H Harryette Mullen

Black Nikes by Harryette Mullen

‘Black Nikes,’ a poem by the American poet Harryette Mullen, was first published in Santa Monica Review (1997). This poem records a metaphorical journey of black people to stars.

Black Nikes by Harryette Mullen Visual Representation

‘Black Nikes’ is an interesting poem about racial discrimination, slavery, and disillusionment. Through this piece, Harryette Mullen metaphorically describes a journey to the stars. The passengers are former slaves or other black men who faced discrimination. This earth is nothing but a heap of dirt from which they want to transcend their spirits to eternity. A sense of escapism and bitter resentment is portrayed in this poem.

Black Nikes by Harryette Mullen


Summary

‘Black Nikes’ by Harryette Mullen records a group of people’s journey to the stars and their desire to leave “all this dirt”.

This piece begins with a reference to King Tut (Tutankhamun). His tomb was built on the labor of slaves. According to Mullen, the slaves transported Tut’s soul to the stars from the mute crypt of Egypt. Those who were enslaved or worked hard to uphold the successful men’s glory wish to leave this world. There is nothing that can inspire them. They saw a lot and digested several forms of torture. Besides, the rest of the poem describes how the speaker exits earth and leaves the dirt of human history behind.

You can read the full poem here.

Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-6

We need quarters like King Tut needed a boat.

(…)

Make it sparkle like a fresh toilet swirling with blue.

Harryette Mullen’s poem ‘Black Nikes’ contains a thought-provoking title. It is an allusion to the Greek goddess of victory, Nike. Besides, it contains a pun as well. Through the title, Mullen glorifies the “black” men on whose hard work the towering pyramids, statues, and other monuments are built. The first line is an allusion to King Tut’s tomb which was built by slaves. They gave their best to ironically transcend Tut’s soul to stars.

According to the speaker of the poem, they can easily reside in a quarter compared to the size of Tut’s boat. No matter how great men treated them, their thoughts wandered about the stars. It is not money they crave. They only need a little amount of money/wealth to live. There is no need for money for reaching the stars. Only fertile imagination is what matters.

In the following line, the speaker imagines a blazing comet that could brighten the planet. The sparkling effect of the comet on the planet is compared to “a fresh toilet swirling with blue” by the use of a simile. Mullen uses this image in order to create an ironic effect. 

Lines 7-12

Or only come close enough to brush a few lost souls.

(…)

Please page our home and visit our sigh on the wide world’s ebb.

Furthermore, the speaker imagines what can happen if the symbolic “comet” comes nearby. Then it can brush a few souls and rinse the sin away. In the next line, the poet draws attention to time and its impact on the human body. According to her, time rots as the bodies of dead slaves lie beneath the ground.

They are like “noiseless patient spiders” that are paid with “dirt”. In the pages of history, their contribution is given no value like the “dirt”. However, the craving for “star dust” or dream to break through the chains is there in their hearts.

In the next line, Mullen uses a rhetorical question in order to describe the deterioration of the ozone layer due to the use of cooling appliances. According to her, it is a “big ticket item”, meaning none pays attention to its state.

The next line contains a humorous wordplay of the web-publishing jargon. Mullen makes use of a “call-to-action” that is used in blogs. She asks readers to return to the history of black people and introspect on their suffering on the “wide world’s ebb”.

Lines 13-18

Just point and cluck at our new persuasion shoes.

(…)

We’re leaving all this dirt.

The last section of ‘Black Nikes’ begins with the use of enjambment. Here, the first line is connected with the last line of the previous section. In the beginning, the speaker refers to the shoes worn by well-off people. These shoes have a persuasive impact on an onlooker’s mind. Through this line, Mullen associates the theme of consumerism.

In the next line, she describes how people open their gates of containers for recycling. This dustbin is a metaphor for human history. Furthermore, the speaker wishes to sail past all the suffering and nail their existence in history. They are thrilled to exit earth, all at once. The happiness comes from a sense of relief that they are leaving all the dirty memories behind.

Structure

Mullen’s ‘Black Nikes’ is a free-verse lyric poem. It is written in prose poem form. The lines are packed together in a single stanza. There is no line division and a separate section to mark a shift. The overall piece consists of 18 prosaic lines with no rhyme at all. Besides, there is no regular metrical scheme. Mullen writes this poem from the first-person point of view. She uses the collective first-person pronoun “we” in order to inject a sense of solidarity.

Literary Devices

Mullen makes use of the following literary devices in this poem.

  • Enjambment: It occurs throughout the text. Mullen uses this device to internally connect the lines and create an unhindered flow.
  • Allusion: The first line alludes to the last Pharaoh of Egypt, Tutankhamun. 
  • Rhetorical Question: The line “If nature abhors an expensive appliance, why does the planet suck ozone?” contains this device.
  • Irony: It is used in “A slave could row him to heaven from his crypt”. This device is also used in other instances. 
  • Alliteration: It occurs in “him to heaven”, “comet could”, “come close”, “when what we want”, etc.


Historical Context

‘Black Nikes’ was first published in the 1997 fall edition of Santa Monica Review. It also appears in Mullen’s poetry collection Sleeping with the Dictionary, published in 2002. Mullen combines cultural critique with humor and critical wordplay in this poem. Besides, she makes use of several themes such as globalization, consumerism, identity, and racism. Through this piece, she shows the history of black people, slaves, and the downtrodden. They got no place in history though they worked hard to uphold the great men’s contribution. This piece is a protest to such treatment of humankind toward them.

FAQs

What is the poem ‘Black Nikes’ about?

Harryette Mullen’s ‘Black Nikes’ is a poem bout the journey of black men to the stars. This poem records the events of history where blacks faced discrimination and several forms of indignation. Their contribution was not even mentioned in history. Hence, the speaker wishes to leave all this dirt and enter into the world of stars.

When was ‘Black Nikes’ published?

‘Black Nikes’ was first published in the 1997 fall edition of Santa Monica Review. It was later included in Harryette Mullen’s best-known collection of poetry Sleeping with the Dictionary. It was published in 2002.

What type of poem is ‘Black Nikes’?

It is a free-verse lyric poem. There is no set rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The overall poem consists of 18 lines which are grouped in a stanza. Mullen uses the prose poem form in this piece.

Who is the speaker of ‘Black Nikes’?

The speaker of the poem is none other than the poet Harryette Mullen herself. She speaks for the downtrodden and slaves. It is written from the perspective of a first-person speaker. Mullen uses the collective pronoun “we” to incorporate a sense of solidarity.

What is the theme of ‘Black Nikes’?

This poem taps on a number of themes such as identity, history, slavery, racism, consumerism, and time. The main idea of the poem deals with the concept of escapism. Mullen’s speaker wants to escape the dirty world in order to live in the valley of stars.


Similar Poems

The following list contains a number of poems that similarly evoke the theme present in ‘Black Nikes’ by Harryette Mullen.

You can also read about these incredible black history poems.

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Black Nikes by Harryette Mullen Visual Representation
About
A complete expert on poetry, Sudip graduated with a first-class B.A. Honors Degree in English Literature. He has a passion for analyzing poetic works with a particular emphasis on literary devices and scansion.
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