Ballad of Birmingham

by Dudley Randall

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 545

“The Ballad of Birmingham” by Dudley Randall is a poem about the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four girls. 

No, baby, no, you may not go,

For the dogs are fierce and wild,

And clubs and hoses, guns and jails

Aren’t good for a little child.

The opening stanzas of the poem depict an exchange between the two characters, a mother and daughter. In this stanza, the second, the mother turns down her daughter’s request to join a march downtown by making vivid the dangers presented to protesters. Randall drew these images—of dogs, hoses, clubs, and guns—directly from the reality of the civil rights movement, whose adherents were suppressed by these means. This passage thus contributes to the poem’s historical weight.

She has combed and brushed her night-dark hair,

And bathed rose petal sweet,

And drawn white gloves on her small brown hands,

And white shoes on her feet.

The fifth stanza brings a shift from the dialogue between the daughter and mother to a succession of scenes. The first of these scenes depicts the mother helping the daughter prepare for church. There are two aspects of the imagery in this stanza that are particularly noteworthy. The first is the color contrast between the “white gloves” and “white shoes” and the daughter’s “night-dark hair.” Taken symbolically, this contrast between white and black suggests that the daughter embodies the racial tension of her society. This idea is tragically borne out in the final stanzas, when the girl finds herself at the focal point of this tension. The other noteworthy image is that of the “white shoes,” which prove important in the poem’s last lines.

The mother smiled to know her child

Was in the sacred place,

But that smile was the last smile

To come upon her face.

The following stanza, the fifth, underscores the mother’s love for her daughter and her desire to protect her. But even as the mother smiles in relief, the poem’s ultimate tragedy already looms in a note of distinct foreshadowing: the mother’s smile is “the last smile.” This stanza also encapsulates one of the poem’s main ironies. Despite the mother’s protective efforts to ensure that her daughter is safe “in the sacred place,” it quickly becomes clear that her daughter is not safe and perhaps cannot be safe anywhere. 

She clawed through bits of glass and brick,

Then lifted out a shoe.

“O, here’s the shoe my baby wore,

But, baby, where are you?”

The poem’s final stanza brings together the narrative tensions, themes, ironies, and images that have developed over the course of the poem. The unspeakable damages of racism are rendered as a lived experience in these final lines, as the mother searches through the rubble for her daughter, only to find the white shoe she placed on her daughter’s foot. In this context, the white shoe symbolizes the daughter’s innocence and underscores the personal cost of this public act of terrorism. The final product of the poem’s irony is pathos. The mother’s sorrow is all the more poignant because of her powerlessness in the face of historical forces, especially that of racism.

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