Thursday, January 20, 2011

American History by Michael Harper

"Can't find what you can't see can you?" The poem, American History, by Michael Harper asks us to look for something that we can't see, the hatred of Black America. In this poem Harper attacks this degenerative sentiment in a couple very interesting ways, his use of punctuation and the fact that he never outright mentions the discrimination. Overall Harper finds a way to never mention this hatred while making this poem and outstandingly clear declaration against it.

Even from the beginning of this poem this sounds more like a rant or the commencement of a story than a poem, he begins with “Those four black girls blown up” almost as if he is just telling some friends the story of those girls in a very casual manner. To add to this effect Harper doesn’t use any punctuation marks that denote the stop of a thought, it’s just one continuous stream of consciousness. To add to the effect Harper also does not break up the poem into stanzas again demonstrating that this is the equivalent of a poetic beating. What is also interesting in the punctuation is that “redcoats” is italicized, this seems to be one of the situations where the poetic speaker would use air quotes while telling this story to make satire of the official reason for the drowning of the middle passage blacks while still on their slave ship. The speaker would also use this to demonstrate his view that the boat was sank not to prevent the British from taking the blacks on it; but, to demonstrate the fact that to some whites of the time period the value of a black man was at such a low place that they would rather let them and their financial investment die than fight for it. This sublime declaration that is not seen but understood underscores Harper’s view that the life of a black is valued much less than it should because a few men are so liberal in their murdering. Furthermore the title of the poem “American History” suggests that this feeling of rancor towards blacks is part of the American history and is permanent and real just like history.

Apart from the use of structural elements to create a poem that is filled with sublime critique, Harper also does not outright denounce this hatred that he sees. This word choice paints a picture of a plain historical account that states only the facts and only the big news, and not any minor events something that reinforce the idea that this hatred for blacks is so deep seeded and that it surrounds the world, much like history surrounds the world, that it’s not even worth mentioning. Finally the authors choice to end the poem with “Can’t find what you can’t see can you?” gives us the grounds to speculate that the hatred for blacks is deep seeded and invisible much like his references to it, but like his references to the hate it still exists.

Overall through a thought out rant in the form of a poem, Harper finds a way to critique the American society for devaluating the black human being. This is done through a distinct punctuation style and a purposeful withholding of any mention of racial discord to accentuate his belief of this deep seeded, invisible yet real hatred towards blacks in America.

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