A Harlem Renaissance poet and a good friend of the more well-known Langston Hughes, Waring Cuney is best-known for this particular poem. It was also adapted by the famous Nina Simone in her album, ‘Let It all Out’, as the a cappella song, ‘Images’ (see below.) No wonder, because Waring Cuney was a trained musician and, though he chose to focus on his literary talents, the ballads and blues made their way into his poetry quite beautifully, as in this poem.
Written when he was just eighteen, this poem also won Waring Cuney a prize, two years later, in the 1926 Opportunity Literary Contest. Although comprising of just a few lines, it gained much significance in the New Negro Movement of that time and is now considered a classic.
The poem’s speaker opens with the description of an African-American girl who does not consider herself beautiful or remarkable in any way. As we read further, we learn that she’s a dishwasher — someone who is clearly on the bottom rungs of the socio-economic ladder. Waring Cuney cleverly uses the metaphor of dishwater as the only reflective surface available to her to show us, readers, that she has no clear impression of herself other than what her (predominantly white) society has made available to her. The poem’s title, repeated in its last line, is also telling here because dishwater, murky and gray, does not reflect back any images, really, to speak of.
The middle verse, which speaks of palm trees and rivers, is likely a reference to the girl’s ancient origins in an African country or a Caribbean one. Had she been living in any of those places rather than where she was now, many other black women like her would have set the standard of beauty, so that she would have seen herself as having beauty and glory too. Dancing naked also implies freedom. And the river symbolizes a more clear reflection of herself in her homeland, among her people, than in dull dishwater.
With just three simple symbols — palm trees, a river, and a dancing naked body — Waring Cuney conveys so much. Juxtaposing the two visuals of a girl doing the dishes with her dancing free and naked under palm trees by a river is a powerful way to show us the starkness of the overall situation.
So, in just a few lines, this poem conveys universal truths about both racial and ethnic discrimination and how it shapes human nature. Both are intricately connected, of course, because of how we allow the societies that we are part of to shape how we see ourselves. That, in turn, limits us, ultimately, from becoming everything that we could possibly be.
The above may sound like a common sense thing or even a cliché. Yet, on a daily basis, we don’t see the damage we do to ourselves in this manner through every small or large interaction with our friends, family, coworkers, acquaintances, etc. Or, worse still, the damage we do to others by not looking beyond their skin color or economic status or formal educational background.
Sadly, we do not recognize these pernicious aspects of our behaviors as we go about our daily lives. It takes, sometimes, a simple poem like this to jolt us awake and remind us to look beyond the accepted standards — both for ourselves and when dealing with other people. And, of course, it takes a lot more than that to then act in defiance of those accepted standards.
She does not know
she thinks her brown body
has no glory.
If she could dance
under palm trees
and see her image in the river,
she would know.
But there are no palm trees
on the street,
and dish water gives back
~ William Waring Cuney, ‘Storefront Church‘