Arna Bontemps' "God Give to Men"

Updated on December 21, 2019
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

Arna Bontemps

Source

Introduction and Text of "God Give to Men"

Arna Bontemps' "God Give to Men" is a prayer, in which the speaker asks God for certain gifts for each of the three supposed races. The poem/prayer consists of four unrimed stanzas. By today's standards, this poem might be deemed racist. But it acknowledges the three designated races accurately and does not confuse the idea of “race” with nationality and religion, which is so common in postmodern and contemporary parlance.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

God Give to Men

God give the yellow man
an easy breeze at blossom time.
Grant his eager, slanting eyes to cover
every land and dream
of afterwhile.

Give blue-eyed men their swivel chairs
to whirl in tall buildings.
Allow them many ships at sea,
and on land, soldiers
and policemen.

For black man, God,
no need to bother more
but only fill afresh his meed
of laughter,
his cup of tears.

God suffer little men
the taste of soul's desire.

Commentary

In this poem, the speaker makes a statement about three so-called “races”: Mongoloid, Caucasoid, and Negroid.

First Stanza: The Yellow Stereotype

God give the yellow man
an easy breeze at blossom time.
Grant his eager, slanting eyes to cover
every land and dream
of afterwhile.

In the first stanza, the speaker asks God to grant the Mongoloid race "an easy breeze at blossom time." He also asks for "the yellow man" who has "eager, slanting eyes" the ability to "cover / every land and dream / of afterwhile." The speaker has been influenced by stereotypes of Japanese and Chinese fine paintings that depict delicate "blossoms." The mere mention of "slanting eyes" is enough to draw indignation to many political correctness adherents in the early 21st century.

The speaker asks for the "yellow man" a rather neutral prize, that he has a fine harvest and the ability to see beyond this earthly existence. The neutrality of the latter bequest arises from the stereotype of the Asian as a believer in reincarnation. It may be viewed as magnanimous of the speaker to make such a request for a man of a different “race” from his own.

Second Stanza: The White Stereotype

Give blue-eyed men their swivel chairs
to whirl in tall buildings.
Allow them many ships at sea,
and on land, soldiers
and policemen.

For the Caucasian race, the speaker asks that God give him "swivel chairs / to whirl in tall buildings. / Allow them many ships at sea, / and on land, soldiers / and policemen." The bequest stereotypes the Caucasian as a crass materialist and domineering. It is notable that speaker chooses to refer to the Caucasoid through eye color, not skin tone. He has, of course, referred to the Mongoloid through eye features, "slanting eyes," as well as skin tone, "the yellow man."

Scientifically, race has dissolved as a classification of humanity as researchers continue to find that all races possess similar features, and ultimately have more in common than they differ. Readers of this poem have to suspend science somewhat to appreciate the aspects of this poem that point to a likely kind-hearted speaker—not one who wishes to chop up humanity to subjugate it, as so many postmodernists have done.

Third Stanza: The Black Stereotype

For black man, God,
no need to bother more
but only fill afresh his meed
of laughter,
his cup of tears.

The speaker then asks God's gift to the Negroid be nothing special—just let him laugh plenty and cry as needed. The speaker's own race dictates that he suffer the other races to precede his own, as he remains humble.

The speaker's wish for his own race does remain humble, but unfortunately for other races, he comes across as merely stereotyping them to represent what he thinks the Mongoloid and Caucasoid races are about.

Fourth Stanza: Well-Wishing Others

God suffer little men
the taste of soul's desire.

The fourth stanza consists of only two lines that ask for an appropriate blessing for his fellow human beings. The speaker asks God to grant all men some measure of desire fulfillment; however, it is noteworthy that he wishes that God will grant them "soul's desire." Despite any lingering doubt about and resentment toward other races, he has the perspicacity to realize that only well-wishing for others can raise his own status.

The Speaker's Race and Bitter Irony

The poet who composed this verse is African American; the terms used to designate that demographic at the time Bontemps was writing were primarily "black," "Negro," or "colored." Thus, in perceiving the mindset of the speaker of this poem, one has to assume that the speaker is also African American, even though there is no definitive statement in the poem that clearly identifies the race of the speaker. So the question might be asked: does a different interpretation result if one assumes the speaker belongs to a different demographic? If the speaker is assumed to be Caucasian, does the reader come away with a different interpretation?

