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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 763

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Angelou re-creates stereotypes that are emblematic of different segments of the black and white populations. Robert is a good, responsible, caring young man who has been “steady going up.” Since the death of his parents he has taken responsibility for the family by learning a trade, making himself a master mechanic, and rearing his younger sister. In looking after her interests, he has assumed the role of a father figure and best friend (as Buddy, her nickname for him, connotes). He has been a kind of guardian angel for her, helping her to attend nursing school and heading north to get her when he hears that she is ill.

Robert is a fine man physically as well as a person of good moral character. His tall physique makes it hard for him to get comfortable on the cramped seats of the bus, and when the elderly woman speaks to him, he is polite and deferential to her in response. The woman, meanwhile, also represents an important social type in the black community. She is the respected elder, what sociologists have called an “other mother,” in reference to women who care for all the children in their neighborhoods as if they were their own, and who look out for the welfare of young black people even if they are strangers, offering advice and wisdom. Her religious faith, part of the paradigm of the respected elder, is represented in the Bible that she has on her lap. Her warning to Robert about the white men is based on a cognizance of what can happen to young black men at the hands of white racists. The two vile white men embody white southern lower-class male racism—what the elderly black woman terms trash coming from trash.

Angelou creates a tension that grows throughout the story between Robert’s goodness (manifested in his selfless concern for his sister, his polite respect for the elderly woman, and his love for his fiancé) and the ominous presence of the two drunken white men, who eye Robert and move closer to his seat as they drink liquor while the bus travels north. This tension builds to the scene when the bus stops. The tension, which develops out of the reader’s fear for Robert and the physical harm that may come to him, is heightened by the use of claustrophobic imagery. Robert’s body does not fit into the seats; he cannot move to more commodious seating in the front of the bus because of the white men, so he spends much of his time cramped into a semifetal position. Even outside the confines of the bus he is trapped within the narrow and filthy walls of the “colored-only” restroom that he must use when the white men corner him. The turning point of the story, and the release of tension, comes with Robert’s victory over his would-be oppressors and his success in regaining his seat on the bus with his bloody shirt undetected. Ironically, it is the segregated institutions created by whites that protect Robert because the bus driver does not think to look for the missing white men in the nonwhite restroom.

Robert’s success against his attackers is more than a personal triumph. It is classic in its dimensions—a David and Goliath story, or a dragonslayer tale in which the good and common hero turns the tables and prevails over forces that seek to destroy him. It also has a political moral as a reversal of the historical pattern of white violence directed at black men. The relief in tension comes when Robert proves himself able to avert disaster, defend himself, and continue on his intended journey to Cincinnati to help his sister. His ability to free himself from the restroom and reenter the bus is by extension his ability to continue through his own volition and capabilities on the “upward” journey of his life. Robert has been steady going up: He has been steadfast and hardworking as he has matured to young adulthood, determined to make a better life for himself and his sister. He proves steady going up north, as well, handling the life-threatening incident with the white racists well. He thus symbolizes a new generation of black people in the United States, coming of age in the era when Jim Crow rules began to fall and a call for rights and dignified self-protection replaced older systems of deference toward whites and victimization of blacks at the hands of whites. Robert represents a whole generation of black men and women steadily rising up.

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