18 pages 36 minutes read

Maya Angelou

The Lesson

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1978

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Symbols & Motifs

“The Small Fists of Sleeping Children”

The vivid image of the opening and closing of “the / Small fists of sleeping / Children” (Lines 2-4) symbolizes the deep-seated passion to live that Angelou celebrates in every person. Children do not think about the movement. After all, the children are asleep. Yet something in the baby animates those fists. For the poet, that something symbolizes the determination to live despite the indignities, the disappointments, and the sufferings of life. It is hard-wired into the human spirit. Survival is intuitive.

There is something in the human spirit that will not, cannot surrender. The death that the poet decries, that is, the routine indignities and sorrows, is, in the end, nothing the human will cannot stand against. The image of a sleeping child suggests that these emotional traumas, these so-called deaths, are not as large or threatening as they may seem. In fact, the symbol suggests these terrors of life are little more than the hobgoblins of bad dreams. They are not real. The child sleeps. The child is not dead. The will to fight is further suggested as the sleeping children clench their tiny fists, a traditional symbol of the determination to fight back, to resist. The children then symbolize hope.