African American Challenges and Aspirations Depicted in 'Sympathy', 'Harlem' and 'The Lesson'

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During the Great Migration, thousands of African Americans poured into industrial cities to find work and fill labor shortages created by World War I. Blacks faced exclusion and discrimination in employment, as well as some segregation in schools and public accommodations. However, the war and migration bolstered a heightened self-confidence in African Americans that manifested in the New Negro Movement, also known as the Harlem Renaissance. Authors Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, and Toni Cade Bambara write about how people including, yet not limited to, African Americans felt trapped inside a cage, wishing they could get out and enjoy life the same way whites could. They emphasize that human beings accepting the realities of life to such an extent that apathy and lethargy set in proves to be destructive. Despite racial injustice, the narrators in ‘Sympathy’, ‘Harlem’ and ‘The Lesson’ overcome their silence, voice their opinions, and find value in dreaming against all odds.

‘Sympathy’ by Paul Laurence Dunbar uses a caged bird to symbolize the harsh treatment of African Americans and the need to reverse their imprisonment from unfair laws. Dunbar relates to the social and political restrictions and feels sympathy for African Americans. The thematic refrain “I know what the caged bird feels” borders the first stanza highlighting the constraints in his life. The openness between the lines emphasizes Dunbar’s vulnerability. When the “sun is bright on the upland slopes”, the “first bird sings and the first bud opens”. The juxtaposition of the cage and an exposed landscape advances the motif of oppression and shows a life beyond the “cruel bars”. The use of the refrain “I know why the caged bird beats his wings” in the beginning of the second stanza and then at the end further intensifies the feeling of the poet imprisoned even in normal life. The image of a bird beating his wing shows his struggle in vain and evokes a sense of isolation. Feelings of confinement lead the bird to protest. Akin to the bird’s plea, African Americans rivaled against the South’s new laws to restrict the voting rights of blacks. These included onerous requirements, such as owning property, paying poll taxes, and passing literacy exams despite neither having money nor the ability to read. Similar to the bird’s protests resulting in “old, old scars”, many African Americans who voice their opinions are physically threatened. In order to overcome the silence, the bird sings for freedom. Dunbar “knows why the caged bird sings” because he, too, has struggled with defying limits, specifically alcoholism and divorce. When the protest fails, he sends a prayer to heaven and pleas for freedom. Although the “prayer” may not be “a carol of joy or glee”, his supplication results in a sense of hope. Through singing and dreaming, the bird forgets the entrapped situation for the time being and imagines being “on the bough-a-swing” free.

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In ‘Harlem’, Langston Hughes voices the danger of deferred dreams by addressing postponed or muted aspirations and stressing the need to strive for a better future. The line length and positioning create a sense of jagged, nervous energy that reinforces the poem's motif of increasing frustration. Taking the phrase “a dream deferred” to heart, Hughes comments on people whose dreams have been deferred against their will rather than by choice. The line invites the reader into the conversation and presents the opposition that while someone dreams and attempts to escape a bad life, someone causes the delay. Hughes uses interrogatives to compare deferred dreams to food many low-income families live off of. Questioning if dreams dry up “like a raisin in the sun” or stink “like rotten meat” intensifies the negative side-effects of repressing one’s dream for too long and remaining silent; deferred dreams pester continuously until they are cared for. Moreover, if one lets a dream “fester like a sore– and then run”, it will bleed like an infected wound and never heal. The festering rotten language conveys a sense of infection and suggests that unfulfilled dreams become part of one’s identity. The fourth guess that a dream may “crust and sugar over” represents the broken promises of emancipation, reconstruction, integration, and equality. Despite laws prohibiting it, many schools enforced racial segregation. Furthermore, laws against interracial marriage were present as well as the prominent disparities in the number of prosecuted African Americans to whites. Hughes stresses that blacks have the power to break free from racial inequalities and obtain a better life if they speak up. The last line “or does it explode” addresses that dreams will explode and destroy all the limitations imposed upon them.

