Alice Walker is well-known today for her long history of literature and her long history of activism, particularly in Africa and in North America, for the purpose of human equality. Many of her stories and poems deal with this topic, and each typically takes on a different perspective from the others, making each work a unique and powerful look into the world through the eyes of Alice Walker. When You Thought Me Poor is one such poem — it is a powerful commentary on an unequal society that is well-written enough to be a thought-provoking and intelligent commentary on the way the world can often be, through the eyes — and the pen — of Alice Walker.
When You Thought Me Poor Analysis
When you thought me poor,
that I stay home.
One thing worth noting immediately is that “you” is the second word of When You Thought Me Poor, which can be read in full here, and “me” the fourth. This is a very personal message, and the use of personal pronouns compounds the intimacy of the verse. And because of the use of personal pronouns, we can infer meaning from the last few lines; when the narrator says “we found it best / that I stay home,” we don’t truly believe that the narrator found that for the best. Being let in like this opens up the meaning of the poem to us in a strong way.
The free-verse style of the poem is another important element of this; because there is neither structure nor rhyme, the poem reads more like dialogue, or as a realistic piece of conversation. The broken structure parallels the state of mind held by the narrator — halting, brief dialogue, expanding on painful and difficult memories.
When by the miracle
of fierce dreaming and hard work
like your rich friends.
The language used in this verse of When You Thought Me Poor is fairly strong, and what’s interesting is that the sarcastic cynicism that normally is best expressed through verbal dialogue is extremely apparent. Walker’s choice of word in “the miracle / of fierce dreaming and hard work” paints the picture of a society that only sees what it wants to see. Based on the previous verse, it seems likely that the narrator here is a person of colour, but this could easily be adapted to fit any kind of social outcast. For the individual, success can be achieved through “fierce dreaming and hard work.” For the outside society, there is no work involved; it is simply a miracle that this sole outcast was able to make a name for themselves. And still, the narrator finds a difference between themselves and other successes that exist in their society. They are seen as being crass, their wealth is conspicuous, a trait that simply isn’t attached to other successful people in their society. Without saying it, it is clear that the “rich friends” being referred to are the social majority, who go unquestioned because they are expected to be well-off, while the outcasted narrator is expected to be poor; hence, their wealth and success is conspicuous.
Still black too,
This is a strong verse, the underlying message indicated that as a social outcast, there is no winning, no positive spin, no good from anything. In the first verse, the poverty of the narrator is shameful. In this one, they own too much. They simply can not and will not be viewed positively, because their society has pre-determined who they are. That they are black has not changed, but their wealth has, and since the former has been decided to dictate the latter, there is no difference between being rich or poor for one’s place in this society if they are black.
What to do?
Now that Fate appears
Now that moonlight and night
have blessed me.
The next verse is confusing and contradictory, to reflect a confusing and contradictory society. “Woe is me: I became a / success!” As if success can be a bad thing for an individual! And yet, the narrator feels they should be dismayed. But not to worry — suddenly, out of nowhere, being black becomes socially acceptable.
“Who knows how?” This is undoubtedly another criticism of society. Because, as our own histories tell us, a great many people know how — primarily those who had to fight and die to be recognized, the people such as the narrator of When You Thought Me Poor, who spend years dreaming and working harder than anyone else is expected to earn their place in society. Those are the people who know how it happened, and yet, society reads it off as just another one of those strange shifts that come out of nowhere and lasts for who knows how long.
Now that the sun
unaffected by criticism
the dark and radiant wonder
of my face.
This verse continues the theme of the last one. Fate (apparently) has, for the moment, elevated the social outcasts above their former position in society, and the narrator is suddenly wondering what to do with their newfound freedom, this freedom from “abject failure,” this blessing from moonlight and night, the rather peaceful use of imagery to illustrate a time of day that once might have been seen as a very unsafe one, now turned into a blessing because of protections afforded through social equality. This metaphor is continued into the final verse, one that indicates wider acceptance while holding onto the themes that have been present throughout When You Thought Me Poor.
Alice Walker was born on February 9, 1944 in Putnam County, Georgia, in a time and place where black children were seen as not needing education, as well as one during which income for families of color was sadly low. At one point in her youth, an accident with a BB gun caused damage to one of Walker’s eyes. Her family’s lack of access to a car meant that by the time she received treatment, she had been blinded in that eye. The resulting stigma — stares and taunts, FV particularly common as she was still in grade school at the time — made Walker feel like an outcast, but also made her feel as though she was able to really see and understand other people’s relationships. Many of her inner thoughts and feelings were subsequently expressed in writings and poetry, as she had become very shy as a result of her physical appearance.
Later in her life, Walker met Martin Luther King Jr., an event that inspired her to join the Civil Rights Movement, and work for equality for blacks as well as for women, both within and from outside of the United States. Since then, her commitment to her activism has not faltered, and her published stories and poems are often focused on these topics.
Considering the amount of time in her life Walker felt like an outcast, the content of When You Thought Me Poor is hardly surprising. Walker’s activist history has been a long criticism of elements of society she holds in disdain for the purposes of social equality. When You Thought Me Poor accurately describes the way mainstream society has treated not only black people — although this is almost certainly the focus of the piece — but of outcasts and disadvantaged groups in general. For the purposes of activism — for Walker’s stance on civil rights and social equality — the meaning is clear, and it comes from a long and very difficult history.