What are the symbols, imagery, and theme in Forrest Hamer's poem "Lesson."

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jmj616 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Forrest Hamer is an African-American poet who was born in 1956. His poem, "Lesson," deals with themes of racism and a boy's attachment to his father.

The narrator of the poem is a little boy who is traveling with his family from Ft. Hood, Texas, to North Carolina, in "1963 or 4."  The family is concerned about the attacks in the South on blacks by the racist group the Ku Klux Klan.  The narrator uses the image of darkness to symbolize his fear of passing through the state of Mississippi, a state that Martin Luther King famously referred to as a "sweltering with the heat of oppression":

we knew

Mississippi to be more dangerous than usual.
Dark lay hanging from the trees the way moss did...

Because of their fears, neither the boy nor his father are able to sleep at night:

that usually woke me from rest afraid of monsters
kept my father awake that night, too,

The boy begins to realize that there are some things that even his father cannot protect him from. In fact, the father will soon be leaving his family to fight in the Vietnam war:


he would go away

to a place no place in the world
he named Viet Nam

The poem ends with a repetition of the darkness image:

A boy needs a father
with him, I kept thinking, fixed against noise
from the dark.