Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The theme of the poem is the racial injustice meted out to African Americans no matter how “well they behave.” Since one of the usual topics of a ballad is an event of historical importance to a nation or a people, the theme of Brown’s ballad is apropos—the discrimination, suffering, and violence inflicted upon African Americans in the Southern states. The folk hero in the poem is the convict who, after escaping, comes to the realization that African Americans have been on the wrong track in adapting to the restrictions of a segregated and discriminatory society, and who now finds it necessary to change directions—that is, to transfer to a new train of thought.

Since the convict represents a black “Everyman” and his situation is one that was common to the life of the Southern African American, the poet uses the ballad to condemn the general injustices suffered by blacks. Violence is a secondary theme in the poem, for in part I of the ballad, the hero is brained, clubbed, and beaten until he is senseless and his jawbone is broken. It is ironic that only when the black man is beaten senseless can he become a trusty, and only if he is “skittish” can the whites be sure that he is harmless.

Nevertheless, the hero is permanently neither senseless nor skittish, and his mind returns completely as a result of a long day in the hot sun. Clearly, the sun represents the light that kindles the hero’s intelligence and allows him to have the presence of mind...

(The entire section is 608 words.)