‘Kids Who Die’ is a powerful and incredibly moving poem that depicts the social climate of the 1930s, a period through which Hughes lives. This poem which alludes to that specific moment is, unfortunately, just as poignant now as it was then. Hughes could be speaking about contemporary life in the first 2/3rds of the poem. The climate of hate, fear, abuse, and death that Hughes depicts is very clearly playing out around us today.
This piece was written in 1938 but has over the last ten years had a resurgence in popularity as deaths, especially those of the black youths, have surged in coverage by the media.
In the second half of the poem the mood changes. Hughes takes the reader from a place of depression, fear, and anxiety, to one that is incredibly hopeful and powerful. He speaks of a time in which the lives of these children are recognized by society as a whole. Everyone will, in the way they live their lives, become a monument to those who were lost. This time of unity, hope, and resistance has not come into being yet, but a careful reader and student of history can find an optimistic progression of events to where we are today.
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Summary of Kids Who Die
The poem describes the lives and deaths of young people. These are “kids” from all over the world who died while trying to bring their peers, co-workers, and friends together to better their lives. The old, the rich, and those in power do everything they can to degrade and take advantage of these kids. They’re hateful, cruel, and abusive.
But, the speaker says, things will eventually change. These kids might not have a monument to their deaths right now, but in the future, the rest of the world will evolve. They will learn of these kids, the truth of their lives, and transform their own understanding of what’s right. Society will rise up.
You can read the full poem here.
Themes in Kids Who Die
Within Kids Who Die, Hughes taps into themes of discrimination, hierarchical power, and by the end, unity. The latter appears in the final stanza of the poem after society has thrown away the hierarchical arrangement of the past and seeks out a new future. Those who were at the top, the rich and old, could stomp on and destroy the young and poor without repercussion. But, through the destruction of discrimination and the coming together of peoples, that will change.
Structure of Kids Who Die
‘Kids Who Die’ by Langston Hughes is a four stanza poem that is separated into uneven sets of lines. The first stanza contains seven lines, the second: eleven, the third: eighteen, and the fourth: fifteen. The line does not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. They vary in word and syllable count. But, that does not mean they are without structure or rhyme.
There are a number of examples of half-rhyme and full-rhyme within ‘Kids Who Die’. A few examples of the latter can be seen in the first stanza with “old” and “gold” and “die” and “lie” at the end of the second stanza.
Half-rhyme, also known as slant or partial rhyme, is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line, or multiple lines of verse. For example, “organizing” and “orange” in lines four and five of the second stanza and “laws,” “clubs,” and “bullets” in the twelfth line of the third stanza.
Poetic Techniques in Kids Who Die
Hughes makes use of several poetic techniques in this poem. These include but are not limited to alliteration, enjambment, anaphora, and accumulation. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “weaving words” in line six of the third stanza and “song” and “sky” in line thirteen of the fourth stanza.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. This technique can be seen in the transition between lines one and two of the second stanza as well as between lines fifteen and sixteen of the third stanza.
Anaphora and Accumulation
Hughes also makes use of anaphora, or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. This technique is often used to create emphasis. A list of phrases, items, or actions may be created through its implementation. For example, “And” begins four lines in a row in the third stanza. There are also examples in the fourth stanza with “Or” as well as “And”.
This technique contributes to another, known as accumulation. It is a technique that relates to a list of words or phrases that have similar, if not the same, meanings. In a poem, story, or novel, these words are grouped together or appear scattered throughout a work. They collect or pile up, and a theme, image, sensation, or deeper meaning is revealed. There is a powerful example of this in the second stanza when the speaker piles up examples of who these kids die and for why. Another example appears in the third stanza where the poet lists out the titles and character traits of some of the cruelest among the rich and powerful.
Analysis of Kids Who Die
This is for the kids who die,
Black and white,
Eating blood and gold,
Letting kids die.
