Good Essay On An Analysis Of “My Dreams, My Works, Must Wait Till After Hell”
The notion of the hero enduring a journey through the underworld has long been an epic convention, since the very beginnings of literature. For African-Americans writing between the end of the era of slavery and the fruition of the civil rights movement, the notion of having to endure lengthy trials represented a common motif in their writing. In Gwendolyn Brooks’ “My Dreams, My Works, Must Wait Till After Hell,” the speaker can see the things that she wants. However, she cannot enjoy them yet because she must return from what she refers to as hell first. In the meantime, she must go through her struggle and hope that her tastes remain the same. She realizes, “I am incomplete. And none can tell when I may dine again.” However, for now, it is not the time to consume. Instead, it is the time to endure, to suffer for the promise of future rewards.
Written in 1963, this poem emerged as the civil rights struggle was beginning to heat up in the American South. The prejudices and the anger that had been latent in American culture since the establishment of the trade triangle sending slaves, sugar and molasses back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean were far from assuaged by the Emancipation Proclamation. Instead, the white Southerners used every tool at their disposal to return the former slaves to their second-class status as soon as the eyes of the federal government turned away at the end of Reconstruction. In the early 1960s, such things that would be unthinkable now – water fountains and bathrooms with “Colored” signs above them indicating who should use them, twin school systems serving communities, one with shiny, new books and furniture and the other using secondhand desks, books and buildings, and lynching happening to young black men who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – were tragically commonplace, and for writers like Brooks, the hell of such a life produced the “devil days of [her] hurt.” The only thing she can do, at least according to the advice she has been told, is to “Wait,” but that advice represents “the puny light” indeed. The former slaves had been hearing the word “Wait” for decades, having been told that putting up with their lot would bring dividends further down the road. Unfortunately, that would turn out to be anything but true. The harsh realities of Jim Crow were followed by the paradoxical institutions of the literacy test and the poll tax, two barriers that white Southerners put up in front of blacks who wanted to vote but could not read and could not afford the tax. It seemed that for every right the federal government would, ever so slowly, bestow on the former slaves, the white Southerners had a way to take it away. That is the only explanation for such ideas as the Plessy v. Ferguson decision that allowed for “separate but equal” facilities. As much ire as the institution of apartheid inspired throughout the West in the latter phases of the twentieth century, apartheid was a way of life for descendants of former slaves living in the American South until just a couple of decades before the West decided to use the power of shame to bring about change in South Africa. Without action, waiting does not provide any sort of meaning to those who are suffering.
Indeed, the effect of that suffering is one of the ideas that Brooks describes in this poem. She hopes that, when she finally emerges from hell, her “taste will not have turned insensitive to honey and bread old purity could love.” In other words, she hopes that she will not be so changed by her journey through hell that she will not be able to appreciate the future that she had set aside to enter hades. The “old purity” is the mindset that she had when the honey and bread would have been pleasing to her. The discipline of putting those rewards away and dealing with the pain now is admirable, but she also has the prescience to note that going through that awful suffering might well keep her from being able to enjoy the rewards. The “last dregs” of the hurt that the speaker has suffered may change her tastes to the point that the old rewards no longer satisfy. The effect of such long-term bitterness is corrosive on the soul, to the point where the good things from the past are no longer satisfactory. People who cannot lay down their anger, even after the change that they want happens, suffer, and the same goes for societies. When the wounds from the past are so severe and ingrained that no healing is possible, then peace cannot happen. This possibility is what worried the speaker throughout most of the poem.
The speaker keeps the notion of her rewards confined in “little jars and cabinets of [her] will.” The implication is that it is her own discipline that forces her to turn away from the joys that she wants. The rest of the 1960s would be a sojourn through hell for those who were interested in seeing the civil rights movement become more than a fad and instead provide real change in American society, as such visionaries as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X were gunned down by people who did not agree with what they wanted and thought that their ideas would rip the country apart. Such figures as Muhammad Ali, who bluntly told a white, Christian American society that he wanted nothing more to do with it and was joining the Nation of Islam in order to bring change, were frightening to the powers holding the status quo in place, because they showed that change might well come in forms that the institutions would not recognize and might overturn those institutions. The anger with which such figures as the Black Panthers spoke and wrote indicated that it was no longer the inclination of all African-Americans to keep “eyes pointed in.” Instead, the time for introspection was past, and instead the time was for action. This is Brooks’ idea: the notion that her journey through hell would ultimately bring healing. However, the implication is that it might bring healing for others but an awful corrosion to herself. The only solace she might have is that the “honey and bread” waiting for her could still satisfy. Until then, she has to hope that “each latch and lid” remains “firm until [she returns] from hell.” Without that discipline of the will, the change that she wants could be swept away by the forces of distraction.