Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 524

“Once” deals with Walker’s own involvement in the Civil Rights Movement in the South during the 1960’s. The collection of poems in which it appears, Once: Poems, was published in 1968, the year of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. In the collection, “Once” is followed by six more poems dealing with civil rights. This poem, informed by a strong black consciousness and a somewhat youthful didacticism, shows universally bigoted and inhuman white Southerners confronted by witty and courageous black and white activists from the North. Each numbered section is another image or event Walker remembers from her own experience: She appears in ten of the fourteen sections, if only to say, “I remember.”

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The effect of Walker’s continually putting herself in the scene is to make it clear that the horrors she presents are true: She can verify that they are true because she was there. For young readers, this is especially important because they do not remember what went on in this country during the days of segregation and struggle. Walker is not concerned only with her own experiences. Although she writes about what she has seen or heard herself, she avoids making this a poem about particular people or events. Only one person, activist Dick Gregory, is precisely identified, and one of the poet’s friends, Peter, is identified by first name only.

The rest of the people in the poem are identified by type or by their relationship to the poet: “my friend,” “a Negro cook,” “a little black girl,” “the blond amply boobed babe.” In fact, the speaker of the poem need not be the poet at all. The “I” could be any of hundreds of black “nice girl[s] like her” who participated in the Civil Rights movement. Walker’s purpose in all this is to help readers experience another time and place. By not specifying the details too much, she leaves ample room for readers to use their own imagination to supply the details—the names, faces, feelings—that will make it real for them.

Once the reader is dwelling firmly in that time and place—the American South in the 1960’s—Walker hopes that he or she will begin to realize why the Civil Rights movement had to happen, what the anger and frustration was all about, and what the dream was like. She does not tell readers what to think about each scene—she simply places them in it. There is little sense here that the activists believe they are winning the fight or that victories are what matter. There are tales of arrests and confrontations, but no scenes of voters registering or walls tumbling down. Instead, the poems focus on the humanity of the activists and the bigots.

For all its vignettes of hatred and conflict, “Once” ends on a hopeful note. The picture of the young black girl timidly waving the flag stands for all the dreams of all the activists. Although the girl is “bleak-eyed,” although she holds the flag “gingerly,” she is a symbol that appears again and again in Walker’s work—she is the hope for the future.

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