The Chicago Sends a Man to Little Rock Analysis

Gwendolyn Brooks

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

A number of Gwendolyn Brooks’s poems, particularly those written in the years of the Civil Rights movement, highlight major events in the African American struggle for legal equality. The title of this poem clearly conveys its historical context: A reporter from Chicago’s black newspaper, the Defender, travels in the fall of 1957 to Little Rock, Arkansas, during that city’s battles over school desegregation. In the actual historical events, the first nine black students ever to be admitted to Central High School were forbidden to enter the school by the governor of Arkansas, who used the state’s National Guard to block them from entering. Hostile mobs from the community cursed and spat at the children, and they attacked both black and white journalists covering the incident. Eventually President Dwight Eisenhower sent federal troops with orders to safeguard the children and allow them to attend the school. The landmark incident marked the first serious test of the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision forbidding segregation in public schools.

Creatively linking these real events with a poetic (re)creation, Brooks’s poem reflects a reporter’s first-person account of life in this racially charged southern city. Instead of beginning with descriptions of violence and hatred, the narrator records the everyday lives of ordinary people who look for jobs, have babies, repair their homes, and water their plants....

(The entire section is 408 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

References to music and love permeate Brooks’s poem. Readers who know her work will not be surprised, for such images appear often in her poetry about the black community. However, their use here in describing the white community is quite different. Ironically, even in a time of racial conflict, when people are behaving in inhuman ways, they “sing/ Sunday hymns like anything” and attend musical events where the beauty of Beethoven, Bach, and Offenbach fill their ears, if not their hearts. These musical images at first seem paradoxical in a protest poem, but they have a definite function. As critic and poet Haki R. Madhubuti writes in his introduction to Say That the River Turns: The Impact of Gwendolyn Brooks (1987), “it is her vision—her ability to see truths rather than trends, to seek meaning and not fads, to question ideas rather than gossip—that endears her to us.” In this poem the truth for Brooks is that music is not an antidote to hate. Avid listeners are not necessarily transformed by its beauty; they may still embody evil.

The seventh stanza examines another paradox: how the capacities for love and hate coexist in the same place and even in the same people. The narrator notes that there is love as well as music in Little Rock. Images of “soft women” giving and receiving pleasure point to the people’s desire to dull the pain or, as Brooks writes, “To wash away old semi-discomfitures.” Such physical expressions of...

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(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Brooks, Gwendolyn. Report from Part One. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1972.

Bryant, Jacqueline, ed. Gwendolyn Brooks’ “Maud Martha”: A Critical Collection. Chicago: Third World Press, 2002.

Kent, George E. A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990.

Lanker, Brian. I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1989.

Madhubuti, Haki R., ed. Say That the River Turns: The Impact of Gwendolyn Brooks. Chicago: Third World Press, 1987.

Melhem, D. H. Gwendolyn Brooks: Poetry and the Heroic Voice. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1987.

Mootry, Maria K., and Gary Smith, eds. A Life Distilled: Gwendolyn Brooks, Her Poetry and Fiction. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Washington, Mary Helen. “Plain, Black, and Decently Wild: The Heroic Possibilities of Maud Martha.” In The Voyage In: Fictions of Female Development, edited by Elizabeth Abel, Marianne Hirsch, and Elizabeth Langland. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1983.

Wright, Stephen Caldwell, ed. On Gwendolyn Brooks: Reliant Conversation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996.