In the first stanza of ‘Kids Who Die’ Hughes’s speaker makes use of the phrase “This is for the kids who die”. This is a striking and surprising opening line. It is meant to draw in the reader’s attention, a technique known as the “hook”. The “kids” are not a single ethnicity, the speaker adds in the second line. They are both “Black and white”. He knows, without a doubt, that both black and white kids are going to die, “certainly”. This certainty with which he says this is chilling. It takes one to a dark place that is only going to get darker as the stanzas go on and the speaker brings in details of these deaths.
The “old and rich” know very well what’s going on around them. They eat, gorge themselves, celebrate their own lives, and indulge in “gold” and “blood” while children die around them.
Kids will die in the swamps of Mississippi
Kids will die in the streets of Chicago
All kinds of kids will die
Who don’t believe in lies, and bribes, and contentment
And a lousy peace.
In the second stanza of ‘Kids Who Die’ the speaker begins listing out some of the ways and the places in which, kids will die. They will die in the “swamps of Mississippi” while “Organizing sharecroppers”. Here, a reader is already exposed to a shocking and surprising death. These kids are in places they shouldn’t have to be, doing a job they shouldn’t have to take on.
They will find death in the “streets of Chicago / Organizing worker” and in the “orange groves of California.” The thing that all these deaths have in common is that they come about while they are “Telling others to get together,” while they are “organizing”.
The speaker reemphasizes the ethnicities of these kids; there is no limit. Black, white, Filipino, and “Mexicans”. They will all die. These kids know the truth of the world and are not taken in by the “lies” and “bribes” or “lousy peace”. Their lives have taught them better than that.
Of course, the wise and the learned
Who pen editorials in the papers,
And the gentlemen with Dr. in front of their names
And the blood-loving generals,
And the money-loving preachers
Will all raise their hands against the kids who die,
The third stanza of the poem is the longest with eighteen lines. In the first few lines, the speaker addressed the “wise and learned,” those who think they understand the kids and think they are doing something to help. They are the “gentlemen with Dr. in front of their names”. They pretend to care, pretend to understand, and only “weave words to smother the kids who die”. The stories of their young lives are maligned and misinterpreted because of these people.
In the next lines, there is a great example of anaphora. “And” begins four lines in a row, adding a statement on a statement, creating an impactful and striking picture of those who take advantage of the kids and benefit from their work and death. They are the “bribe-loving generals” and the “money-loving preachers”. They all “raise their hands against the kids who die”. These people think they know best. Whether men or women, they try to turn the public against these kids and negatively shape their image.
Beating them with laws and clubs and bayonets and bullets
To frighten the people—
Don’t want the people to get wise to their own power,
To believe an Angelo Herndon, or even get together
In the final lines of the third stanza of ‘Kids Who Die’ the speaker describes who this group listed off in the previous lines abuses these kids. They do so mentally and physically with “clubs and bayonets”. They wield these weapons freely and by doing so paint the kids as violent, dangerous, and “other”. It is their goal to keep the public from fully understanding these groups. They don’t want anyone to “get wise to their own power”.
The last line of this stanza refers to “Angelo Herndon” who was an African-American labor organizer who was arrested for trying to organize black and white industrial workers in Atlanta in the thirties. He was convicted of insurrection.
Listen, kids who die—
Maybe, now, there will be no monument for you
Except in our hearts
Maybe your bodies’ll be lost in a swamp
Or a prison grave, or the potter’s field,
Or the rivers where you’re drowned like Leibknecht
But the day will come—
The fourth stanza addresses the “kids who die” specifically. The speaker tells them that there may be “no [physical] monument for you,” but there is one within “our hearts”. The same thing applies to their bodies. They might be physically lost in the swamp, but they will one day rise up. They will leave the rivers or prison graves and “they day will come…” This line is enjambed, leading the reader into the next.
You are sure yourselves that it is coming—
When the marching feet of the masses
The song of the life triumphant
Through the kids who die.
There will be a time, the speaker says, in which these kids will be seen and heard by the masses. They will come with “marching feet” and raise “for you a living monument of love”. Their lives will transform until the masses themselves represent a monument to the lost children. Society will be remade and “joy, and laughter” and all hands, no matter the color, will be clasped together as one.
Together, humanity will sing a “song that reaches the sky”. It will tell the world of the “life triumphant / through the kids who die”.