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The Black Family Pledge by Maya Angelou

“The Black Family Pledge” is written in the form of a pledge that the African American families must take at this moment. Throughout this piece, Angelou describes how the blacks have forgotten their glorious history of struggle and resistance, their core values, and their cultural identity. Due to this forgetfulness, their future generations are now doomed, facing difficulties to cope up with challenges, and lost. Thus Angelou harks for a collective pledge to fill the gaps and learn from history.

Analysis of The Black Family Pledge by Maya Angelou


Summary

“The Black Family Pledge” presents a number of reasons due to which black people are now facing challenges. The present generation is struggling due to their parents’ forgetfulness of their past. They have lost their appreciation for their ancestors’ contribution. Above all, they are now sowing the seed of hatred for each other, rejecting the exquisite fruit of love. These manifold reasons are the major concerns of Angelou. Hence, she harks everyone including the African American families to take a pledge at this moment. They have to make sure that the distressed are redressed by thinking of them as part of their families. In this way, they can show gratitude to the almighty who brought them out of their hopelessness and desolation.

Meaning

The title of the poem points to the undertaking (a form of oath) that all the black families have to take in order to make their children’s lives better. For the most part of this poem, Angelou gives reasons for the problems of the present generation. The main reason of them concerns their forgetfulness of the past and the lack of respect for their ancestors as well as others. They can only bring them out of this loophole by taking this pledge that Angelou is urging everyone to take. This pledge highlights the value that one should cherish in order to make this earth a beautiful place to live in. The ideas of universal brotherhood, compassion, and love are projected through this solemn oath.

Structure & Form

Maya Angelou’s “The Black Family Pledge” consists of 22 lines grouped into nine stanzas. The first six stanzas are written in the cause of effect format. For example, in the first stanza, Angelou talks about the lack of gratitude in the present generation that is caused by their parents’ forgetfulness of the past. After providing this list of losses, Angelou finally talks about the pledge in the last three stanzas. She highlights specific words such as “BECAUSE”, “Are”, and “IN HONOR” by capital-case letters. Regarding the form, it is a free-verse poem written from the first-person point of view.

Poetic Devices

Angelou uses the following poetic devices to make her idea more effective on readers.

  • Repetition: Angelou uses the repetition of the word “BECAUSE” at the beginning of the first six stanzas in order to emphasize her points. She also repeats the phrase “we have” in consecutive stanzas.
  • Metaphor: In the second stanza “perilous undergrowth” is a metaphor for slavery, unequal treatment of blacks, and injustice. Readers can find another metaphor in “golden tongues”. Here, the worth of the ancestors is portrayed through the term “golden”.
  • Irony: It is used throughout the poem. For example, the lines “our befuddled children give birth to children/ they neither want nor understand” contain irony.
  • Sarcasm: It is used in “Regard the loveless”. Here, the poet criticizes the lack of compassion in modern society.
  • Hyperbole: This device is used in the seventh stanza. The terms in superlatives (such as “lowliest”, “loneliest”, etc.) are used for the sake of emphasis.
  • Epigram: The line “We ARE our brothers and sisters” is epigrammatic.


Line-by-Line Analysis

Lines 1-7

BECAUSE we have forgotten our ancestors,

(…)

our children cannot pray.

Maya Angelou begins “The Black Family Pledge” by providing a list of causes and their effects concerning the attitude of blacks in modern times. In the first stanza, she talks about how they have forgotten the role of their ancestors. As they have forgotten about their past, their children follow the same path. They do not honor their parents or their ancestors who selflessly fought for their future generations. This ungrateful attitude is referred to again in the following stanza.

According to the poet, the adults have lost the path their ancestors cleared. Here, the “path” is a metaphor for the advancement of the community. She describes the problems faced by them as “perilous undergrowth”. It can be an allusion to slavery and inequality. Furthermore, she says that as they have already lost track, their children are confusedly wandering, without knowing which way to go.

In the following lines, Angelou highlights the loss of religious values. The adults have banished the God of their ancestors. Hence, their children also have lost faith in the divine power. Due to this lack of faith, for the most part of their lives, they suffer in pessimism and spiritual hunger.

