Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 436

“The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock” contains themes found in much of Gwendolyn Brooks’s poetry. Undeniably it is a thoughtful criticism of contemporary society. In an interview from her autobiography Report From Part One (1972), Brooks says that much of a writer’s use of themes depends upon...

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“The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock” contains themes found in much of Gwendolyn Brooks’s poetry. Undeniably it is a thoughtful criticism of contemporary society. In an interview from her autobiography Report From Part One (1972), Brooks says that much of a writer’s use of themes depends upon the climate of America at the time: “I think it is the task or job or responsibility or pleasure or pride of any writer to respond to his climate. You write about what is in the world.” Examining the United States in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, she could not escape the existing racism and violence. The point of the poem is that people often do fail to see its existence in their communities, their neighbors, and even themselves.

For the most part, the poems in The Bean Eaters are about commonplace people, and this poem is no exception. Brooks demonstrates the extraordinary effects that “ordinary” lives can have on the course of history. She also shows that violence is often perpetrated by people who present a benign exterior. The poem attempts to see behind the mask. Brooks strips away illusions about evil and immerses readers in its very real, very conventional nature.

The eighth stanza shows how Little Rock citizens feign politeness, answer the phone, and respond to questions about the problems in their community. Even as they converse with reporters they remain firmly in denial about their own complicity in the social and psychological oppression. The voice of the poet then becomes the conscience for the larger community of readers who must sort through this series of paradoxical events to separate truth from lies.

There are two particularly notable ways in which “The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock” differs from other poems on the theme of racial injustice. First is its basis in an actual confrontation that shocked the world and underscored the anguish of a people searching for equality in a country that continued to deny it. The poem invites the reader to identify with a narrator who is appalled that these oppressors “are like people everywhere.” The second important distinction is the skillful way Brooks compresses a history of oppression into the final two lines of the poem as if to imply that little has been resolved in the years since Jesus’ death.

With a gift for seeing truth no matter where or how it is hidden, Gwendolyn Brooks throughout her career has questioned suppositions about equality and justice. As she writes in her autobiography, a writer “needs to live richly with eyes open, and heart, too.”

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