The Ballad of Rudolph Reed

by Gwendolyn Brooks

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Analyze "The Ballad of Rudolph Reed" by Gwendolyn Brooks.

The poem is a ballad that follows the classical structure: an invocation (stanza 1), description of the hero's family (stanza 2), description of his actions in response to his environment (stanza 3), and, most importantly, his death (stanza 4). This basic pattern is complicated by the many shifts in tone and diction. The poem moves from an epic-like story to a grimly realistic account of Rudolph's death. The final segment goes back to a heroic tone as the poet speaks for Rudolph's wife.

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In "The Ballad of Rudolph Reed," the style of the poem, the repetition and parallelism, and its explicit identification as a ballad recall much older English poems and aristocratic heroes such as Lord Thomas and Sir Patrick Spens. This atmosphere is disturbed in the third stanza, however, where the realities of decrepit buildings in a modern city make for jarring, disturbing images.

The connection of the abstract with the concrete in the wish that "every room of many rooms / Will be full of room" suggests how much dreams of concepts like dignity and freedom are actually dependent on physical realities. This physicality is picked up in the sixth stanza when Rudolph's "oaken" complexion is contrasted with that of his white neighbors. The word "oaken" has connotations of strength and steadfastness over and above the suggestion of color.

The archaic, heroic diction ("Nary a grin...Nary a curse") continues as Rudolph and his family move in to their new home. The poet remarks that they did not notice the frowns of their neighbors:

For were they not firm in a home of their own
With windows everywhere
And a beautiful banistered stair
And a front yard for flowers and a back yard for grass?

Their heedless joy is marked by the sudden departure from the ballad form and the change in the rhyme scheme, the re-adoption of which in the following stanza signals a return to grim reality. Rudolph is eventually goaded into responding to the attacks, arming himself and parting from his wife like an epic hero then dying after a brief foray into battle.

The bathos at the end of the poem emphasizes the helplessness of the family who remain. Rudolph's death has just demonstrated the consequences of retaliation. His wife can only remain "oak-eyed" (a variation of "oaken" which even more closely resembles a Homeric epithet) and tend to the wounds of her children.

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The beginning of "Ballad of Rudolph Reed" introduces Rudolph and his family. They are poor and black and dream of escaping their miserable housing conditions. After a long time waiting and searching, an agent excitedly invites them to move into a place. Their white neighbors are immediately suspicious of these new neighbors, but the Reed family is too busy being excited and feeling safe in their new home to notice their disdain.

It takes no time at all for the white neighbors to begin attacking the Reed's home, throwing rocks in the windows to try to harm them and force them to leave. They eventually succeed in harming Rudolph's daughter, Mabel, and he immediately arms himself and heads outside to seek his well-deserved revenge. Eventually, Rudolph manages to kill four of his attackers before they manage to kill him. His daughter is distraught, but his wife refuses to pass judgement or condemn Rudolph's actions in response to the relentless violence of the white neighborhood.

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“The Ballad of Rudolph Reed” by Gwendolyn Brooks concerns the hatred and discrimination a black family experiences as they take up their new...

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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.

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