Sample Literature Essays on Literature and the Arts

Terrance Hayes’ “What it Look Like,” from How to be Drawn collection (2015) explores how people see others against how they are seen by others. What something looks like may not be the real meaning. He insists that shape does change but feelings can stand the test of time. In this poem, Hayes, who himself is an African American born in 1971, presents the stereotype that besets the African Americans. According to him, “Never mistake what it is for what it looks like (11)”, a statement from the fact that he gives his uncle some money after a party but he goes to buy something that looks like a candy. This turns out to be a drug. At the same time, he talks of his grandmother who puts on an attire that makes look like “an African king”. Hayes presents the typical lifestyles of the black Americans at the time. Like the grandmother, they are connected to their African heritage and culture despite the fact that they live in American soil.

The look of something can be a deception to people. In the current world, people expect help from each in order to achieve more in life. It is normal to help others in anticipation of reciprocation. However, Hayes motto points to the opposite. He opens our eyes to the reality of life, with respect to the African American lifestyle. For instance, the poem alludes to the fact that the real world does not appreciate acts of charity. All generous acts only work to flatter him. He gives an analogy of a bandanna that can be used as handkerchief; however, the handkerchief cannot be used as a bandanna. Therefore, as much as one thing can be used to accomplish many tasks, the opposite is not true. Hayes brings us back to the real world that fail to reciprocate on people’s expectations (National Book Awards, 2010).

The African American stereotype that Hayes uses in “What it Look Like” helps in understanding the deception that exists in the real world. Just like the writer’s uncle, people may seem very good; however, in reality, they are very repulsive. For instance, a timid person may look like very submissive on the natural look. However, his or her diffidence hides the real capability of the person. A general look at a person gives a different idea from the real capability and meaning. Hayes uses an example of “Bouillabaisse (25)”, a soup made of a mix of different types of fish. Bouillabaisse flavor does not represent the flavor and taste of the individual types of fish in the mix. The flavor in bouillabaisse is influenced by the mix of fish and spices. Therefore, the real individual tastes of fish do not come bouillabaisse. On the same note, he goes ahead to talk of a Chinese slang that indicates that the beauty of a woman from behind may not be the same as from the front.

The last portion of this poem acknowledges the need for each person to recognize his or her worth. The current lifestyle has pushed people to work towards looking for approval and appreciation from others. People fail to discover and use the power within them, instead of giving themselves out to be at the mercy of others. The writer talks to “Brother Bastard” and reminds him that he has neglected his own power. It seems his brother is obsessed with the need to be acknowledged by the people. He conducts his daily routine in order to impress people for recognition. According to Hayes, the brother will likely die without getting the recognition he seeks.

In this poem, the uncle and grandmother see to conduct themselves in a manner to seek for recognition among the people. The uncle does is expected with the money. Instead of buying what can help him and the family, he goes ahead to buy hard drugs. He fails to know that real power is in his ability to care for his family (Felicia, 2014, September 17). The ability to rule himself could have directed him to use money in a wise manner. In addition, the grandmother opts to dress like an African king in order to appeal to the people at the party. She is obsessed with rulership from other parts of the world. She wants to look like other leaders afar off. People must recognize their own significance in order to be relevant in this life.

In conclusion, Hayes’ poem emphasizes that people should not mistake what things look like what they are. In the quest for recognition, people end up doing things that do not matter. The fight for recognition by the African Americans started many years ago, a struggle that helped abolish the slave trade and other forms of discrimination. Much of the changes and bill of rights are in the constitution. However, it seems that the fight for recognition is fighting to vanity unless people find value in themselves. It looks like characters in this poem were busy making themselves up on the outside to win recognition and significance from people. But just as Hayes says, what we see may not be the meaning on the inside. The poem urges all people to find meaning from within rather than from the outside coverings. Everybody is a king and should go walking around looking for a king because none wants a king anyway.



Felicia, R. (2014, September 17). “MacArthur Awards Go to 21 Diverse Fellows”. New York


Hayes, T. (2015). “What it Look Like” in How to Be Drawn. Penguin Books.

“National Book Awards – 2010”. National Book Foundation. Archived from the original on March 19, 2015.