The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 408

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.

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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.

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 579

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...

(The entire section contains 1150 words.)

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Themes