“The Ballad of Rudolph Reed” by Gwendolyn Brooks concerns the hatred and discrimination a black family experiences as they take up their new home in an area that up until this point has been inhabited solely by white people. The Reed family has a challenge ahead of them as they try bravely to become a part of the neighborhood and live quietly and decently among their new neighbors.
The family is described as “oaken.” This alludes to the fact that they are strong like a proud tree in their determination to secure themselves a humble abode in which to live their lives. They desire a nice, sturdy, well-built home that they can enjoy – one where a man…
“May never hear the roaches
Falling like fat rain.”
Furthermore, Rudolph Reed desires a fine home…
“Where every room of many rooms
Will be full of room.”
In essence, the father wants a quality home to raise his family in and he is taking the risk of achieving this goal by securing a home in an all-white neighborhood where he knows there could be trouble. He is determined to be a patient, sensible, discreet neighbor and is also determined to go about his business quietly without ruffling any feathers. He is proud of his new home with its “beautiful banistered stair.”
However, trouble comes quickly to the Reed family as the first two nights rocks are hurled at the home. Rudolph Reed remains patient and not vindictive. On the third night, his young daughter is cut by a shard of glass from the violence inflicted upon the house and the family. This is something that Rudolph cannot tolerate and he acts out of pent up anger.
To avenge the attack on his daughter he attacks those who have attacked his house and he injures four white men. However, Rudolph Reed dies in the process. He is treated like a dead useless animal in the street upon his death, with the prejudice of the neighborhood manifesting itself full force.
The reality of the poem is that Rudolph’s wife must take this as it is dealt to her. She knows that she cannot fight this prejudice against her and her family right now. She is resigned to taking care of her injured daughter and pondering her next move, as she lives in a neighborhood that has not come to terms with its narrow-mindedness, bigotry, and senseless ideas.