Komunyakaa’s “Untitled Blues”: Confronting Racial Injustice Through Poetry
Although the majority of Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem “Untitled Blues” portrays descriptive and vivid scenes of music, dancing, and joy, these images are merely distractions from the deeper message that hides within the lines of the piece. Images of “tap dancers [who] hold / to the last steps” (32-33) as people who “jive / down on Bourbon & Conti” (31-32) and of “drunks discussing God / around a honky-tonk piano” (16-17), come together to act as a mask, behind which struggle, crises, and injustice hide. Komunyakaa highlights the reoccurring pattern throughout history, in which society hides from pressing issues, and instead, focuses on the bright side, making finding solutions nearly impossible. He expresses this issue through the structure of the poem, which literally imitates the actions of the majority of people in society. Just like society’s failure to acknowledge obvious issues, the poem fails to address one as well, namely racism. The strategic wording layout of the poem is important, in that its structure mimics and symbolizes the very attitudes present in New Orleans throughout the mid-20th century.
Komunyakaa grew up in Louisiana during the Civil Rights Movement. The South during this time was a place of stark segregation and racial violence. In a Washington Post article published in 2009, Komunyakaa was quoted, “It was impossible not to have known and lived within the social and political dimensions of skin color” (“The Colors in My Dreams”, 1). The poem opens up with a scene depicting that very issue. The speaker looks at a young black boy, who is wearing a laughing white mask. This kind of injustice was ignored, and in some ways, continues to be ignored today. Komunyakaa points out how easy it is to disregard this kind of mistreatment in lines 8-9 and 18-20. “I could say / everything is copacetic…We could pretend we can’t / see the kitchen help / under a cloud of steam”. The speaker’s use of the word ‘could’ is significant. It presents the options that we have—either to confront the issue at hand or to hide from it. However, the poem only includes actions that reflect the choice to hide. Nowhere in the poem does the speaker mention an action that confronts the racism we encountered at the beginning of the poem. All of the actions presented continue the norm of failing to face our problems. Conforming to the society’s dominant beliefs is easy. Being willfully blind allows us to feel comfort and safety as it enables us to act in certain ways and believe in particular things simply because it is how everyone else acts and what everyone else believes.
Rising up against numbers is intimidating, and several words throughout “Untitled Blues” suggest this tendency created by our fear to challenge the majority. Komunyakaa uses words and phrases such as “mask” (4), “painted on” (5), “copacetic” (9), “pretend” (18), “snow jobs” (21), and “see-through” (23). These words all suggest the act of hiding something. In this case, they’re hiding the deep roots of racism that was prevalent in the South. The reoccurrence of these types of words throughout the poem enforces Komunyakaa’s message. These words aren’t targeting or blaming any group or individual in particular. Instead he targets the city as a whole. Komunyakaa presents New Orleans as having both literal and metaphorical connections with the act of hiding from issues. Metaphorically, in lines 22-24, the speaker characterizes the entire city as displaying these tendencies—“night & day, the city / clothed in her see-through / French lace”. The city as a whole puts on a mask that is see-through. Everyone knows the issue is there—we can all see it. As a literal connection, the speaker mentions a place in New Orleans called Storyville, an area whose characteristics were far from reality, where people escaped to get drunk and where prostitution was legal (“1903: Storyville”). Even the name “Storyville” denotes a place where people can go to escape reality and jump into make believe stories of happiness, drunkenness, song, and laughter. Denying those places of happiness, however, is not an easy task. Even Komunyakaa acknowledges the struggle that exists when facing a serious social issue, as the speaker tries “to look into the eyes / of the photo, at a black boy / behind a laughing white mask / he’s painted on” (1-5), an image that clearly represents a struggle with race. The young boy in the image is described as being “locked inside your camera” (36), stuck there until the racial segregation that is holding him back ends, or at least fizzles out. But in order for that to happen, the people in the poem who are jiving, dancing, and getting drunk at local honky-tonks need to step out from behind these masks of happiness. Although it is hard, it is vital in moving through issues that have left stains on our society. Unfortunately, there aren’t many of us who are willing to step up.
Fear drives us to turn a blind eye and find masks to place over issues, granting us temporary happiness. What’s interesting is that the poem, which condemns this behavior, is actually committing the same crime that it is scorning. Although the poem is pointing out our tendency to choose the cowardly ‘hiding’ option, the speaker in the poem chooses that option as well, making the poem engage in the very same ignorance that it is ridiculing. The structure of the poem defies the very message that the poem is enforcing. The poem begins with the prevalent issue of racism. Then, the speaker presents us with what sounds like two options. First, we are given the option to walk away and hide from the issue at hand. We could sing, dance, get drunk in honky-tonks, or walk down Bourbon. We could do whatever we want to do. Reading these “could” options, it is expected that there will be a ‘but this is your second option…” statement. However, the ‘but’ statement never appears. Instead, we find ourselves at the end of the poem, after getting drunk and tap dancing, back to square one, with the black boy still “locked inside your camera” (36) and the “mammy dolls frozen / in glass cages” (34-35). The speaker never explores the option that involves standing up against the racism that has—and continues to—clearly put a dent in society.
In the end of the poem, we are still facing the same injustice that we saw in the opening lines of the piece. This arrangement relates directly to reality. Using this seemingly deliberate tool, Komunyakaa was able to layout the play of events in a society that turns a blind eye to its concerning weaknesses. Without opposing racism or any other issue for that matter, there will be no outcome. The poem is achingly suggestive, but has no resolution. With no solution, the poem ends with the same injustice that it begins with, proving that choosing the option to hide from issues leads to repeating patterns of violence, racism, and discrimination, which can thrive for generation after generation. The beginning and end of the poem is like the beginning and end of each generation that fails to try to turn around racism. This is demonstrated in the poem. As the speaker looks at a young black boy who is wearing the white mask, he states, “I / could’ve been that boy / years ago” (5-7). Injustice lives on when our society fails to look it in the eye. Issues cannot be resolved when, instead of being addressed, they are being hidden behind masks of joy and happiness. And when an issue is left untouched, parents’ children will experience the same issues, as well as their children, and their children’s children.
Komunyakaa creates a strong message in “Untitled Blues”; by examining the words in each line, readers can clearly see that he is implying the act of masking our issues or running from reality. However, more importantly, if you step back from the poem and look at it as one big picture, it is clear that the poem in its entirety is a depiction of these actions as well. The speaker presents us with the issue of racism, then instead of confronting that issue, goes on to portray scenes of happiness, masking the injustice that is undoubtedly there. In the end, the speaker brings us back to the issue of racism we saw in the beginning, untouched and unacknowledged. The poem as a whole is a mirror image of a person who is hiding from reality. Together, the two techniques Komunyakaa used create an immensely strong claim. In the 1950’s and even now, without confrontation, our society’s issues will never go away.
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