In ‘The Lesson’ by Toni Cade Bambara, Miss Moore and Sylvia use silence and voice to instill the idea that intelligence and awareness exist and need to be awakened. Through teaching techniques, Miss Moore silently allows the children to voice their opinions on the stifling of their dreams. Despite her “proper speech”, making the children hate the “nappy bitch and her goddamn college degree”, Miss Moore’s education enables her to see out of the cage Dunbar refers to in ‘Sympathy’. Because she believes a lack of social awareness leads to barriers, Miss Moore takes Sylvia and her friends on a field trip to FAO Schwarz to show the children the inequalities in the world. Miss Moore does not try to implement any preconceived theories she might have learned at educational institutions; rather she shows Sylvia that “poor people have to wake up and demand their share of the pie”. With her firing away of questions, Miss Moore makes the children voice their views about the high-profile store on Fifth Ave. Despite Sylvia’s initial negative attitude and rude response to the excursion, Miss Moore succeeds in bringing to light the absurd prices. Sylvia imagines “what kind of society it is in which some people can spend on a toy what it would cost to feed a family of six or seven” and realizes that the injustice done towards them stems from the lack of education in their poverty-stricken community. Being exposed to unfamiliar and unknown situations, Sylvia loses her outgoing and risk-taking personality, and becomes intimidated when she recognizes the costumes gawking at her. While she kept up a barrage of talk outside the store, she finds herself silent trying to enter and compares the atmosphere to a church service. Although she intends to crash the mass, once Sylvia arrives, “and everything [is] so hushed and holy and the candles and the bowin and the handkerchiefs on all the drooping heads, I [Sylvia] just couldn’t go through with the plan”. Her timid outlook relates to Dunbar’s analogy of African Americans being trapped in a cage. Sylvia and her friends find themselves physically trapped when they try to get into typically white dominated territory and “tumble in like a glued-together jigsaw done all wrong”. While veering between envy and incredulity in the store, Sylvia questions, “Who are these people that spend that much for performing clowns and $1000 for toy sailboats?”. While she finds the one-thousand-dollar sailboat to be “magnificent”, Sylvia also judges it to be impractical and “just big enough to maybe sail two kittens across the pond if you strap them to the posts tight”. Overwhelmed by the expensive toys and a white woman wearing a fur coat during the summer, she conceives that “white folks [are] crazy”. The unfair distribution of wealth prevents the oppressed from finding their own reality like a bird “on the bough a-swing”. After being introduced to the income disparities, Sylvia questions the fairness of social and economic class stratification in the country and recognizes “it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way”; however, she needs to find the strength to voice their rights in order to improve life for her family. Akin to Hughes’s point that dreams happen out of necessity rather than choice and must be pursued, the children need to be inspired to work harder and voice their opinions amidst opposition. Injustice helps Sylvia tune her anger and turn Miss Moore’s short trip from a “boring-ass” arithmetic lesson to be a revolutionary experience. When all the children line up at the mailbox after the excursion, Sylvia has “a headache for thinking so hard”. The experience causes her to believe that “ain’t nobody gonna beat me [her] at nuthin”.

All three authors write about African Americans in a literal and metaphorical prison which became a reality as a result of the Great Depression and wars. The brute force needed to open the cage introduces a greater sense of violence breeding violence. In overcoming their silence, African Americans became more assertive with their demands for equality and a better future. The dream for African Americans, whether as mundane as paying rent or as noble as teaching one’s children to read, proves vital to their future success.

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African American Challenges and Aspirations Depicted in ‘Sympathy’, ‘Harlem’ and ‘The Lesson’. (2023, September 08). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 23, 2024, from
“African American Challenges and Aspirations Depicted in ‘Sympathy’, ‘Harlem’ and ‘The Lesson’.” Edubirdie, 08 Sept. 2023,
African American Challenges and Aspirations Depicted in ‘Sympathy’, ‘Harlem’ and ‘The Lesson’. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 23 Jul. 2024].
African American Challenges and Aspirations Depicted in ‘Sympathy’, ‘Harlem’ and ‘The Lesson’ [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2023 Sept 08 [cited 2024 Jul 23]. Available from:

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