The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 601

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“Within the Veil” is composed of twenty-one six-line stanzas. The title suggests that certain conditions are being concealed, as if under a veil, and that they are not being addressed. The first line of the poem, “Color ain’t no faucet,” establishes that the poet is addressing racism. The poet invites readers into the poem by addressing them directly as “you.” By doing this, Michelle Cliff establishes a direct dialogue between herself and readers. She also implicitly makes her readers accountable for the issues she addresses, partly through the casual, intimate tone that she employs throughout. The most immediately noticeable aspect of the poem is that it is written in blues form, with the blues’ typical repetition of lines.

“Within the Veil” is a biting commentary on race relations, sexism, and social injustice. Each stanza recounts historical events or phenomena that have adversely affected black people, not only in the United States but also in the Caribbean and on the African continent. The tone of the poem is matter-of-fact, and the poet implies that readers are in the know, indicating that the poem is directed specifically toward black readers. This becomes clearer in stanza 2 and is further developed in stanzas 3 and 4, in which Cliff sets up an oppositional relationship between herself and her readers on one hand and the “whiteman” on the other, advising readers that “We got to swing the thing around.” Here, as throughout the remainder of the poem, the reader is co-opted into a collective “we,” implying agreement with the poet. From this point on, Cliff speaks not only for herself and about her own experience but also for the reader who supposedly shares her perspective.

Cliff explores many of the major issues that African Americans have confronted since the great migration from the South to the North after World War II. The use of “ofay,” a derogatory term African Americans used when referring to Caucasians, further signifies that the poem is aimed at a black audience. Words such as “sisters” and “mama” indicate that Cliff is speaking specifically to black women. However, the poet’s criticism is geared not only toward the way white people have treated blacks but also toward African American homophobia (stanzas 6 and 10) and the different hairstyles they have used to divide themselves (stanza 8). When she states, “How dare anyone object/ Tell me I had better not exist,” Cliff is both speaking of white attitudes and pointing out that black people must accept one another’s differences.

The first ten stanzas draw a historical line from African American migration from the South, to the Harlem Renaissance, and on to the 1960’s. The persona of the poem functions as a historian as well as a praise singer who recounts African American achievements. In stanza 5, for example, readers learn about Zora Neale Hurston, a Harlem writer and friend of poet Langston Hughes. Hurston was severely criticized by many male writers, notably Richard Wright, for her work. Hurston focused primarily on all-black communities, specifically her hometown of Eatonville, Florida. Hurston’s classic novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) has been widely taught since Alice Walker unearthed Hurston’s works in the mid-1960’s. Cliff alludes to Hurston’s seminal anthropological work, Mules and Men (1935), to defend Hurston’s credibility. In stanzas 8 and 9, two other archetypes are revered. The first is Madame C. J. Walker, the first black female millionaire, who invented the hot comb to press hair. The second is Lorraine Hansberry, the first African American to win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for the best play of the year, A Raisin in the Sun (1959).

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 497

“Within the Veil” fits into a genre known as blues poetry. The blues is a distinctly African American form of music and poetry that is said to have its roots in Africa, specifically Senegal. There the griot (griots are performers whose songs and stories keep the oral history of their people alive) tradition is best represented. Blues lyrics generally recount personal stories, and the most popular blues focus on love, heartbreak, and hard times. “Within the Veil,” however, fits into another category of blues, one that emphasizes sociopolitical implications. In this type of lyric, although the poem or story may seem to be about an individual’s personal problems, the implication is that the seemingly isolated situation is applicable to the group.

Lyrically, the blues form consists of three-line stanzas (musically it is most often in a repeating twelve-measure or “twelve-bar” pattern). “Within the Veil,” although it appears as six-line stanzas, adheres to the blues format. Generally the first line of a blues states the problem or situation, and the second line repeats it for emphasis, sometimes with a variation or twist. The third line then resolves the stanza or provides some concluding commentary on the situation. In Cliff’s poem each of the standard three blues lines is written as two lines on the page, but the stanza can nonetheless be sung over the rhythmic framework of a twelve-bar blues:

Gold chains are love-symbolsYou tell me where they are foundYes, gold chains are love-symbolsYou tell me where gold is foundThere are mines in South AfricaWhere our brothers sweat their lives underground.

The blues typically maintains a rhyme pattern in which the last line rhymes with the concluding word of the first two lines (“found”/“underground”). Another important element of the blues is the use of vernacular or slang and intimate references. Throughout the poem Cliff uses words such as “ain’t” and adopts a casual style of speech: “We got to figure what we can do.” Some of the intimate, familiar words that Cliff uses are “baby,” “sisters,” and “brothers,” which are terms of endearment implying that all black people are connected by a common ancestry.

Another technique that Cliff exploits in the poem is the shifting of pronouns, as from the first-person singular “I” to the plural “we.” She moves among pronouns, including “I,” “you,” “we,” and “they,” to emphasize inclusion or division as it suits the individual stanza and the poet’s purpose. In stanza 4, for example, she says that “we” (African American women, “sisters”) can call “them” (whites) names, but that “you” (listeners or readers, part of the “we” but here being directly addressed) “lie if you tell me you don’t know.” Furthermore, by citing concrete examples—whether of famous historical individuals, a police shooting in Boston, or the work of miners in South Africa—Cliff not only establishes credibility for the claims she makes in the poem but also presents herself as a voice of authority and a keeper of tradition.