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Arna Bontemps' "God Give to Men"

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

Arna Bontemps

Introduction and Text of "God Give to Men"

Arna Bontemps' "God Give to Men" disguises its bitter irony in a prayer, in which the speaker seems to be asking God for certain gifts for each of the three types of men, "the yellow man," "blue-eyed men," and "black man." However, he speaker is simply engaging stereotypes of each classification of humanity as he beseeches the Creator to grant each type of man a particular set of appointments.

The speaker’s subtle but bitter irony reveals his contempt as he denigrates the two classifications of which he is not a member. The speaker belongs to the class he designates as "black man," and yet the gifts he asks of God for the black man also offers only a stereotype. And while the speaker tells God he need not bother too much with this third group, he demolishes that request by asking that God give the "black man" a fresh drink of "meed," metaphorically representing "his cup of tears."

Thus, while the speaker asks for rather innocuous items for the "yellow man" and the "blue-eyed men," he asserts full dominion over the range of emotions that humanity experiences from joy to sorrow through laughter and tears. By stereotyping each group of "men," the speaker offers nothing of substance regarding each group, but he has clearly demonstrated his own animus toward those other groups.

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 puts on display stereotypes that he holds regarding three groups of humankind.

First Stanza: The Yellow Man

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 yellow man" gentle winds as he engages his "slanting eyes" observing the beauty of "blossom time." He then asks that this yellow man be afforded the prescience to peer into the "afterwhile."

The two gifts that the speaker is asking from God for the "yellow man" reveal two stereotypes that Westerners entertain regarding their Eastern brothers and sisters. The first gift of "an easy breeze at blossom time" shows that the speaker has been influenced by Japanese and Chinese fine paintings that depict delicate "blossoms."

In his second gift to the "yellow man," the speaker is engaging the stereotype that assumes all Asians adhere to the tenets of reincarnation and karma. He wishes God to grant this Eastern man the ability to see with his "slanting eyes" "every land and dream / of afterwhile."

The magnanimity of both these gifts, however, is diminished by the mere fact that both gifts are based on stereotypes, not the individual heart-felt desire that each human being be given appropriate gifts from God. But the insincerity of these stereotypical gifts becomes more than merely trivial. The speaker is denigrating these yellow men as engaging in mere frivolity.

Second Stanza: The Blue-Eyed Man

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 "blue-eyed men," the speaker asks that God give them skyscrapers with office equipment, as well as mighty navies and armies with "soldiers" as well as "policemen." Again, as with the yellow man, the speaker employs a mere stereotype to designate which two gifts he thinks God should grant.

The first gift that God should grant the blue eyes is the comfortable chairs in office buildings that are tall. The speaker is presenting the stereotype that blue-eye men are materialists who work in offices with "swivel chairs" in "tall buildings."

The second gift of vast military force and police officers again stereotypes the "blue-eyed men" as interested only in power and force. By honing in on these two particular gifts instrumental in the use of force, the speaker reduces those men with blue eyes to power hungry monstrosities.

Third Stanza: The Black Man

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 "black man" be nothing special—just let him laugh plenty and cry as needed. The speaker's own classification dictates that he suffer the other classes to precede his own, as he and his group remain humble. But the humility remains a mere façade as the bitter irony of the speaker’s requests has demonstrated his scant knowledge of those groups, including this own.

A stereotype can describe only a surface level of qualities, for example, the notion that black people all have rhythm and love watermelon become ludicrous after observation of real individuals forming this group. Yet less obnoxious stereotypes are just as insidious, as they stand in for individual knowledge and mask ultimate reality.

Fourth Stanza: Suffering Their Desires

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

The fourth stanza consists of only two lines that ask a generalized gift from God. The speaker wishes that each man of each group "suffer" "the taste of soul’s desire." Essentially, the speaker is asking God make sure each of these "little men" are afflicted with whatever punishment they deserve for entertaining the desires that they hold.

The speaker has assigned each group of men a "soul’s desire" by asking God to grant them their wishes: the yellow man wants to experience pretty flowers and contemplate the after life; the blue-eyed men wish to accrue wealth and power; the black man just wants to laugh and cry as he sees fit.

The speaker is demonstrating the animosity that he holds toward the classes of men not his own through a subtle, bitter irony that loses its heft because of the focus on stereotypes.

Interview with Arna Bontemps

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Linda Sue Grimes

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