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In the poem "Ballad of Birmingham", Randall paints a picture of a mother and her daughter. The daughter is characterized as courageous and adventurous but also obedient, whereas her mother is cautious and protective. In their dialogue exchange, the daughter asks for permission to go to a Freedom March, but the mother is concerned about the violence that her daughter will face by attending such an event. Despite the daughter's protests, the mother instead has her attend church, where she will presumably be significantly safer.
At this point in the poem, Randall explicitly tells the reader that the characters are black, describing in loving detail the daughter's physical features and clothes with diction that provokes innocent, delicate images. The mother's reaction, which is to smile at the safety of her daughter, reinforces the pleasant tone. However, Randall foreshadows the sudden transformation of the scene by noting that this will be the last smile on the mother's face. The next stanzas illustrate the mother's panic upon hearing an explosion and finding, in the rubble, her daughter's shoe.
Using historical context, the reader can quickly connect Randall's poem to the bombing of the church in Birmingham, AL in 1963. The 16th Street Baptist Church, a historically black church, was destroyed by members of the Ku Klux Klan, whose dynamite killed four small girls, including the one in the poem.
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