The Ballad of Rudolph Reed

by Gwendolyn Brooks

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 458

The meaning of “The Ballad of Rudolph Reed” is as accessible as its language. Brooks’s poem dramatizes the blatant discrimination, especially in housing, that characterized American society until the Civil Rights movement of the late 1950’s and the 1960’s. In this sense, Brooks’s poem was ahead of its time, but a number of African American writers dramatized the problem of discrimination in this country shortly after World War II; for example, Lorraine Hansberry’s powerful and popular play A Raisin in the Sun (1959) dealt with the same issue of housing discrimination in Chicago. Brooks had experienced that discrimination personally when she was unable to find adequate housing in Chicago for her family as city officials continued to confine black residents to restricted areas at the same time that the population was rapidly increasing (particularly because of northward migration from rural Southern regions of the country).

As in most ballads, Brooks’s poem traces the heroic struggles of a set of characters as they act out their tragedy. They have a home of their own, the dream of many American families; their own blindness and the implicit greed of their real estate agent combine to make them “block-busters”—the first family of color to move into an all-white neighborhood—and the tragedy spirals out of control after this move. The Reeds even ignore the first signs of trouble; it is only when Mabel’s blood is spilled that Rudolph acts. In the heroic language of the inherited ballad form, Brooks tells readers “Then up did rise our Rudolph Reed.” His instinctual protection of his family turns into revenge upon the white neighbors who are trying to drive the Reeds from their home. Even in his death, the hatred continues as the neighbors kick and insult his corpse.

Brooks leaves the issue hanging in the last stanza: The family survives, but will they have the strength to carry on Rudolph’s fight? Will they continue to be “oaken”? Will they move or will they stay? In certain ways, “The Ballad of Rudolph Reed” has the feel of classical Greek drama, with characters playing out their fated and tragic roles. The main difference is that in Brooks’s poem there is no deus ex machina at the end to resolve the conflicts, no sense of resolution to provide catharsis for the audience. Readers, Brooks insists, must provide that for themselves. The civil rights struggles of the 1950’s and 1960’s were composed of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of tragic battles and sacrifices such as this one. Brooks’s Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1950, like her many awards since then, was in part a tribute to her poetic efforts to point out and eradicate some of the worst inequities in her society.

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