Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The meaning of “The Ballad of Rudolph Reed” is as accessible as its language. Brooks’s poem dramatizes the blatant discrimination, especially in housing, that characterized American society until the Civil Rights movement of the late 1950’s and the 1960’s. In this sense, Brooks’s poem was ahead of its time, but a number of African American writers dramatized the problem of discrimination in this country shortly after World War II; for example, Lorraine Hansberry’s powerful and popular play A Raisin in the Sun (1959) dealt with the same issue of housing discrimination in Chicago. Brooks had experienced that discrimination personally when she was unable to find adequate housing in Chicago for her family as city officials continued to confine black residents to restricted areas at the same time that the population was rapidly increasing (particularly because of northward migration from rural Southern regions of the country).

As in most ballads, Brooks’s poem traces the heroic struggles of a set of characters as they act out their tragedy. They have a home of their own, the dream of many American families; their own blindness and the implicit greed of their real estate agent combine to make them “block-busters”—the first family of color to move into an all-white neighborhood—and the tragedy spirals out of control after this move. The Reeds even ignore the first signs of trouble; it is only when Mabel’s blood is spilled that...

(The entire section is 458 words.)