Anaylsis Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem, “Tu Do Street”
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“One day President Roosevelt told me that he was asking publicly for suggestions about what the war should be called. I said at once ‘The Unnecessary War’, Winston Churchill.” War is a part of every nations history, and our great nation is no different. Winston Churchill made this statement in the 1940’s, and less than twenty years later, America had found its way into another ‘Unnecessary War’. The Vietnam War was the most highly controversial war that the United States has ever been involved in. Thousands of citizens protested the war, while their sons, friends, and family were fighting and dying across the Pacific.
What cannot be captured by a history lesson is how the soldiers felt. Men of all race and backgrounds were being sent off to fight. With racial tension still high in the U.S., how would a black soldier be treated overseas by his white comrades? The award winning poet, Yusef Komunyakaa not only took a tour of duty in Vietnam, he wrote many poems about his experience while in Vietnam. I will analyze Komunyakaa’s poem, “Tu Do Street,” from a historical perspective to attempt to understand some of the tribulations that an African American soldier would endure during a tour of duty in Vietnam.
Yusef Komunyakaa was born on April 29, 1947, in Bogalusa, Louisiana. The Deep South was very segregated during Komunyakaa’s childhood, and he reflects on oppression in many of his poems. After Yusef graduated high school in 1965, he entered the military and began his tour of duty. While enlisted, Yusef began writing for the military papers and became quite good at the journalistic style of writing. After his military years, Komunyakaa attended University of Colorado, and this is where he discovered his talent as a poet. He would eventually earn his M.A. from Colorado State University and Yusef also went on to earn his M.F.A. from the University of California at Irvine in 1980. The 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, Yusef Komunyakaa has not only established himself as a great African American poet, but one of the greatest poets of all time.
The United States involvement in Vietnam started in 1950 when the government finically aided the French in their fight against the communist movement of North Vietnam. The governments fear at the time was refereed to as the ‘Domino Theory.’ This theory, created by President Eisenhower, suggested that if the United States allowed the Soviets to start spreading communism too one country, many others would follow. In 1954, the French were defeated by the communist North Vietnamese, and the U.S. sprung into action. First they sent military advisors to train South Vietnamese troops, and in 1965 the first U.S. troop arrived in the country. The fighting ended January 28, 1973, with the singing of the cease fire in Paris. At the end of the war, 58,169 Americans had lost their lives (Russell).
The war was widely protested back in the United States. Thousands of protests were held nation wide including a march on Washington. The reason for the outcry against the war was that many people didn’t not believe we should be fighting to stop the spread of communism. War was never officially declared on the North Vietnamese. The men and women protesting saw the war as unconstitutional, and wrong. It was under all this controversy that hundreds of thousands of young men went into battle for our country.
Komunyakaa wrote, “Tu Do Street,” from his experience while he was in Vietnam. The poem was published in Komunyakaa’s 1988 release of Dien Cai Dau. “Tu Do Street,” does not focus as much on the fighting aspect of the war, but he writes about the social time that the soldiers have. The social time that the soldiers have is centered on alcohol and sex. In the bar, black soldiers are ignored by the mama-san when they order a beer, but she will serve a white soldier immediately. As Komunyakaa moves on in his poem he reveals to his readers that under the disguise of friendship, black and white get along on the battlefield, but, away from the fighting the white soldiers will treat them just as they would be treated back in the United States. They are connected in one way other than fighting though. Komunyakaa shows in this poem that though black and white do not hang out together socially, they share the same prostitutes. The men sleep with the same women. Yusef connects the enemy with them also when he says, “we fought the brothers of these women we now hold in our arms. (Komunyakaa)” In the last few lines of the poem Komunyakaa reveals that no matter what separates people, underneath we are all the same.
This poem relates to the reader an African American soldiers experience in Vietnam. Most of the soldiers got drunk, and many frequented the company of prostitutes. It was the only normal activity that many of the soldiers could relate to doing. The social attitude toward blacks is no different even overseas, as Komunyakaa describes the segregation that existed within the troops.
The white soldiers felt power over the black soldiers by separating themselves. They thought of themselves as more important, and therefore they were entitled to better treatment. Black soldiers were given the same guns as a white soldier, told to fight next to the while soldiers, but they can not share a beer next to a while soldier. But, both the white and black soldiers express their power over the prostitutes. The hookers are there for their pleasure. The men control the women with their money, and in return, the women please the men. For the women it is not a black or white issue, it is a money issue.
Reading this poem today gives us on insight to how life was for the American soldier. This particular poem does not deal with the fighting and dying aspect of the war, but it gives us a glimpse into how the soldiers interacted in social settings. For many of the men, drinking beer was a normal activity, and even for some frequenting prostitutes was also. But, most of the soldiers would never have used the services of a prostitute back home. The war caused these men to change their values. They were surrounded by killing and death every day, and they had no emotional outlet. You could not go home after a hard days fighting and talk with your wife and kids. All they had were each other. The prostitutes were used by the men as an outlet. Sexual release was the obvious use for the girls, but to see a woman and touch her meant a lot to these men also. The soldiers were a world away from what they knew of as home, and the longer they stayed there, the more warped their ideas and values became.
“Tu Do Street,” is just one of hundreds of poems that Komunyakaa wrote about his tour of duty in Vietnam. The poem tells a softer side of a black soldier’s life in Vietnam, but a very important soft side. Komunyakaa connects black, white, and the enemy with the prostitutes. By showing us this connection we realize that we are human and no matter what the social norm is, we are connected in one way or another.
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Komunyakaa, Yusef. Dien Cai Dau. “Tu Do Street.” Wesleyan University Press. University Press of New England. Hanover, NH, 1988.
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