directly to each other, and the question of which person ultimately holds the power is never answered. The speaker realizes that the boy could harm her; thus, each has the capacity to inflict pain on the other. In this moment, pain is demonstrated as a uniting factor between the two races and a universal component of the human experience.

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"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. 

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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.

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