I have sown beside all waters in my day.
I planted deep, within my heart the fear
that wind or fowl would take the grain away.
I planted safe against this stark, lean year.

I scattered seed enough to plant the land
in rows from Canada to Mexico
but for my reaping only what the hand
can hold at once is all that I can show.

Yet what I sowed and what the orchard yields
my brother’s sons are gathering stalk and root;
small wonder then my children glean in fields
they have not sown, and feed on bitter fruit.

Analysis, meaning and summary of Arna Bontemps's poem A Black Man Talks of Reaping

14 Comments

  1. Person says:

    It saddens me how many of the United States commenters on here were completely blind to the obvious fact that this poem is talking about racism. Obviously this poem could not be a “metaphor for how the older generations did all the work, but the newer generations reap all the benefits” as the poem distinctly states that it is a “small wonder [the man;s] children glean in fields they hav not sown, & feed on bitter fruit” aka they are forced to steal fruit to eat because their father is only allowed “what the hand can hold at once” in grain. They are not reaping any benefits. The white man is. The idea that he;s “paying consequences for his actions” is also exceedingly blind as the man is breaking his back in the fields. His actions are good, he merely has no power in his society and is unable to reap the benefits of his hard work. It is not his fault. It is the white man;s. This poem was written during the Harlem Renaissance by a black man who lived between 1902 and 1973. Whatever one wants to read into this poem;s deeper meaning, one must understand that this is a poem regarding racism and oppression and written by a proponent of civil rights. Do not be blind. Understand this nation;s history. When trying to understand a poem it is always important to understand the author and the time period.
    p.s. I hate sql syntax. Considering the fact that I am NOT USING whatever it is and yet am being repeatedly told, no matter what I change, that I have a problem with it and therefore the site won;t upload my comment.
    p.p.s it seems the system just does not like apostrophes. hence the semicolons…sorry

  2. Terri says:

    The poet uses the metaphor of sowing found in the New Testament, including his desire to avoid the pitfalls of too shallow planting (being heard by people who do not have any depth of thought) or the loss of “fowls of the air” (when people are distracted from an important message and lose it). You can interpret this poem in several ways depending on how he uses the word “brother”. In the Christian sense, it means any other man; but if he uses it in a more limited sense, he could be referring to other black men who perhaps do not share his vision, his views, and his ethics. In any case, we all fear that the work we have done may not be valued as time wears on, and we all mourn for loss of opportunities that our children may suffer because of others carelessness or greed. The worst oppression is that inflicted on ourselves when we limit our vision and our goals.

  3. Jess says:

    Oppression is definitley a key idea in this poem. This person works so hard and is not even shown any appreciation for what he does, because of his skin color.

  4. Jeremy says:

    After reading this poem I was very confused on it’s meaning, but after reading it a second time what I came to conclude is that the man is talking of how he’s paying conseqeunces for his actions, and his immediate family is suffering with him as will his family after him.

  5. Jeremy says:

    After reading this poem I was very confused on it’s meaning, but after reading it a second time what I came to conclude is that the man is talking of how he’s paying conseqeunces for his actions, and his immediate family is suffering with him as will his family after him.

  6. Mary says:

    This poem, as i interpreted it, is a metaphor for how the older generations did all the work, but the newer generations reap all the benefits. The newer generations take advantage of what they have and are not appreciative of what their ancestors did to get them to where they are.

  7. Whan Ku Ping says:

    Coming from a Japanese philosopher, I beleive this man is jeolous of his children. He plants the trees that take long to grow and then his children reap the fruit.

  8. princess auna aka robbiauna says:

    i love the way he uses words that explains us african americans i am 14 years old reading this poem encoraged me. i read arna bontems biography and he had problems with his dad, but in the end his dad was right and he became a famous man who wrote poems, plays and books just to say this is my favorate poem written by arna bontemps. i will never forget this poem. the poem of encouragment that will follow me through all my years.

  9. alexis says:

    so i read this poem over and over but i still didnt get it. i was going through sites to help me find out what it means…it didnt help. i came across this site and i helped sooooooooo much!!! thanks 🙂

  10. Erica says:

    I had to read this poem for my english III honors class and do a critical analysis for it. I also had to teach my class about the meaning of this poem. I believe that Botemps is referring to the fact that he as a slave puts so much labor into the fields yet in return doesnt get anything. When he refers to the “bitter fruit” I believe that he is talking about how he plants these fruits with bitterness to the white man and that would be how the whites could metaphorically taste that bitterness.

  11. Jakima Davis says:

    Brilliant metaphor of losses and failure; maybe, people will learn how to help out and care for each other.

  12. Linda says:

    cathryn your ideas are really good. they helped me understand the poems a lot better. Thanks for your insight

  13. chante says:

    i was confused on the poem to i am writing a poem about it and i have to break it down and understand it i want to thank cathryn for your insight view on the poems and i agree and i think that is a good moral from the poem.

  14. Cathryn Brooks says:

    i was really confused when i first read this poem, i actually had to read it twice. It to me is a poem about a black man who has given up hope on a brighter future. he feels that because he works so hard and gets so little in return that it is pointless to have dreams. He says that even the fact that he has planted enough to spread from mexico to canada doesn’t give him enough faith or hope to believe that he, as a black man will ever recieve the “pay” he deserves. In the last stanza i think that he is trying to say that the bitter fruit is the dreams of the younger black children who haven’t experienced lfe like him yet therefore they still have dreams but they are soon to all go down the drain. This poem was true up until the ninties and even partially true even then, because we as blacks have gotten little for all the work we do.

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