Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Derricotte blends her own experience with her imagination as impetus for many of the poems in Captivity. She often writes about the African American female experience, and the poems expand in a reader’s thoughts to touch on the common experience of subjugation. In the opening poem, “The Minks,” there is a strict line drawn between the minks and the humans, when the writer’s uncle says of the animals, “They’re wild . . . Never trust them.” The animals are subjugated for their coats, but their wildness and strangeness are not to be trusted; they are somewhat like Derricotte herself, whose poems were considered morbid when she was a teenager, a rebuff that led her to hide her early work. It seems the wild impulses must be carefully controlled for civilized life to take place, yet Derricotte’s poetic eye can find the “character and beauty” of these animals.

As a member of a middle-class, African American family growing up in the 1950’s, Derricotte felt enormous family pressure to conform to the majority society and to disprove stereotypes. This attitude informs the poem “The Weakness,” a description of shopping with her grandmother at the upscale department store Saks in 1945. When the child becomes too exhausted to continue shopping, her grandmother, white and sweating, drags the child along upright through the store, afraid the clerks would notice the African American child making a scene.

Other poems struggle...

(The entire section is 421 words.)