Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 430

“Within the Veil” calls for social justice for blacks throughout the African diaspora. Cliff reveals how all black people, regardless of whether they live in the United States, in the Caribbean, or on the African continent, are connected by oppression and should therefore, as a group, be committed to a singular freedom. The poet states the importance of black people not allowing themselves to be divided by sexual orientation (“Your best friend’s a bulldagger”) or ethnic makeup (“Some of us part Indian/ And some of us part white”). Cliff suggests that ultimately it does not matter what an individual black person’s orientation or ethnic background is; in the final analysis, all blacks are subject to the same treatment.

The poem, not unlike the protest poems of the 1960’s by Nikki Giovanni and Amiri Baraka, is a call to action. By playing on the sentiments and victimization of blacks, Cliff seeks to motivate black people to act on their own behalf. However, “Within the Veil” does not have a seditious or violent tone that pits blacks against whites as opposing groups. The focus is wider, and the poem’s political agenda is to end social, racial, and sexual imbalances. Cliff makes it clear than she is not calling for upheaval: “If we say Third World Revolution/ The white folks say World War III.” She states her desire for freedom rather than Armageddon. This biblical reference to the end of the world as a result of the final battle between nations (Revelation 16) is intended as a caution to both black and white people.

In the opening line of the last stanza, Cliff clearly states her position: “It’s all about survival.” The stakes are high. If black people are to persist and conquer institutional injustices, they must come together and “do it better,” or they “might as well lay down and die.” Although these are the closing words of the poem, the ending is not a pessimistic one. The tone throughout the poem is guardedly optimistic, its optimism accentuated by the use of the blues form, which is well suited for storytelling, social commentary, and exhortation. By citing several atrocities that have occurred to black people throughout history and around the world and showing their parallel relationships, the poet attempts to galvanize the community to act in its own defense. In the tradition of the blues, the process of identifying, naming, and sharing pain is believed to help abate it; recovery and healing can then begin. “Within the Veil” uncovers—it lifts the veil—so that constructive changes can occur.

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