Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The struggle for a dignified and collective African American identity, the self-conscious recovery of African American manhood, and the urgent need for continued political activism are all addressed within this poem. The main purpose of “A Poem for Black Hearts” is to incite awareness and self-consciousness in African American men so that they will actively continue to struggle for civil rights, which is also articulated as a struggle for African American masculinity.

While Baraka’s poem asserts that racial oppression emasculates the African American man, it also suggests that a solution to racial oppression includes reclaiming and redefining African American masculinity in the image of the martyred leader “Great Malcolm.” The speaker of Baraka’s poem encourages and unites his intended audience, “black men,” with images of Malcolm, symbolizing African American manhood. The speaker suggests that while Malcolm’s image can serve as a representation of African American manhood, masculinity must be earned through a struggle for vengeance. These images of a strong masculine leader, a “black god” slain, are contrasted with a pejorative for emasculated African American males: “faggots.” Vows of vengeance and an effort to reclaim African American masculinity in Malcolm’s image will, according to the speaker, prevent “black men” from being called “faggots” and oppressed by “white mentill the end of/ the earth.”

This poem’s concerns link African American masculinity with the struggle of the Civil Rights movement. Moreover, it displays prominent characteristics of Black Nationalism, in which the responsibility of political leadership rests upon the shoulders of “black men.” “A Poem for Black Heats” represents the urgency of the Civil Rights movement, which relied upon and articulated Enlightenment notions regarding human rights: rights of individuals to self-governance and the pursuit of knowledge, freedom, property, and happiness. African Americans were excluded from many of these basic rights because of categories of race and gender, which constructed them as “Others” within the social consciousness. As a prominent figure of the Black Arts movement and Black Nationalism during the 1960’s, Baraka expressed his political views while capturing the African American community’s struggle for equality within his poems, dramas, and nonfiction works.