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.)