Symbolism and Allusion in Maya Angelou's "My Arkansas"
"There is a deep brooding/ in Arkansas." Arkansas is stuck in the past, its memories of hatred and crime from ante-bellum days hindering the progression towards Civil Rights. Maya Angelou's poem of the struggle to a new wave of equality uses both general symbolism and historical allusion to make its theme clear to the reader. The poem uses general symbolism in nature, in time, and historical allusion to make the theme clear in a concise but vibrant poem.
The general symbolism relating to nature assumes a common base of knowledge from which symbolism can be built. The poem opens with a description of Arkansas: "Old crimes like moss pend/ from poplar trees./ The sullen earth/ is much too/ red for comfort." The first example of general symbolism in this passage is the reference to moss. Moss is considered the base of the forest, the lowest level from which all of the other plants grow. Although moss is vital to a forest, it is often thought of as slimy and dirty. The moss "pend(s) from poplar trees," our second natural symbol. The poplar tree is weak and useless. Nothing can be built from its wood, and it often bends and breaks during storms. The visual image of the moss clinging to the poplar tree shows the slimy moss as "old crimes" and the poplar tree as the frail attempt at growth and a new but weak beginning. The reader gets a clear sense of the struggle toward a new life that is hindered and held back by the old, dependable moss that has been and always will be present. The second part of the passage discusses the "sullen earth" that is "much too red." Red earth can be symbolic in two ...
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...e. Finally at the end of the poem the historical allusion brings the poem to a complete closure, and the theme of starting fresh is put into a more specific context. The "old hates" and "old crimes" are referring to those against African-Americans in the days of slavery. the new beginning for Arkansas is the attempt to reach equality, leaving the past behind.
"Today is yet to come in Arkansas." Reading Angelou's poem shows the reader a new perspective on civil rights and its applicability in society. The use of general symbolism found in nature through the weak poplar tree hindered by moss and the cautious sun, paired with the historical allusion to the ante-bellum times make the theme of the poem clear. The past cannot be forgotten, and may hinder the future. Arkansas' struggle toward the future "writhes in awful/ waves of brooding" of the past.
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