Some poems depend heavily on interwoven conventions and devices that make the reader think heavily about whatever topic the poem discusses. Others rely more on simplicity, in expressing a concept and letting it carry its own weight, or in allowing the simplicity of the idea to be its own dramatic weighting. Maya Angelou’s ‘Human Family’ falls within the latter group, using simplistic and almost basic poetic conventions to strengthen an already powerful message.
Human Family Analysis
I note the obvious differences
some thrive on comedy.
The first verse of the poem, which can be read in full here, establishes its simplistic structure — it is formed from quatrains that rhyme in an ABCB pattern and are expressed through a first-person omniscient narrator. The omniscience of the speaker is demonstrated through the idea that they are looking at the “human family,” and will make broad statements that apply to individuals and groups as a whole. Their first observation is the difference between serious and comedic people, which is such an obvious observation, it is barely worth noting. And yet, it works well to Angelou’s clear message, that serious people rarely appreciate comedy, and thus make for excellent opposites to one another. The idea being presented here is that of difference.
Some declare their lives are lived
the real reality.
The second verse is very similar to the first with regard to meaning. “Profundity,” an uncommon term describing deep insight, and “real reality” might be considered similar ideas, but are being used here to express more subtle differences than the first verse does. The difference between insight and reality is that one is theoretical and one is practical. Angelou uses repetition with the word “live” in this verse — both “types” of people are living, but choose different means of expressing themselves. In this description, members of the “human family” are achieving the same ends through different means.
The variety of our skin tones
tan and blue and white.
The speaker goes on, in this third verse, to describe the physical differences between different people. The word choice “confuse, bemuse, delight” provides a fast-paced and light-hearted means of expressing what otherwise has been a historically dark concept. Each word is weighed carefully here, in the list of skin tones, which is made significantly more complex than misattributions such as “black, white, and brown.” This verse indicates depth and uniqueness, and subtly points out to the reader that “white,” as an example, is hardly an accurate, all-encompassing description, and instead lists “pink,” “white,” “beige,” and “tan,” not to mention the blues and purples and pinks that any skin tone can potentially become under certain kinds of pressure.
I’ve sailed upon the seven seas
not yet one common man.
The fourth verse explores the central idea that informs the poem, its thesis, in a way. The entirety of the verse is used to describe the vastness of the world, drawing the reader’s attention to seven seas, and wonders in every land, before simply stating that across these great places, no two people are entirely alike. This is a distinction that goes beyond seriousness and comedy, or active and passive lifestyles, but is true across the vastness of the planet, and all of its lands and wonders.
I know ten thousand women
who really were the same.
The fifth verse re-explores the omniscience of the narrator, who claims that there are ten thousand women in the world with the name “Jane,” but no two who are exactly alike one another. This is another verse with a very straightforward meaning, one that sheds light on the convention of simplicity Angelou is using to send forward her message. Up until this point, there has not been much in the way of poetic devices used in the piece. The closest thing to a metaphor used here is the idea of a “human family” as an abstract way of discussing the human species as a whole, but even this is a very straightforward idea. Without poetic devices, Angelou’s words become an intense focus of her work, leaving the reader to contemplate the idea alone, rather than attempt to sort through abstractions and devices. This implies the heavy importance of what the author is trying to say.
Mirror twins are different
while lying side by side.
The next verse compares two of the most similar groups of people: identical twins and lovers. Both groups typically share lifelong connections with one another, and remain very close, often physically as well as emotionally. Even so, the author claims, for all of the similarities between such groups, they are still not quite alike one another.
We love and lose in China,
we weep on England’s moors,
In minor ways we differ,
in major we’re the same.
The next two verses of ‘Human Family’ explore the breadth of that family, changing the pronoun that leads the poem from “I” to “we,” assimilating the speaker into the human family and allowing them to relate to the reader on a personal level. They discuss love and loss, sadness, happiness, triumph, failure, birth, and death. Notably, this is a wide range of emotions and experiences that every person will feel at some point in their life, coupled with a list of places that are geographically distant from each other, places that not everyone will see in their lifetime. At the end of the second verse above, Angelou presents a secondary point to the poem: that the places are different, but the emotions are the same; that no two people are exactly alike, but no two people are entirely different either. All people can, on some level, relate to one another, and this makes clear the meaning behind the idea of a human family.
Stanza Nine, Ten, and Eleven
I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.
The inclusion of the word “family,” rather than discussing the “human race” or the “human species” is designed to exemplify this point that all people can relate to one another. The speaker here refers to Angelou’s readers as friends, and uses repetition once more to close out the work, in one last attempt to make what is ultimately a very simple message stays with the reader, the themes of family, camaraderie, and understanding that makes the world a more welcoming place to be.