‘Black Woman’ was published in The Heart of a Woman and Other Poems in 1918, alongside ‘The Heart of a Woman’ and ‘Foredoom’. Johnson was a member of the Harlem Renaissance and wrote four books, as well as plays and songs. In this particular poem, she taps into themes of race, equality, or inequality, parenting, and sacrifice.
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Summary of Black Woman
In the first lines of ‘Black Woman,’ the speaker, a black woman, likely Johnson herself, addresses a child that she’d like to have but is not ready to. This child is knocking on her door, a metaphor for her heart, trying to be born into the world. Even though the speaker wants to have this child she knows that it’s not the right choice. The world is not kind to children, especially black children. She is well aware of this and hopes to wait until a better time when a child would grow up in a world ready to accept them.
You can read the full poem Black Woman here.
Structure of Black Woman
‘Black Woman’ by Georgia Douglas Johnson is a two stanza poem that is separated into two sets of eight lines, known as octaves. These octaves follow a rhyme scheme of ABCBDEAB, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. The lines bounce back and forth between eight syllables and six, with only a few exceptions. While the rhythm, in part due to the meter, but mostly due to the rhyme scheme, feels upbeat, the content is quite dark. This contrast is an interesting one, especially considering the fact that the poem is directed to a child.
Poetic Techniques in Black Woman
Johnson makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Black Woman’. These include but are not limited to repetition, epistrophe, alliteration, and metaphor. The first of these, repetition, is the use and reuse of a specific technique, word, tone or phrase within a poem. There are several examples in ‘Black Woman’ of Johnson using this technique. For instance, “cruel, cruel” in line seven of the first stanza and “Be still, be still” in line seven of the second stanza. Both of these instances play into the overall sing-song-like rhythm of the poem.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “what” and “world” in line three of the first stanza and “Be,” “be,” and “birth” in the last line of the second stanza. Epistrophe is the repetition of the same word, or a phrase, at the end of multiple lines or sentences. For example, “child” and “in” in stanza one.
A metaphor is a comparison between two, unlike things that does not use “like” or “as” is also present in the text. When using this technique a poet is saying that one thing is another thing, they aren’t just similar. There is a good example in the first line of the poem when the speaker asks the child to stop knocking at her “door”. This is a metaphor for her heart and her body in general.
Analysis of Black Woman
Don’t knock at my door, little child,
I cannot let you in,
The world is cruel, cruel, child,
I cannot let you in!
In the first stanza of ‘Black Woman,’ the speaker, a black woman, addresses her child. She asks this child not to “knock at [her] door”. This is a multilayered metaphor that refers to her heart as well as her womb. She acknowledges the child with kind language, wishing that they could come into the world. But she knows that she “cannot” let them in.
She continues to talk to the child, telling them that they have no idea what the world is like. It is filled with “cruelty and sin” and she couldn’t bear to let the child in. She asks that the child “Wait in the still of eternity” until it is the right time for her to give birth. This is clearly something she doesn’t want to do but she believes it is the right choice. This alludes to the possibility that there will be a time in the future when things are different.
Don’t knock at my heart, little one,
I cannot bear the pain
Be still, be still, my precious child,
I must not give you birth!
The second stanza of ‘Black Woman’ is similar to the first in the structure of the lines and the words that Johnson uses. She asks the child this time, very clearly, not to knock on her heart. It’s too painful for her to bear. Emotionally, the knowledge of the possibility of this child is hurting her, therefore, she uses a technique known as apostrophe to speak to the child (although it cannot hear her) and beg them to leave her heart alone.
If the child would stop calling then she’d be able to bear the pain of not answering. The impulse inside to bring a child into the world is a strong one. She doesn’t want to resist it but she is.
In the fifth line of this stanza, Johnson makes use of alliteration with the phrase “monster men”. This is a child-appropriate way of describing the acts of men on earth. The word “earth” rhymes perfectly with “birth” in the last line. The poem concludes by speaking clearly on what the speaker wants and what she believes she can’t have at this time.