The Kitchen and Domesticity
The whole poem takes place in and around the home, and the vast majority of it only happens, really, in a single part of the home – the kitchen area. There's also a lot of talk about eating. Wonder why this is? Well, we'll discuss that a little more with our next "Symbolism" discussion (see: "Health as Hope"). But, for now, let's just say that the home is a symbol for domesticity. If you look at "domesticity," it doesn't take much to get to "domesticate," and from there a whole flood of slavery-and-oppression-related metaphors can take the stage. So it makes a lot of sense, in terms of this poem, for Hughes to have set the whole thing in and near a kitchen.
- Lines 3-4: These lines aren't so much symbolic as they are a literal historical truth. It's a powerful image of men being treated a lot like animals, and being banished from polite company when said company comes over to eat. (We might also note here that "eating in the kitchen" – something we probably do with some frequency now – was much less common back in the days of slavery. Back then, you always ate in the dining room. Eating in the kitchen was just for slaves and animals. Yikes.)
- Lines 5-7: The food imagery here is drastically different from the image presented in the previous couple of lines. Here, the food becomes a savior, a way for the oppressed to enrich themselves and to "grow strong." We might also think of this as a symbol for the ways in which African Americans educated themselves, bound together, and rose up to fight oppression. The "eating well," in this case, stands for learning from one another and from their experiences.
- Lines 9-10: Now we've reversed the imagery in the first part of the poem. The speaker is no longer in the kitchen, now he's "at the table." This means that he's moved into the dining room, and is a symbol for racial equality.