What is a theme in Arna Bontemps' poem "God Give to Men"?

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Arna Bontemps' poem, "God Give to Men," the theme (in my opinion) is a prayer that God will give to men what they want—what most brings them pleasure.

The first stanza reads as follows:

God give the yellow man

an easy breeze at blossom time.

Grant his eager, slanting eyes to cover

every land and dream

of afterwhile.

The imagery paints the picture of an Asian man who would gather great joy in smelling the luscious flowers in his homeland, perhaps cherry blossoms as the scent floats gently over the breeze. The author also wishes that this man will have the opportunity to travel and see lands all over the earth, and also have time to reflect upon these things at a later time—perhaps in old age, a blessing to wish on one.

Whereas the mood and imagery of the first stanza support gentle things like breezes, flowers, travel, knowledge and a time for rest and appreciation, the tone of the second stanza suggest power and military-like strength.

Give blue-eyed men their swivel chairs

to whirl in tall buildings.

Allow them many ships at sea,

and on land, soldiers

and policemen.

The elements of this stanza touch on the power a man would have in a fancy chair in a tall building—like a company executive or the president of a business; in the ocean many ships, though one gets the sense that there are more ships than might really be necessary; and on land, that men can exercise their authority as soldiers or policemen. I can't help feeling after the simplistic and beautiful images presented in the first stanza, that this stanza is about having—and having more. I get the feeling that the things that bring blue-eyed [white] men pleasure involves money and power. The poem implies that the author does not begrudge them what they want, but the implied comparison of the first stanza gives one the feeling that what is wanted is "more" or "the most." And then one might ask, does that really make them happy?

The third stanza speaks of the black man, and the comparison between the first two stanzas and this third one may seem bleak at first glance—or perhaps not bleak at all, but simplistic and enough.

For black man, God,

no need to bother more

but only fill afresh his meed

of laughter, 
his cup of tears.

This part of the prayer notes that the black man does not need much to be fulfilled. He will be satisfied with enough to laugh about, even while facing life's tears...but that God does not need to "bother" to provide more than that. (There is a great sense of humility in the word "bother," as if the man wishes not to put God "out.") This simplistic stanza notes that the black man makes do with what he has or has not, but that he does not need to travel or have power to find joy and satisfaction in his life.

The final couplet provides an open prayer for all men. This would indicate that the previous three stanzas are not written with spite, anger or covetousness. There is nothing hidden in the stanzas of a negative nature. How does the reader know? The final couplet wishes every man—regardless of race, eye-color or shape of eye, regardless of his wealth or position, or on what continent he may find himself—God's grace to allow all men the opportunity to experience that which gives them the greatest joy and satisfaction.

God suffer little men

the taste of soul's desire.

In making this wish for all men, the speaker includes himself, wishing for nothing more or less than any other man.

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