Maya Angelou’s Harlem Hopscotch describes the life of the ‘blacks,’ – the African-Americans in Harlem, New York – as a game of hopscotch. According to Angelou, life at Harlem resembles the game of hopscotch, primarily because both involve struggles. While the players of hopscotch struggle to win, the blacks in Angelou’s, poem struggle to survive. This survival is devised against poverty as well as racism, or at least these are the two obstacles Angelou presents in this poem.
While the poem is reflective of the African-American community in Harlem at large, the poem seems to particularly address the children of Harlem, talking about their acceptance of their fate. Moreover, the poem is written using the third-person narrative, except for the last line of the poem, which uses the personal pronoun I, making the poem representative of both the Harlem black community as well as the speaker at the same time.
Hopscotch Harlem Explanation:
The poem begins with the instructions for playing the very common game of Hopscotch. The next few lines of the first stanza include other instructions for the game, such as “jump,” move to the left, and “Everybody for hisself.” Underlying these simple instructions is the idea that the game is easy for those who understand the rules since the game revolves around the idea of each man for himself. However, if Hopscotch here refers to the life of the blacks in Harlem, then this stanza presents the idea of how life in Harlem involves adhering to restrictions imposed on the African-Americans by the white society at large owing to their race.
The next stanza presents the idea of poverty. Through the line “since you black don’t stick around,” the poem points out that poverty along with their race makes it difficult for them to stop in order to contemplate or ponder over their life’s situation. Therefore, despite their abject poverty, one is forced to move forward, to keep moving. No matter what life throws at them, whether it is hunger or the inability to pay rent, one must keep moving. This idea comes forth with more clarity in the line, “Curse and cry, then jump to two,” which refers to how cursing or crying are the only coping mechanisms that they have to deal with the poverty or the unfair restrictions imposed by the society.
The third stanza highlights the problems in the lives of the blacks. Angelou points out that games are all about following the rules, and anyone who fails to follow the rules is cast out. Since game here alludes to the life of the ‘blacks,’ not following the rules results in being cast out. “Crossing the line,” can also be seen as an example of rebellion, which is always met with repressive action to bring the protesting people back in line, or to eliminate them altogether. And to illustrate that their life is not a comfortable one, she further uses the words, “twist” and “jerk” to talk about the game.
Finally, Angelou states that while winning the game is considered favorable, here, she suggests, that losing can also be desirable. This is probably because if their life is a game of hopscotch, losing the game might allude to death, which for a Harlem black denizen is an escape from the struggles of life.
Harlem Hopscotch Themes:
Struggle against poverty is the overarching theme of the poem. The poet suggests that poverty is so widespread and ingrained within their community that even the children seem to be aware of it, which is evident in her use of the children’s game hopscotch to describe the life of the Harlem blacks. The poem further suggests that the children have accepted poverty as a part of their life, which is indicated in their proclamation, “that is what hopping is all about.” Or, rather the realities of a poverty-ridden life seeps into their game, making it difficult for them to differentiate one from the other. The extent of poverty and the impact of it upon their lives is also presented in the poem through lines like, “food is gone” and “rent is due”.
Struggle against Racism: The poet indicates towards the theme of struggle against racism in the title itself by referring to Harlem, which is historically one of the oldest black ghettos. The poet further refers to the racial struggle in lines like, “since you black don’t stick around” by pointing out how the color of their skin becomes a determining factor of how they lead their life. There are other lines that allude to the sense of exclusion experienced by the ‘blacks,’ such as, “Everybody for hisself”. The exclusion here is on account of their race. This is because those who have the means do not understand the struggles of the ‘blacks,’ and the divide between the rich and the poor is widened by the notion of each man for himself.
Harlem Hopscotch Literary Device:
In this poem, hopscotch is a metaphor for the life of the blacks in Harlem. In this poem, Angelou employs the rules and regulations of the game to talk about the various constraints miring the lives of the blacks. For instance, just as one who cannot follow or breaks the rules is cast out of the game, in the context of the Harlem life, a failure to follow the game of life results in the player being counted out. The constant use of game instructions alongside the description of their life makes the metaphor more fitting.
Harlem Hopscotch Summary:
Published in 1969, the poem explores the lives of the blacks in Harlem, New York. Drawing a parallel between the children’s game hopscotch and the life of the blacks in Harlem, the poem suggests that while one is a struggle for winning, the other is a struggle to survive. Since the poem compares the game Hopscotch, with its rules and regulations, to the constricting nature of the life of the Harlem blacks, it concludes with the idea that losing the game can be viewed as a form of winning. Or, rather, losing the game is a form of escape from the suffocating life of poverty, and hence, a win.