Lines 8-15

BECAUSE the old wails of our ancestors have faded beyond our hearing,

(…)

“Regard the loveless”

In the fourth stanza of the poem, Angelou talks about the “old wails” of their ancestors. It stands for the suffering of those who fought for the emancipation of the community from the shackles of slavery, inequality, and subjugation. The present-day adults have forgotten about black history. Thus they are automatically detached from their ancestors at an emotional level. This emotional detachment is reflected in their children. Now, they cannot hear their parents crying.

According to Angelou, they have abandoned the wisdom of parenting. They have forgotten that in order to get love and respect, they have to show the same to their children. As they are busier in mundane affairs, they don’t have enough time to focus on their children. It increases the distance between them. So, when their children become parents they don’t even understand their kids. Their kids often feel unwelcome in the extremely self-focused world of their parents.

What is most important is that they have forgotten how to love. By retracting their hearts from the exquisite drink of love, they are gobbling the vicious drink of hatred down their throats. So, in the course of life, they become adversaries of one another due to mutual hatred. The poet holds them up to the mirror of the world and shouts, “Regard the loveless”, the hearts that have forgotten to love.

Lines 16-22

Therefore we pledge to bind ourselves to one another, to embrace our

(…)

and in gratitude to the same God who brought us out of hopeless desolation, we make this pledge.

After uttering this long list of causes and effects, finally, Angelou feels it is time to hark the universal oath. She has highlighted the present scenario of the world in order to make her pledge sound more forceful.

The pledge is to bind to one another. It means filling the gaps by holding each others’ hands like a human chain. They have to pledge to embrace the lowliest of all. The loneliest in the world should be given company and the warmth of friendship. Not only that, they have to educate the illiterate, feed the hungry, and clothe the ragged. In this way, Angelou highlights the ideas of education for all, eradication of hunger and poverty.

Furthermore, she says that they have to do all good things for others as they are more than keepers of their brothers and sisters. In the following line, she highlights the idea “We ARE our brothers and sisters” by keeping it separated from the other stanzas. The idea of universal brotherhood is featured in this line.

In the last stanza, the poet says that they have to take this pledge in honor of those who toiled and implored God with their “golden tongues”. Here, the phrase “golden tongues” is a symbolic reference to a powerful and valuable voice. Their ancestors had wished to end their sufferings, hence the present generation is reaping the fruits of freedom, equal opportunity, and education. Thus, they have to be grateful to them as well as to God who brought them out of their “hopeless desolation”.

Historical Context

“The Black Family Pledge” was written in 2005. Maya Angelou was respected as a spokesperson for the Black people. Her works are considered as a defense of Black culture. However, in this poem, Angelou does not defend the blacks. Rather she holds their nuances openly to the world by counting their faults one by one. It is important to note that she also regards their forgetfulness to hers. In this way, she tries to make them realize that their faults need to be addressed and amended. Throughout this piece, she highlights the importance of history and the values such as gratitude, respect, love, and brotherhood.

FAQs

What is “The Black Family Pledge”?

The pledge concerns binding ourselves to one another with mutual respect and understanding, embracing the lowliest, accompanying the loneliest, educating the illiterate, feeding the hungry, and clothing the ragged.

What is “The Black Family Pledge” about?

This poem is about how black families have forgotten their past and cultural values. Not only that, they have become ungrateful to the contribution of their ancestors and hateful towards one another. Due to these reasons, Angelou urges everyone to pledge to be compassionate, respectful, and grateful to their past, others, and most importantly to God who brought them out of their sufferings.

When was “The Black Family Pledge” published?

The poem was written in 2005 and published in the same year.

What is the theme of the poem?

This poem taps on themes of loss, love and hatred, brotherhood, forgetfulness, etc.

Who is the speaker of this poem?

The speaker of this piece is the poet Maya Angelou herself. She speaks from the perspective of a first-person speaker who presents her ideas from a collective point of view.


External Resources


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