Toi Derricotte’s poem ‘The Weakness’ is all about the sense of fear, the anticipation of humiliation in public, and feeling alienated. This poem records the testimony of a poet who lived through a time when race or color was an issue for most people. They treated others, not of their color, with critical and demeaning looks. In this poem, readers find one such woman who struggles to get out of a departmental store in order to save herself and her granddaughter from the looks of piercingly judging eyes.
‘The Weakness’ by Toi Derricotte describes an old woman and her granddaughter’s hesitations in public due to their skin color.
The speaker of this poem shares her childhood experience of going to the Saks departmental store. She hesitates to share the details except for her grandmother’s reaction on that day. Her grandmother dragged her through the perfume aisles and repeatedly told her to get up in utter humiliation. The speaker could not disobey her order, yet she clung to her problems. Then, she was dressed into tight leggings and dragged away from the store. What her grandmother felt on that day is described in this poem.
You can read the full poem here.
That time my grandmother dragged me
through the perfume aisles at Saks, she held me up
marble and passed through
brass openings—in 1945.
The title of Derricotte’s poem, ‘The Weakness,’ hints at the subject matter. It is about the fear and hesitation of a speaker who has a different skin tone than normal people. She belongs to a community where people judge others by their skin. In this poem, she shares one such incident where her grandmother felt utterly humiliated concerning what others might think of them.
In this poem, the speaker talks about an experience that she had as a child. She describes how her grandmother dragged her through the perfume aisles of the Saks departmental store. The reason for doing so is implicit. Besides, her grandmother held her up by arms and repeatedly told her to stand up. From this reference, it becomes clear that the speaker might be facing some issues that the grandmother did not want to disclose to others.
From her facial expressions, it is clear that she was angry and, at the same time, fearful. To describe her feelings, the poet uses a reference to a dog that is alarmed in the light. Besides, she kept uttering the same phrase “Stand up” repeatedly as if she were Jesus and the speaker was dead. She felt so nervous that she stood like a tree.
In the next lines, Derricotte describes how her grandmother dresses. From the details, readers can guess about the social and financial status of the speaker. They were well-off. Still, hidden fear of humiliation in public was there.
There was not even a black
elevator operator at Saks.
and they had smiled back, as if
they were wearing wooden collars.
In that department store, there was not a single black worker. That’s why the speaker’s grandmother knew there was none who could actually understand their concern. They were like an odd piece in the whole set of puzzles. So, naturally, people would judge them and criticize each of their wrong steps.
Afterward, the speaker was dragged to the clothes store. The saleswoman brought velvet leggings for her. From this reference, it becomes clear why the speaker was dragged throughout the store. She was probably having some health issues.
The saleswoman gave them a pleasing smile. In return, the grandmother did the same. It feels like they both have a kind of mental distance. All the smiling was for a customary gesture, devoid of real feelings. Besides, the speaker’s mother hated the white-skinned people just like they did.
When my legs gave out, my grandmother
dragged me up and held me like God
to the transparent
In the last few lines, Dericotte talks about the reason for their “weakness.” The first few lines depict how the speaker was dragged. For walking up and down through the store, her legs finally gave out. On top of that, she was having some health issues. That’s why her grandmother dragged her out like God dragged saints by the roots of their hair.
The speaker kept begging her grandmother that she could not help it. Hearing her reply, the grandmother’s face whitened in fear and humiliation. She pushed her through the crowd and rushed away from the eyes waiting to criticize their moves.
The speaker thought as others were always looking at their skin. They tried to decode what made them different from the rest of their community. In the last few lines, Derricotte personifies the genes responsible for the pigmentation of skins.
Derricotte’s ‘The Weakness’ is a free-verse lyric poem that is written from the perspective of a first-person speaker (Toi Derricotte’s persona). The text consists of a total of 37 lines that are grouped into a single stanza. Derricotte uses end-stopped lines in order to conclude the sense of a particular section. Being a free-verse poem, there is no regular rhyme or meter. However, Derricotte makes use of internal rhymings in a few instances. Besides, this piece is also an example of a narrative poem.
Derricotte uses the following literary devices in her poem ‘The Weakness’.
- Enjambment: It occurs throughout the text. For instance, Derricotte in the first six lines in order to connect them internally.
- Simile: It occurs in “her eyes/ bright as a dog’s/ cornered in the light.” Here, the grandmother’s eyes are compared to that of an afraid dog. This device is also used in some other instances as well.
- Alliteration: The repetition of similar sounds can be found in the following phrases: “Saks, she”, “leggings to lace”, “were wearing wooden”, etc.
- Personification: The last lines, “to the transparent/ genes confessing,” contain the use of this device. Here, human genes are personified.
Toi Dericotte’s ‘The Weakness’ is about an incident that happened with the speaker when she was in a store with her grandmother. In this poem, she describes how she felt on that day.
The poem was first published in 1989 in Toi Derricotte’s best-known poetry collection, Captivity. This piece explores the abuses of racism in modern society.
It is a free-verse lyric poem that consists of a single stanza. There are a total of 37 lines. Besides, there is no set rhyme scheme or meter in the text. It is written from the point of view of a first-person speaker.
The weakness of the speaker was the color of her skin. For genetic reasons, her skin is light, and it is what made her vulnerable in a racist society. In this poem, she shares her experience of being judged while she was having some health issues in a store.
The following list contains a few poems that similarly explore the themes present in Toi Derricotte’s poem ‘The Weakness’.
- ‘Passing Time’ by Maya Angelou — This piece explores the similarities between all people and their skin tones.
- ‘Skin’ by Philip Larkin — This poem speaks on the importance of one’s identity and several aspects of the skin.
- ‘the ISM’ by Wanda Coleman — This piece touches on the issues of racism, colorism, and materialism.
You can also read these inspirational poems about black women.