Clifton and Plath on the Feminine Identity

While they both appear to be in agreement on the nature of the feminine identity, their American perspectives differ vastly. Clifton, as an African-American, alludes to African themes, and brings into her poem questions about the duality within the African-American experience, and ultimately celebrates herself as a symbol of endurance. Plath’s is decidedly different in its paradoxical nature. While her poem focuses on the vivacious and enigmatic legacy that she will leave behind, it is wholly centralized around her death, which creates a somewhat doomed undertone. But while both poets differ in their cultural perspectives, they both produce similar portrayals of the feminine identity as being one of strength, passion, and survival.
Clifton brings many symbols to her poem that speak to the African-American, as well as the female experience. She describes herself as a "jungle girl/quick as a snake/a tree girl," (4-6). In aligning herself with such images as a jungle, a snake, and a tree-dweller, she is making a direct allusion to the African identity. Throughout American history, the image of the "African savage" was utilized as a means of persecution, keeping black-Americans under an oppressive rule by larger society. Africans were believed to be tribal jungle-dwellers, savage and uncivilized, and particularly dangerous for their lack of Christianization. Furthermore, the African religions were heavily focused on nature, spirits, demons, and magic, which made them even more frightening to white Americans, who were largely Protestant and highly hostile to Paganism and superstition. Clifton’s reference to being "quick as a snake-" the snake being the Christian symbol of evil-seems to be an open embrace of the white-American view of the Africans as being aligned with evil and Satan-worship for their ritualistic beliefs. This embrace of a taboo culture is further emphasized in the repeated phrases: "I met me." She has met herself, meaning she has rediscovered her own identity-an identity that has long been buried under social beliefs that it was shameful, uncivilized, and even subhuman.
But Clifton also brings a feminine element into her poem, calling herself a "jungle girl" and a "tree girl." Throughout western history, women have been aligned with nature, specifically with the cyclicality of nature, which is similar to the cyclicality of female fertility. Possibly even more revealing is Clifton’s description of herself as being "quick as a snake." Snakes have also been ascribed to femininity as, in the Bible, it was a woman (Eve) who fell under the serpent’s sway. On the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo went so far as to paint the serpent itself as having the face and torso of a woman. Thus, Clifton is rediscovering two socially repressed identities: her African identity, and her feminine identity. She goes on to write: