Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 608

The theme of the poem is the racial injustice meted out to African Americans no matter how “well they behave.” Since one of the usual topics of a ballad is an event of historical importance to a nation or a people, the theme of Brown’s ballad is apropos—the discrimination, suffering, and violence inflicted upon African Americans in the Southern states. The folk hero in the poem is the convict who, after escaping, comes to the realization that African Americans have been on the wrong track in adapting to the restrictions of a segregated and discriminatory society, and who now finds it necessary to change directions—that is, to transfer to a new train of thought.

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Since the convict represents a black “Everyman” and his situation is one that was common to the life of the Southern African American, the poet uses the ballad to condemn the general injustices suffered by blacks. Violence is a secondary theme in the poem, for in part I of the ballad, the hero is brained, clubbed, and beaten until he is senseless and his jawbone is broken. It is ironic that only when the black man is beaten senseless can he become a trusty, and only if he is “skittish” can the whites be sure that he is harmless.

Nevertheless, the hero is permanently neither senseless nor skittish, and his mind returns completely as a result of a long day in the hot sun. Clearly, the sun represents the light that kindles the hero’s intelligence and allows him to have the presence of mind to ride away. In the city of Atlanta, he is hidden away in “Darktown,” a name that symbolizes not only the race of its inhabitants but also their condition. Moreover, the hero cannot afford to come out during the daylight because he will be seen by the white policemen, who only feel safe in Darktown during the day. Hence, Darktown has an inverse symbolic meaning. Instead of being safe in the light, as would be common in European color symbolism, the hero of “Transfer” is safe only in the dark, the darkness of the color of his skin and the skin of the residents who ensure his safety by feeding, clothing, and hiding him.

Another prominent symbol used by the poet is transportation. Throughout the poem, the prominent events all occur in places where one can get on and ride (go) somewhere. The hero is beaten at the bus stop by the motorman, rides away on a mare from the prison farm, and relates the wisdom of his epiphany at a car-stop. The final words of the hero express his understanding that African Americans have been riding on the wrong route, one that has failed to get them anywhere in American society. Therefore, the hero concludes that African Americans need a transfer to a new direction, not in place but in thought. It is interesting to note that Brown published “Transfer” in his 1975 The Last Ride of Wild Bill and Eleven Narrative Poems. By this date, African Americans had truly transferred to a new line of thought that led them in the direction of the Civil Rights movement.

Brown is skillful in his use of the ordinary man as hero in this poem. The hero of “Transfer” is a common man without sophisticated education or skills; however, he has a folk wisdom that allows him to deliver a sermon that demonstrates a practical wisdom garnered from living and surviving in a harsh and brutal environment. Thus, when Brown speaks of the tragedy of the hero’s life in this poem, he also speaks of his triumph.

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