Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 514

Best known for his journalism and his novels, Trumbull Park (1959) and the posthumous The Myth Maker (1969), Frank London Brown sets most of his fiction in working-class Chicago during the era of the Civil Rights movement. His usual setting is an area of work or home where blacks and whites must meet and engage one another. His first novel, for example, is named for a well-known housing development and recounts the racial violence of the late 1950’s, when the real-life Brown family were among the first African Americans to take up residence there. In his fictional account, all blacks are subjected to a massive campaign to drive them out: anonymous threats, screaming mobs, bombs thrown through windows. The police are at best callous and indifferent. Ugly, smelly, clanging paddy wagons are ever present, carrying the blacks past the mobs to work, markets, and schools, even to hospitals to bear their children. However, the overarching element of the book is noise—raucous, unyielding noise. A white person is almost always screaming, usually obscenely; bricks shatter windows; firebombs set apartments ablaze; and fire trucks and police cars sound their bells and sirens constantly. Noise and tension feed each other. To relieve the tension, the main character, an airplane factory worker, draws on his favorite music, especially the songs “We Shall Not Be Moved” and “Every Day I Have the Blues.”

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These same elements are all present in “Singing Dinah’s Song,” but in a slightly different mix. Rather than race, the emphasis here is on class, on how little laborers have to call their own. Like the main characters of Brown’s novel, Daddy-o has long been a figure of heroic strength and self-restraint. In his sorrows, he is like Billie Holiday. In his defense of workers’ rights, he is like Samuel Gompers and John L. Lewis. In his sacrifice, standing cruciform in front of his machine, he is like Jesus. He believes that ten years of labor have given him possession of a small part of the factory. The narrator and everyone else know, however, that he owns nothing. Like slave owners, capitalists own everything, their workers nothing. For his labor, Daddy-o receives a neurosis, a concussion, and a jail term.

However, Daddy-o represents only half of the story. The narrator is equally important in assessing how much a man can withstand and how much he possesses. He is no hero. Like Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” he does not possess even his own name. However, he represents the small people, the average people who are Brown’s readers. Faced with the institutional violence of capitalism and the law, he is helpless. He cannot help Daddy-o physically or financially. He cannot even keep Charlie from calling the dreaded police. He cannot get through to Daddy-o’s wife. He cannot prevent the police from hurting Daddy-o or taking him away. He certainly cannot legally possess the machine that he calls his own. The lesson, inescapable even to him, is that he will not be able to prevent the same tragedy from befalling himself—and, by implication, everyone.

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