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. On Sunday in church they sing hymns; afterward they have tea and cookies. Like Americans from coast to coast, they celebrate Christmas and enjoy baseball and music. In the tenth stanza, however, the mood shifts as the reporter, scratching his head, makes a crucial observation: “there is a puzzle in this town.” The citizens appear to be “like people everywhere.” There is no observable sign of the hatred and evil contained in the human heart. After hurling insults and launching vicious attacks, community members return to their ordinary lives.
The narrator imagines how disappointed his Chicago editor would be to hear such a banal account of Little Rock citizens, when in fact he has witnessed them harassing, spitting, and hurling rocks. Yet he cannot forget the shocking reality of their dualistic nature. Brooks closes the poem with the reporter’s thought of another mob of ordinary people—those at the crucifixion of Christ—thereby forcing readers to reconsider how they recognize evil and to look within for evidence of hatred or bigotry that might not be immediately apparent.
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...
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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 love appear to clarify uncertainties, but they actually cover up, rather than confront, the most serious problems of society. Many images are suggestive, their meanings not completely spelled out, and Brooks links ideas ordinarily kept apart: love and music appear in frightening juxtaposition with bigotry and violence.
The inextricability of form and content is another important aspect of “The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock,” one of the most compelling poems in her collection The Bean Eaters. The apparent normalcy of Little Rock lives is emphasized by the conventional line lengths and prosaic language. Yet after four stanzas, when the narrator finally interrupts the smooth litany of their days and nights, the lines are short, clipped. The reporter speaks: “I forecast/ And I believe.” One expects his revelation to expose the evil in the community. Instead he makes a prediction about the festive holiday season. Then the poem quickly resumes its original form. Mirroring reality, no change occurs, the usual flow of events continues, and for the next three stanzas Brooks re-creates the laughter and tinsel of Christmas, the baseball games, and the twilight concerts. Readers experience through the poem’s structure the frustrating inability to recognize and destroy the enemy easily, for the enemy is well hidden in this city of ordinary people. What is perhaps most striking about a poem on such a harsh subject is its overall lack of shocking detail. Only near the end does Brooks show the violence that lurks beneath the calm exterior: “And true, they are hurling spittle, rock,/ Garbage and fruit in Little Rock./ And I saw coiling storm a-writhe/ On bright madonnas. And a scythe/ Of men harassing brownish girls.”
The unusually wide spaces between the last three lines allow readers time to read between the lines, to imagine what lies beneath the surface of this apparently placid poem and community, and then to compare what they find with their own understanding of the history of persecution and oppression.
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.