Forbes and Fifth

"Father, have you really come home?"

The 1960s marked a moment of eruption in the self-expression of socially oppressed and traumatized groups in America. Influenced by mass decolonization on a global scale and by the civil rights movement on a national scale, the Black Arts Movement became the arena of expression for the African American community. Another prolific community to contribute to the cultural transformation of the ‘60s was formed of women who led second-wave feminism under the auspices of such thinkers as Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan. The continuous line of trauma and oppression embedded in these groups’ generations-long existential agony experienced a rupture as marginalized subjectivities were being emphasized and gaining visibility, despite the white-centric, patriarchal dominant culture. In other words, the long 1960s provided the means of expression and transformation of consciousness to stop the inheritance of internalized racial and gendered angst through generations. Instead, past traumas, emotions, and relationships were being negotiated in a new light, to carve an alternative, emotionally healthy present out of these groups’ past and out of the dominant discourse.

In the literary expression of these emerging subjectivities, family and homecoming appear as common themes through which the legacy of trauma is negotiated. Similarly, confessional mode of expression is found frequently as the means to explore one’s identity and discern the “residual” and the “emergent” in their consciousness. According to Raymond Williams’s cultural theory, the residual “has been effectively formed in the past, but it is still active in the cultural process”, while the emergent stands for “new meanings and values, new practices, new relationships … continually being created” and is “active and pressing, but not yet fully articulated” (122-6). Thus, ‘60s movements are an attempt at accommodating not only the emergent consciousness of new historical agents within the dominant discourse, but also the residual, with its legacy of inward conflict.

Among the emergent voices of the period are James Baldwin, Diane Wakoski, and Robin Morgan. James Baldwin’s 1955 essay, “Notes of a Native Son”, is a race-centered introspection over his father’s death. Morgan’s 1972 poem, “Matrilineal Descent,” is a similar attempt at compromise with the oppressed mother figure. Wakoski’s 1966 poem, “The Father of My Country”, is a female reconciliation with the absent father figure, made possible by the patriarchal father-of-the-country personage. These texts, written in a confessional style aligning the speaker with the author, question the past and origin of trauma (the residual) through the family theme, in order to eventually accommodate these in their present consciousness (the emergent), through the homecoming theme.

The family theme in Baldwin, Morgan, and Wakoski’s works questions the internalized residual factors that prevent these authors from leading socially and emotionally healthy lives. The most conspicuous component of the familial legacy is the race and gender consciousness, which have been instilled in the minds of generations of African Americans and women by the hegemonic oppression. James Baldwin, upon the death of his father, recalls the “intolerable bitterness of spirit” that marked his father’s personality and gets frightened “to see how powerful and overflowing this bitterness could be and to realize that this bitterness was now [his]” (7). This bitterness, which he articulates in a confessional manner, represents the race consciousness that characterizes the Black mode of existence, and it is further elaborated as a “poison” passed on from one generation to another (21). Baldwin even questions the ways to transmit to the next generations his community’s methods of fighting against it: “how to create in the child … a stronger antidote to this poison than one had found for oneself” (21). Thus, the residual for Baldwin is an inherited paranoia due to lifetime exposure to racism, which he now sees consciously contrary to his father’s surrender to it.

Robin Morgan’s poem, “Matrilineal Descent”, is similar to Baldwin’s self-exploration in the sense that it investigates the residue of the mother-daughter relationship in Morgan’s present identity. The poem opens as a confession to the addressee, the mother, that this is an attempt at remembrance and reconciliation. Morgan seems to be criticizing her mother for her traditionalism, which caused a generational rupture among them: “I know you claim exile from my consciousness” (2). Although the mother-daughter hostility is evident, Morgan points to a common enemy, a “phantom,” that grieved both herself and her mother (16). However, Morgan quickly dismisses the phantom, which stands for the absent father figure, as well as patrilineal descent, and focuses on her failed relationship with her mother; that is, the matrilineal descent. Given the consciousness-raising efforts of the ‘60s movements, Morgan is prepared to call “a ragged truce” with her mother (24). She is now aware of the collective tragedy behind her mother’s defense mechanisms and her emergent consciousness is ready to make peace with it: “your strength, your pushiness, your sharp love, / your embroidery of lies—all, all were survival tools” (25-26). These lines indicate a settlement reached in accordance with the awareness that “the personal is political.” Realizing that the most disturbing aspects of her mother’s personality were survival tools under patriarchy, Morgan prevents her mother from sinking into oblivion and comes to term with the matrilineal legacy in her identity. In this way, she peacefully integrates the residual into the emergent, with the awareness that both suffer from the same oppressor in distinct ways.

In the case of Diane Wakoski, there is not a common oppression that agitates her lineage and herself, but her father, the akin representative of patriarchy, appears as the oppressor and the origin of trauma. Therefore, instead of coming to terms with the father himself, Wakoski tries to understand her father’s legacy in her consciousness and derides the power structures behind her personal tragedy. Similar to Baldwin and Morgan, the personal is made public in the confessional style and in line with its political undercurrent: “A woodpecker with fresh bloody crest / knocks / at my mouth” (31-33). In these lines, Wakoski declares that she is numbed by the experience of fatherlessness and it is difficult—almost fierce—for her to embark upon this journey. However, once Wakoski gets comfortable with the confessional mode, she pinpoints, in direct speech, her absent father as the origin of her current angst:

            my father made me what I am,

            a lonely woman,

            without a purpose, just as I was

            a lonely child

            without any father. (139-143)