While there is no direct statement identifying the race of the speaker, the mere fact that his references to the Mongoloid and Caucasoid races remain stereotypes, while his reference to the "black man" appears clear and genuine, suggests that the speaker is, in fact, black. As mentioned earlier, despite the stereotyping, the speaker is not unduly unkind to the other races. Even though he is more critical of the Caucasian "blue-eyed men" assigning them materialism, while assigning the "yellow man" to a more spiritual level of endeavor, the speaker does not overly elevate his own race.

However, there is an undertone of irony barely perceptible but nevertheless very tangible once noticed. And this irony is especially operative in the speaker’s supplication to God for the “blue-eyed men.” The speaker is asking God to give those men what they already have in abundance; therefore, the speaker means to be understood that God has unjustly bestowed on these men these material blessings and denied them the black man.

When readers are confronted with the black man’s “cup of tears,” they are to understand that those blue eyes that have caused the black man’s tearful responses. And that the black man’s laughter is a bitter one, not from levity but from desperation. The speaker is even castigating God for not bothering to give the black a better life. In telling God he does not need to give the black man more than laughter and tears, the speaker is implying that that is all God has given him already.

Of course, the yellow man is too far way in geographic distance and culture to have much impact on the oppressed slavery descendant. Thus, the speaker gives short shrift to that demographic. In fact, all the reader can glean from the yellow man is the stereotype that the speaker has offered. And likely the stereotype is all that the speaker knows of Asians anyway.

The white American response to such an accusation, of course, must be a sad but immediate mea culpa at the historical institution of slavery that existed in the USA roughly from 1619 to 1863. That 244 year span of American history has blighted the country’s memory as has nothing else. The fact that slavery was abolished and that many “blue-eyed men” died to bring the end to that institution is always given no notice. If a reason for a complaint does not already exist, there is always someone who can concoct one.

Arna Bontemps

Source

Life Sketch of Arna Bontemps

Born Arna Wendell Bontemps on October 13, 1902, in Alexandria, Louisiana, the poet was the son a teacher and a bricklayer of Creole ancestry. The family relocated to Los Angeles, California, when Arna was three years old.

After attending the San Fernando Academy, Bontemps matriculated at Pacific Union College, from where he graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in1923. He then took a teaching position in Harlem, New York, where in 1926, he married Alberta Johnson, a former student. The two produced six offspring.

Bontemps had intended to continue his studies to earn a doctorate in English. However, in order to support his growing family, he continued teaching. He became an integral part of the Harlem Renaissance and interacted with the major players in the literary movement, including James Weldon Johnson, Countée Cullen, Jean Toomer, Claude McKay, and probably the biggest name to emerge from that movement, Langston Hughes.

Bontemps saw his first published poems come out in 1924 in the Crisis, a literary magazine that featured the work of many young black writers of that era. He also continued to publish in such journals the Opportunity, another literary magazine that supported the work of black writers.

In 1931, Bontemps relocated to Huntsville, Alabama, to teach at Oakwood Junior College, now Oakwood University. The following year, he was awarded a literary prize for his short fiction piece titled, “A Summer Tragedy.” He also came out with two books for children, which he authored with Langston Hughes.

Bontemps was dismissed from his teaching position at Oakwood because of his radical politics. But in 1943, he completed an M.A. degree in library science from the University of Chicago. The rest of Bontemps profession life features nothing but a success story.

After completing his library science degree, he held the position of librarian at Fisk University until he retired in 1965. He went on to acquire many honor degrees. And he also served as professor at the University of Illinois and at Yale University. He later returned to Fisk, where he remained as writer-in-residence until his death after a heart attack on June 4, 1973.

Bontemps childhood home in Louisiana currently sports the dignified title, "the Arna Bontemps African American Museum and Cultural Arts Center," a fascinating place to visit for all those interested in the literary arts.

Interview with Arna Bontemps

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Linda Sue Grimes

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