In Maya Angelou's poem "The Mothering Blackness", there's a verse that goes like this:

She came down creeping
       here to the black arms waiting
       now to the warm heart waiting
rime of alien dreams befrosts her rich brown face
       She came down creeping

I'm not entirely sure what the line "...rime of alien dreams..." is supposed to mean.

First off, I don't recognize the word "rime". I looked it up, and apparently it's like a thin freeze of ice droplets (which matches with the "befrosts").
But... I'm still not clear on the line. What are the "alien dreams", and what's the "rime" that comes from them? Why are they befrosting her face? What's going on in this line?


3 Answers 3


While most interpretations of this poem that one finds online describe the work as clearly relating to a mother and daughter, I find myself wondering if it relates to a different theme.

The poem was released in a 1972 collection, putting it in the wake of Angelou's own soujourn in Egypt and Ghana from 1961 to 1965. She first went to Egypt with her then partner Vusumzi Make, but with her son, Guy, moved to Ghana after breaking up with make. Ghana at that time ran a programme encouraging African-Americans to move there. (Ghana had recently become the first colony in the Sub-Saharan region of Africa to gain its independence from European colonial powers under the leadership of its first president, Kwame Nkrumah -Wikipedia: African-Americans in Ghana)

In light of this, there is a possible reading of the poem as an autobiographical work where 'she' represents Angelou and the Mothering Blackness represents Africa.

In this reading the alien dreams may be seen as the nightmare of the slave trade itself, taking ancestors to an alien land. ‘Rime’ would have the meaning of the salt of dried tears looking like a layer of frost, dried tears being appropriate to recovering from a nightmare and the idea of frost being a contrast to the welcoming heat of sub-Saharan Africa.

The reference to both the slave trade and freedom is emphasised in the third verse, Hagar was a slave, taken out of her own country and then cast aside with her son. Sheba was a Queen who returned, by some stories, to her own land to bring up her son alone. This may be a metaphor for Angelous' break up with Make and arrival in Ghana with her son.

Per Wikipedia:

Several black American feminists have written about Hagar, comparing her story to those of slaves in American history. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hagar


There is a beautiful parallelism between the fourth lines of each stanza:

white tears icicle gold plains of her face,
rime of alien dreams befrosts her rich brown face,
threats of northern winds die on the desert’s face.

The "white tears" that "icicle", the "rime", and the "threats of northern winds" all are associated with whiteness and cold, while the faces in these lines are gold, brown, and sand-colored, respectively. And the word "gold" resonates with "rich", while "plains" resonates with "desert".

So in these lines whiteness is associated with cold and alienness, while brownness is associated with warmth and richness.

What is actually going on? It's hard to tell.

Gareth Rees's answer suggests that the second stanza may be talking about waking up form nightmares; if it is, they are possibly about the incident that precipitated the first stanza. And the third stanza suggests that she eventually recovers from her experience.

It also seems possible that the three stanzas are about three different girls.


The way that I read this stanza is that the daughter has been woken by nightmares (“alien dreams”) and has come downstairs weeping to her mother for comfort. Here “alien” is used in the sense:

alien, adj. 2. Of a foreign nature or character; strange, unfamiliar, different. Also: hostile, repugnant.

Oxford English Dictionary

The “rime” that “befrosts” her face is a metaphor for the tears that coat her face:

rime, n. 1.d. In extended use: a thin layer or coating.

Oxford English Dictionary

The use of “rime” and “befrosts” contrasts with the “warm heart” of line 3.

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