In these lines, loneliness is traced back from womanhood to childhood, while its origin, the father, remains intact in this journey. For Wakoski, her immediate exposure to patriarchy via her father is a residual source of trauma that leaks through her present struggle to situate herself socially and emotionally. Nevertheless, she is aware of both sides of this conflicted legacy:

            Father who makes me know all men will leave me

            if I love them,

            Father who made me a maverick,

            a writer,

            a namer (98-102)

Wakoski is aware that the absence of her father triggered her to become a unique poet, as well as a traumatized woman. Regardless of this awareness, she is dealing with an oppressor, rather than a fellow oppressed person, as Baldwin and Morgan tackle, which prevents her from reaching a full reconciliation. Instead, she ends up sarcastically seeking a father figure in George Washington, paralleling the father of the nation with her absent father.

In all three texts, family theme, the residual, is offset by the homecoming theme which welcomes the emergent. In “Notes of a Native Son,” homecoming is poetically portrayed by the approaching birth of Baldwin’s sibling on the same day as his father’s decease: “Death … sat as purposefully at my father’s bedside as life stirred within my mother’s womb and it was harder to understand why he so lingered in that long shadow” (15). The simultaneity appears as a poeticized, yet literal depiction of the past yielding to a conscious and hopeful present, although its vestiges persist. In other words, the residual gradually leaves the home while the emergent is coming home. In addition, the dialectic between Black and beautiful represents the negotiation between the residual and the emergent. Baldwin, embodying the reconciliation between the past and present, knows that Black is beautiful. However, his father only knew that he was Black: “… he knew that he was black but did not know that he was beautiful” (6). With the introduction of beauty and pride into the racial sensibility, a new perspective arises that transforms the residual to fit the emergent.

In Robin Morgan’s “Matrilineal Descent,” homecoming marks the climactic ending: “Mother, in ways neither of us can ever understand, / I have come home” (34-35). These lines encapsulate the spirit of the ‘60s through the achieved reconciliation with the mother as a fellow oppressed woman. Consciousness-raising endeavors and the idea of “personal is political” implanted in the ‘60s ethos provided the necessary tools for oppressed groups to sympathize with and embrace each other. The orbit of experience enlarged to include more people from all generations and walks of life. As a result of this inclusivity, Morgan, whose previous hostility suggests a desire to escape her mother, has come back home, embracing a maternal identification. The incomprehensible ways that made this possible suggest the transformation of consciousness which Morgan previously mentioned: “Meanwhile, my theories rearrange themselves” (18). Thus, the deconstruction of the truth about power that took place in ‘60s helped accommodating the emergent (the “I”) in the residual (the “home”).

The homecoming theme in Wakoski’s “The Father of My Country” is a sarcastic expression of relief upon the replacement of one toxic father figure with another. Although Wakoski intersperses the theme throughout the poem, it is most discernible at the end, as with Morgan’s poem. Towards the end of the work, George Washington is presented as the father of the country to replace the absent father. There is a caricaturized festivity in the language of this introduction: “George, I want to call you Father, Father, my Father / … / And I say the name to chant it. To sing it” (149-152). At the climactic moment of this festivity, which corresponds to the end of the poem, Wakoski asks, “Father / have you really come home?” (159-160). Waking up from the ecstatic moment of finally enjoying paternal identification, this question conveys the dismal end of a dream state. The emphasis on “really” implies that she is disheartened by waking up from a dream of completeness and facing the reality of fatherlessness, which patriarchy supplants with larger figures like George Washington. There is a sense of disillusionment over perceiving the false narrative of the patrilineal structure of social identity. Thus, the homecoming theme in Wakoski’s poem contributes to the bleak mood, while asserting a full grasp of power structures underlying her oppression. The intense level of realization and self-consciousness that Wakoski displays in an introspective, yet cynical tone, is the product of the ‘60s code “personal is political”, which is channeled into poetic expression to negotiate the past through a contemporary angle.

The movement literature of the 1960s functioned as a realm to negotiate the inherited traumas of oppressed groups with the emerging consciousness. In that sense, literature acted as a means to come to terms with trauma and act against its recurrence under the dominant culture. Along the lines of “the personal is political,” the residual race and gender consciousness was deconstructed to adapt it to the emergent cultural forms. James Baldwin, Robin Morgan, and Diane Wakoski were literary agents in this process of adaptation, whose works featured the common themes of family and homecoming as representative of the reconciliation between the residual and the emergent. Their works show that the 1960s served, through cultural expression, as a rupture in the passing on of collective tragedies among generations of oppressed groups. As Mary Carruthers wrote in “Notes towards a Feminist Poetic,”; “A woman who is a poet must write with the constant, conscious sense of her position ‘backward against the wind / on the wrong side of the mirror,’ and in that consciousness begin to form a living, female poet-self” (307). The vast realm of expression found in ‘60s movement literature helped reveal the internalized angst which could not be completely removed, but transformed into a consciousness serving artistic expression.


Works Cited

Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son. Beacon Press, 2012.

Carruthers, Mary. “Imagining Women: Notes towards a Feminist Poetic.” The Massachusetts Review, vol. 20, no. 2, 1979, pp. 281-307. JSTOR,

Morgan, Robin. “Matrilineal Descent.” Poetry Foundation,

Wakoski, Diane. “The Father of My Country.” Poetry Foundation,

Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. Oxford University Press, 1977.

Volume 18, Spring 2021