In Dickinson’s poem, “258", she laments on “A certain slant of light" (line 1) that she finds to be oppressing, much like the sound of a church hymn. This slant of light hurts her, scars her on the inside, the only place where meaning matters and the place where her identity rests and hibernates. Although it may sound obtuse, it seems that what Dickinson is getting at, is the idea that internal characteristics are the ones that matter. Race, ethnicity, religion and sex should all be disregarded in lieu of a person’s inner being. However, it also seems as if she believes that inner being is entirely fragile, easily bruised by the whims of heaven. Perhaps this is how Dickinson felt in her daily life, strong when in the face of that which was familiar, yet weak when it came to the unknown or the opinions of others, thus explaining why she so thoroughly isolated herself as she grew older.
Another poem that may describe her struggle to find her place in the world is “640" in the anthology. She is speaking of a lover, one that could offer her a life outside of everything that she knows, however, she says that “I cannot live with you-it would be life-and life is over there-behind the shelf" (lines 1-4). In the poem, the narrator completely separates herself from the man that she loves, full of excuses as to why she cannot be with him. She offers that if they died together, she would not be able to see Jesus’ face, for her lover’s would outshine him; she says that he would be judged for being with someone like her, and that without him, she would be lost and that loss would be greater than being condemned to hell. So instead of taking a chance, she satisfies herself with meeting him through a door that is barely ajar without even the pleasure of seeing his face.
While the first poem of Dickinson’s shows how easily it is for her fragile soul to be damaged, even by just a ray of happiness, it’s her second poem that betrays the utter despair she must have felt in her life. It seems that no matter how hard Dickinson tries to overcome the fears she has inside of herself—the fear of success, the fear of God, the fear of love, she can never truly be satisfied with the person that she is. Her struggle is perhaps even more haunting than that of Wheatley, for while Phillis had the constraints of society holding her down, the only thing that held Dickinson back from a life of happiness was her dysfunctional upbringing and complete lack of faith in herself.
The problems that faced the twentieth century poet, Langston Hughes, were both similar and different to those faced by Dickinson and Wheatley. Much like Wheatley, Hughes was a victim of racial discrimination. Growing up in Massachusetts with his mother, he eventually relocated to New York and began speaking out on behalf of the black population. According to the Norton, he became the “bard of Harlem" (2226) and eventually found himself listed as a security risk due to his activism attempts in the 1930s. Eventually he began writing patriotic poetry before turning back to his first love; activism in writing.
In “The Negro Speaks of Rivers", Hughes deals with the issue of identity head-on. While he may never have actually built a hut in the Congo or listened to Abe Lincoln singing, he is playing into the idea of a collective subconscious. Hughes is giving weight to the belief that an entire group of people can have access to the same pool or memories, thus giving him the ability to truly remember the things he writes about. As he explores this concept, he is also exploring his heritage and it’s affects on who he has become. Hughes finds himself to be a more complex and deeper man due to the experiences that his people have had in the past. Another important poem, which gives away a lot in regards to Hughes’ identity and view of his social status, is “Mother to Son". In this poem, his mother compares her life to a crystal staircase. Clearly, the crystal staircase is representative of the lives of white people, and for her, life has been anything but a crystal staircase. Her life has been hard to climb, sometimes missing boards, and sometimes in the dark, but all the while, she has kept on climbing. This is advice that Hughes employs in his own life. While his first poem refers to a collective history, his second poem shows that Hughes is not content in the continuation of that history. To him, the struggle for self is the struggle to find that crystal staircase so that his mother and all the other people like her, can stop climbing the ramshackle stairs they seem to be stuck on.
In conclusion, while the historical and cultural aspects of the America changed greatly between the eighteenth and twentieth century, it seems as if the ultimate struggle to find oneself stayed exactly the same. The contexts of the struggle changed, of course. From the unusualness of an educated slave girl, to a self-imprisoned fragile hermit, to the leader of the Harlem Renaissance, all of the writers had very different lives and upbringings. However, a discontent with society as a whole, and the inability to place themselves in a position that gave them happiness, caused all three of the poets to chafe against the roles set out for them. Through their writings, and in some cases, unintentionally, they have left a guidebook for those who are still fighting that never ending battle of self-contentment; and for that, all of the independent humans, who are struggling against the bonds that they have around themselves, can only be grateful.