Type of paper: Essay

Topic: Literature, America, Freedom, Democracy, Poetry, United States, Poem, Birds

Pages: 4

Words: 1100

Published: 2021/01/28

Idea of Absolute Freedom in the poems of Langston Hughes and Paul Laurence Dunbar

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” These words of Charlotte Brontë depict the idea of the eternal theme of freedom and defense of liberty. The history of racial inequality in the USA during 1950s and the struggle for equality is reflected in the work of African-American writers Langston Hughes and Paul Lawrence Dunbar. This movement has stopped racial discrimination in various fields In the twelve years of nonviolent struggle for civil rights. This movement had awakened in black Americans self-esteem, pride and self-confidence, contributed to mutual understanding between the African-Americans and the White US citizens. The selfless dream of freedom is the main linking theme of the poems “Harlem” by Hughes and “Sympathy” by Dunbar. The modern American society should remember the common themes of freedom and racial inequality in both poems because they make people respect their history, unmask the problem of racism during the 1950s, and echo the attempts for the liberty.

Langston Hughes (01/02/1902, Joplin, Missouri - 22/05/1967, New York) is an American writer and publicist. He was born in the Afro-American family. Langston Hughes’ poetry is simple and beautiful, like life itself. Whatever the poet writes about - the love and tenderness of the humiliation and violence, unemployment and lynching, or anger and struggle for freedom - his poems are always imbued with sorrows and joys of the people and therefore always reach the heart of every person. Another fighter for freedom and racial equality is Paul Lawrence Dunbar (06/27/1872, Dayton - 10/02/1906, Washington). He is a well-known African-American writer. He was born in a former slave family, and worked as a lifter. He was the first black writer widely known in the United States; the most popular his poems were written in dialect - folk dialects of the American South. In poetry, he imbued with a sincere love for his people; Dunbar idealizes the lives of Afro-Americans on the plantations. However, in a few short stories and poems sounds Dunbar’s protest against discrimination and terror (Wooley, 363).


Hughes’ poem “Harlem” was written in 1951at the height of the racial discrimination. This poem is dedicated to the theme of the discrimination of the freedom of Afro-American people during the 1950s, and the prohibition of the freedom of desires and dreams. The theme of slavery and racial inequality was still very popular within the White American families. The Afro-Americans were treated as the inferior people. The title of the poem “Harlem” refers the reader to the Harlem community, the member of which was Hughes. This is a speaking title’ it refers the reader to the times of the racial infringement and the struggle against it.
His very first line addresses his fellow citizens: “What happens to a dream deferred?” (Hughes, 1). The epithet “deferred” disclose the meaning of the all the existing incomplete dreams of his people, and what would possible happen if they give up their ideals and dreams. He lived in the period of the upcoming changes, The Civil Rights Movement (Krull, 17). Hughes’s tone is quite radical, because he points to the possible consequences: “Maybe it just sags/ like a heavy load./ Or does it explode?” (Hughes, 9-11). The lines “Does it dry up/ like a raisin in the sun?” (2-3) create a metaphor of working people who dies in the heat of sunrays while harvesting. The simile “fester like a sore” (4) serves as the forecast of a treason of the dreams. The line “Does it stink like rotten meat?” (6) is opposed to the previous lines in the form of time: between the future and the past that “stinks like rotten meat”. This metaphor sounds very sharply and strongly in order to avert the reader from coming back to the dark past and to go the right way. The author sounds sharply throughout the poem: “Maybe it just sags/ like a heavy load’ (9-10). This metaphor makes the reader realize the burden of the slavery and the heavy labor. It also makes the reader realize the loneliness on the way of dreaming. The whole poem is pilled with a feeling of absolute freedom. Event the lines and its metric forms is not common; the poem is not structured according to the one pattern. The last line finishes the idea of the author of the necessity of dreaming about freedom, but reserves to the reader the answer: whether this “explode” means the festive lights or a shooting.
The poem “Sympathy” written by Paul Lawrence Dunbar dwells on the same problems as the poem “Harlem” by Hughes, i.e. the racial humiliation and thirst for an ability to dream and feel free of the 19th century. The theme started a long time ago, and Dunbar is considered as a pioneer of the struggle for freedom. The title of the poem, “Sympathy”, has a deep background that is hidden in its origin. To sympathize means to approve of. The author sympathizes his fellow citizens, shares their pain, and dreams about freedom.
Basically, the first line states the main theme of the whole poem: “I know what the caged bird feels, alas!” (Dunbar, 1). The author speaks from himself; it is the author’s narration. It approaches the author to his reader, and creates the total effect of a sympathy. The words “the caged bird” serve as the main metaphor of the poem: it depicts the image of every Afro-American who was treated as the caged slave during the 19th century. The exclamation “alas!” is another metaphor; it is a cry from the heart. The poem tells the story of a bird that cannot fly away from its cage and see “the sun is bright on the upland slopes/ the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,/ And the river flows like a stream of glass;” (2-4). The author claims that he understands the bird’s feelings, he knows its pain when “the caged bird beats his wing Till its blood is red on the cruel bars” (8-9). These lines is a metaphor of struggle.
The bird keeps on beating it swings though it is in blood, and there is blood on “the cruel bars”. These bars is another metaphor of the imprisonment. The bird’s “the old, old scars” (12) tell the reader about the numerous attempts of this “warrior” to break the system and become free. The phrase “I know” serves as the framing of the and opens the author’s viewpoint without hiding it. The last lines “When he beats his bars and he would be free” (17) describe an indestructible hope of freedom. The bird’s cry “is not a carol of joy or glee” (18), but a “a prayer” (19). The bird, as a metaphor of all Afro-Americans, asks for salvation. He wants to become free from bars and feel the authentic beauty of the world.


The poems “Harlem” by Langston Hughes and “Sympathy” by Paul Lawrence Dunbar have one common and important theme – a theme of a struggle for freedom and the endless American dream. African Americans were “constrained” like the birds in cages and people who were afraid of a free dreaming. Both poems describe the main non-breakable dream of freedom: and dreaming of it; they united in communities (Harlem community) and fought for their rights “Till its blood is red on the cruel bars” (Dunbar, 8-9). It is important to note that the Civil Rights movement was non-violent; it was attended by representatives of both the white and the black population. The modern Americans are taught to remember the true genocide that occurred during the 19th and 50-60s of the 20th centuries with the help of these poems. They are united by the common theme of freedom that recalls the horrors of the racial inequality, which nowadays echoes in the hearts of the US society.

Works cited

Krull, Kristin. "Global Contributions Of African American Writers: Using Poetry To Facilitate
Connections Between Historical Periods And Students' Personal Experiences." Black History Bulletin 72.1 (2009): 14-21.
Hughes, Langston. “Harlem”. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. Vintage Books (1994).
Dunbar, Paul L. “Sympathy”. Twentieth-Century American Poetry (2004).
Wooley, Christine A. "We Are Not In The Old Days Now": Paul Laurence Dunbar And The
Problem Of Sympathy." African American Review 43.2/3 (2009): 359-370. 

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WePapers. (2021, January, 28) Historical Background Essay Example. Retrieved June 24, 2024, from https://www.wepapers.com/samples/historical-background-essay-example/
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Historical Background Essay Example. Free Essay Examples - WePapers.com. https://www.wepapers.com/samples/historical-background-essay-example/. Published Jan 28, 2021. Accessed June 24, 2024.

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