Some are teethed on a silver spoon,
With the stars strung for a rattle;
I cut my teeth as the black racoon–
For implements of battle.
Some are swaddled in silk and down,
And heralded by a star;
They swathed my limbs in a sackcloth gown
On a night that was black as tar.
For some, godfather and goddame
The opulent fairies be;
Dame Poverty gave me my name,
And Pain godfathered me.
For I was born on Saturday–
“Bad time for planting a seed,”
Was all my father had to say,
And, “One mouth more to feed.”
Death cut the strings that gave me life,
And handed me to Sorrow,
The only kind of middle wife
My folks could beg or borrow.
Countee Cullen (1903 –1946), born as Coleman Rutherford, was an African-American poet, author and scholar who was a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance. When the woman who had reared him (after his mother had abandoned him) died, he was adopted, by Reverend Cullen of Harlem, New York City, the local minister, and founder, of the Salem Methodist Episcopal Church. His real mother did not contact him until he became famous in the 1920s.
He started writing poetry in his early high school years; when he reached college he started receiving awards.
He published some volumes of poetry, promoted the work of other black writers, and, in the last years of his life, wrote mostly for the theatre. Since his death, Cullen has been admired as one of the greatest African American writers of his time.
This poem , about a child who was born on a Saturday, compares two different ways of life: those who are born wealthy, and those who are born into poverty.
Since the beginning, the author states that rich babies receive a privileged treatment, unlike his poor experience, to describe which he uses the adjective “black” twice in the first two stanzas. Black symbolically is negative while white is positive, and even when the concept does not refer to black and white skin, it emotionally carries the weight of oppression.
Throughout the stanzas, the continuous contrast between the life of well off and of a poor children implies that the author resented the fact the his being African American caused his life to be harder.
In the first line the speaker alludes to an old maxim, “born with a silver spoon in his mouth,” meaning to be born into a wealthy family, and changes it into “Some are teethed on a silver spoon.”. Wealth is further stressed by the fact that those new-borns have “the stars strung for a rattle”, rich elaborate toys, while his unhappy condition is emphasized through the use of personification, such as “Poverty”, “Pain”, “Death”, and “Sorrow”.
He describes himself as a seed planted during a difficult time, ”handed to sorrow” when he lost his parents, (The strings that gave me life), since it was the only person able to raise him. He identifies his day of birth as just “Saturday” , to show its unimportance and lack of celebration, alluding to the Mother Goose nursery rhyme, “Monday’s Child,”
Monday’s child is fair of face,
Tuesday’s child is full of grace;
Wednesday’s child is full of woe,
Thursday’s child has far to go;
Friday’s child is loving and giving,
Saturday’s child works hard for its living;
But the child that is born on the Sabbath day
Is bonny and blithe, and good and gay.