Data and Analysis
The 1900s were a century of growth for the African American community. The 1920 Harlem Renaissance and other prominent events of the civil rights movement allowed black literature to gain exposure. Taking inspiration from, and even working with other famous African American civil rights activists at the time, Angelou was able to provide the movement with profound collections of poetry about resistance and the African American struggle. Her work, alongside that of other important black poets during that time period, changed American culture – exposing it to customs, values, and way of life of African Americans. Similar to Angelou, there were other many successful African American poets who had comparable goals. In this project specifically, Angelou’s work is analyzed next to that of Langston Hughes and Audre Lorde in terms of style and meaning.
In order to complete this compare and contrast of the authors’ corpora, we ran multiple computer programs based on the research question: To what extent did the African American poets of the late 1900s have similar writing styles and meanings? Is Maya Angelou more like one author or the other?
Our first program had to create division between the poems. In order to run the programs, we needed a workable text to be able to run. We found pdfs with the entire poetic author’s corpus, so we developed a code that separated the poems within the pdfs. This made it easier to be able to run programs to explore the mechanics of the poems at an easier and more efficient rate. The second program we created was used to explore the stylistic aspects of the poem. We looked for four specific elements when analyzing the poems:
- Word frequency
- Sentence length
- Number of lines
- Word count
Figure one shows a chart in which line length is calculated in words, the word length is in letters, and sentence length is in words. To compare word frequency, the program found words that were similar in the poems of the corpora and then generated a list of words that the one author used more in their poems, for example the program returned: “Chicago is more common in Hughes poems.” As seen in figure two, these author versus author comparisons only mention words that are used much more frequently by one author than the other.
All three authors use basic and simple language containing familiar dialect based on the words used in the word frequency and short word length results. It can be concluded that Lorde does not use punctuation often because the sentence length is based on the number of consecutive words. The program we created scanned the poems for periods and counted the words in that sentence that were broken up by periods.
Conclusions were able to be drawn to answer the research question from this data. Hughes uses rhetorical and poetic language in his poems with many images, nuances, and symbols of Black culture – similar to that of Angelou’s poetic collections. He applies specifically jazz and blues music as the subjects of his poems while detailing aspirations and goals for the African American community. Portraying the “low-life” of African Americans living in America at the time, he criticized racial prejudices. Lorde uses critical and bitter language in combination with heavy use of literary devices and symbols. With the refusal to be placed in society’s standard, Lorde’s poems focused on the oppression of women, specifically African American women. Using an emotive style of writing, she mixes the language of fantasy and reality. Angelou employs an abundance of literary devices in her writing similar to Lorde and uses African American slang similar to that of Hughes.
With the desire to overcome and combat the institutional slavery and racist beliefs in place in America at the time, the authors’ corpora all contained similar meanings. Major themes within all three corpora include: Black pride, cultural heritage, dreams of African Americans, social injustice, and fight for equality. Hughes also incorporates the importance of music as a theme; whereas, Angelou references painful loss. Lorde wrote poems about Black power also included topics of feminism and sexuality. Hughes and Lorde share a common theme of nature and wildness, while Angelou and Lorde share a theme of love. All three authors based their writing on their experiences as African Americans in the segregated and racist society at the time. Overall, distant reading produced observable similarities in meaning within the three authors’ corpora; although styles differed between authors, some similarities can be drawn between the authors.