Literature Essays on Identity in “A Song in the Front Yard”
Though identity provides us with a means of answering the question ‘who am I’, it is not merely about personality and the sort of person we are (Mclean 26). Identity is different from personality in important aspects, we may share personality traits with other people but sharing identity sometimes suggests an active engagement on our part. We choose to identify with a certain group. Sometimes we determine our identity, however, some elements of identity are predetermined for us, like ethnicity. In the poem “A Song in the Front Yard”, the persona is a white girl from an affluent family, who is denied the chance to play in the back yard. In deeper meaning the poem is about class identity and racial identity.
The complex part of the poem is the fact that the poem was written by a Black woman, but the persona is of a young White girl. Although not obviously about race, this poem plays out the tension between Brook’s use of white forms and her racial identity, inscribed through her interest in forbidden blackness (and even “paint on my face”, a way of describing make up that may tend to evoke her African ancestry) (Georgoudaki 15). The White girl struggles in her racial identity-white supremacy and the burdens that come with it. She cannot play with the other children and she is confined to her house. She cannot dare to associate with the forbidden black people. This girl represents the predetermined identity and its effects on us. Many of us are expected to conform to certain norms because we identify with a certain group. However, this confinement might be so choking that our imaginations starts delving on freedom. The girl in the poem says she would “like to be a bad woman, too, And wear the brave stockings of night-black lace And strut down the streets with paint on my face (Brooks 18-20).” When identity is forced on us, we are forced to look outside the fence and wish to emulate others and those we chose to emulate might not be as socially upright. When good is forced on us, bad becomes attractive.
The backyard in this poem represents the bad and dark things in life. As a result, the persona is warned by her mother to keep clear of the backyard. The front yard is used to symbolize affluence, while the backyard represents the poor. The poem is mostly about the rich versus the poor. The rich girl has lived in the front yard all of her life and is tired of it. She is tired of her social class that brings with it so many restrictions. The poor kids live in freedom. Here we see that family, class and community to be affecting the identity of the rich girl. Her mother affects her identity by forcefully making her embrace certain norms that she deems fit. Her wealth also restricts the persona in an almost imprisoning manner. The persona lives among the poor and she is attracted to their freedom. According to Kroger, our environment influences our identity and in the case of our persona, it influences her to be totally different from people of her class (31). As an adult, she wants to be like the bad women in the backyard and express herself without a care in the world.
Identity formation can be affected directly or indirectly by those around us and the community/environment we live in. The persona in this poem is a rich girl and her identity formation is affected by her parent’s restrictions. She is a different person from her parents and does not want to identify with obnoxiousness of the rich. She wants to be free like the poor people. To the persona, wealth is nothing but a chain that causes her embrace certain norms. She observes, albeit with envy, the poor children play and we can tell that freedom will be in the persona’s future. She will be liberated from her parent’s wealth and social class.
The persona identifies as woman. In this poem we are shown the different types of women. There is the mid-19th century affluent woman who was more concerned with conforming to the societal norms and there is the future woman, represented by the young persona, who will be more liberal in dressing and character.
In the mid-19th century, white people felt superior over other races. There was racial segregation, but our persona wants to break through from this identity. This might represent the poet’s sentiments. She felt that the young white population was more liberal than their older generation towards embracing change. The persona, in her identity development, wants to escape her restrictive social class and identify with the poor class that seems to have more freedom. The persona identifies as a rebel. “I want a peek at the back Where it’s rough and untended and hungry weed grows. A girl gets sick of a rose (Brooks, 1: 2-4).”
Brooks, Gwendolyn. “A Song in the Front Yard” Selected Poems. New York, 1963.
Georgoudaki, Ekaterini. Class, Race, and Gender Consciousness in Gwendolyn Brooks’s and Nikki Giovanni’s Poems for Children. Thessalonike, n.p., 1990.
Kroger, Jane. Identity Development: Adolescence Through Adulthood. 3rd. ed., Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage Publications, 2007.
McLean, C. Kate., and Moin, Syed. The Oxford Handbook of Identity Development. Oxford University Press, 2015.