‘Daybreak in Alabama’ was first published in 1940 in a journal called Unquote that was brought out of Yellow Springs, Ohio. There is no identifiable rhyme scheme in the poem. It is written in free verse. However, this does not in any way take away from Hughes’s poetic craft, since each line flows beautifully and rhythmically into the next one.
Three poetic devices are used by Hughes in ‘Daybreak in Alabama’. These are personification, simile, and synecdoche. Personification refers to the process by which an abstract or a concrete noun is given human qualities. The speaker’s songs are personified in the poem. He says that his songs will “ris(e) out of the ground”, and “fall out of heaven”.
In describing the manner of their rising up and falling down, Hughes uses similes, that is, comparisons. He compares the rising up of the songs with that of “swamp mist”, and their falling down with that of dew. Thus, the songs will engage in movements in all directions. This could be a reference to the structure of the songs, which will follow a pattern of alternating high and low notes. It could also mean that the songs will be available everywhere you look in Alabama, and hence all the citizens will have to hear them. This would be important to convey the songs’ message to one and all, as the speaker feels that everyone should hear them.
Synecdoche operates by substituting a part for a whole. So, for example, when the speaker talks about “poppy coloured faces” and “field daisy eyes”, he doesn’t just mean faces and eyes, but the entire bodies of the peoples belonging to the different communities inhabiting the state of Alabama. At a deeper level, he isn’t only talking about individual bodies either, but about collections of individuals that make up the above-mentioned communities.
Racial stereotypes are exaggerated by Hughes to emphasize how ridiculous they truly are. So, the white population is referred to as “red necks” (a term that is still derogatorily applied to lower class white peoples in America”, and the hands of African-Americans are described as “fat” (once again, a prevailing stereotype about the African-American community being overweight to a large extent because of their diet consisting of cheap cuts of meat and various kinds of beans – specifically mentioned by Hughes in his poem ‘Momma Welfare Roll’). By using such terms, Hughes ironically implies that neither blacks nor whites should discriminate amongst each other on the basis of skin colour.
A common question that is expected to arise in the minds of readers is why the title of this poem specifically refers to Alabama. The historical context in which ‘Daybreak in Alabama’ was written will provide the answer to this question. Alabama was a hotbed of racial oppression within the America of the 1930s, which is the time when Hughes was writing some of his most politically-motivated poetry and was actively involved in movements for greater visibility of the African-American community. Hence, daybreak in Alabama is a metaphor for the kind of peace and harmony across various communities that Hughes envisioned in the future.
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