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Rosa Parks Has Died

The murder of Emmitt Till occurred a few months before, and his trial was still fresh in the minds of southern blacks when Rosa Parks refused to get off the bus so a white man could have four seats to himself. Those two events combined were the catalyst for getting folks from up North to pay attention to the wrongfulness of the Jim Crow laws strangling the blacks of the south. This is a long poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, but one of the more powerful pieces (IMO) written during the Civil Rights movement.



A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon.

From the first it had been like a
Ballad. It had the beat inevitable. It had the blood.
A wildness cut up, and tied in little bunches,
Like the four-line stanzas of the ballads she had never quite
Understood - the ballads they had set her to in school.
Herself: the milk-white maid, the "maid mild"
Of the ballad. Pursued
By the Dark Villain. Rescued by the Fine Prince.
The Happiness-Ever-After.
That was worth anything.
It was good to be a "maid mild."
That made the breath go fast.

Her bacon burned. She
Hastened to hide it in the step-on can, and
Drew more strips from the meat case. The eggs and sour-milk biscuits
Did well. She set out a jar
Of her new quince preserve.

...But there was a something about the matter of the Dark Villain.
He should have been older, perhaps.
The hacking down of a villain was more fun to think about
When his menace possessed undisputed breadth, undisputed height
And a harsh kind of vice.
And best of all, when his history was cluttered
With the bones of many eaten knights and princesses.
The fun was disturbed, then all but nullified
When the Dark Villain was a blackish child
Of fourteen, with eyes still too young to be dirty,
And a mouth too young to have lost every reminder
Of its infant softness.

That boy must have been surprised! For
These were grown-ups. Grown-ups were supposed to be wise.
And the Fine Prince - and that other - so tall, so broad, so
Grown! Perhaps that boy had never guessed
That the trouble with grown-ups was that under the maginificent shell of adulthood, just under
Waited the baby full of tantrums.
It occurred to her that there may have been something
Ridiculous in the picture of the Fine Prince
Rushing (rich with breadth and height and
Mature solidness whose lack, in the Dark Villain, was impressing her,
Confronting her more and more as this first day after the trial
And acquittal wore on) rushing
With his heavy companion to hack down (unhorsed)
That little foe.
So much had happened, she could not remember now what that foe had done
Against her, or if anything had been done.
The one thing in the world that she did know and knew
With terrifying clarity was that her composition
Had disintigrated. That, although the pattern prevailed
The breaks were everywhere. That she could think
Of no thread capable of the necessary
Sew-work.

She made the babies sit in their places at the table.
Then, before calling Him, she hurried
To the mirror with her comb and lipstick. It was necessary
To be more beautiful than ever.
The beautiful wife.
For sometimes she fancied he looked at her as though
Measuring her. As if he considered, Had she been worth It?
Had she been worth the blood, the cramped cries, the little stuttering bravado,
The gradual dulling of those Negro eyes,
The sudden, overwhelming little-boyness in that barn?
Whatever she might feel or half-feel, the lipstick necessity was something apart, He must never conclude
That she had not been worth It.

He sat down, the Fair Prince, and
Began buttering a biscuit. He looked at his hands.
He twisted in his chair, he scratched his nose.
He glanced again, almost secretly, at his hands.
More papers were in from the North, he mumbled. More meddling headlines.
With their pepper-words, "bestiality," and "barbarism," and
"Shocking."
The half-sneers he had mastered for the trial worked across
His sweet and pretty face.

What he'd like to do, he explained, was kill them all.
The time lost. The unwanted frame.
Still, it had been fun to show those intruders
A thing or two. To show that snappy-eyed mother,
That sassy, Northern, brown-black-

Nothing could stop Mississippi.
He knew that. Big Fella
Knew that.
And, what was so good, Mississippi knew that.
Nothing and nothing could stop Mississippi.
They could send in their petitions, and scar
Their newspapers with bleeding headlines. Their govenors
Could appeal to Washington...

"What I want," the older baby said, "is 'lasses on my jam."
Whereupon the younger baby
Picked up the molasses pitcher and threw
The molasses in his brother's face. Instantly
The Fine Prince leaned across the table and slapped
The small and smiling criminal.

She did not speak. When the Hand
Came down and away, and she could look at her child,
At her baby-child,
She could think only of blood.
Surely her baby's cheek
Had disappeared, and in its place, surely,
Hung a heaviness, a lengthening red, a red that had no end.
She shook her head. It was not true, of course.
It was not true at all. The
Child's face was always, the
Color of the paste in her paste-jar.

She left the table, to the tune of the children's lamentations, which were shriller
Than ever. She
Looked out of a window. She said not a word. That
Was one of the new Somethings-
The fear,
Tying her as with iron.

Suddenly she felt his hands upon her. He had followed her
To the window. The children were whimipering now.
Such bits of tots. And she, their mother
Could not protect them. She looked at her shoulder, still
Gripped in the claim of his hands. She tried, but could not resist the idea
That a red ooze was seeping, spreading darkly, thickly, slowly,
Over her white shoulders, her own shoulders,
And over all of Earth and Mars.

He whispered something to her, did the Fine Prince, something
About love, something about love and night and intention.
She heard no hoof-beat of the horse and saw no flash of the shining steel.

He pulled her face around to meet
His, and there it was close close,
For the first time in all those days and nights.
his mouth, wet and red,
So very, very, very red,
Closed over hers.

Then a sickness heaved within her. The courtroom Coca-Cola,
The courtroom beer and hate and sweat and drone,
Pushed like a wall against her. She wanted to bear it.
But his mouth would not go away and neither would the
Decapitated exclamation points in that Other Woman's eyes.

She did not scream.
She stood there.
But a hatred for him burst into glorious flower,
And its perfume enclasped them - big,
Bigger than all magnolias.

The last bleak news of the ballad.
The rest of the rugged music.
The last quatrain.

***

That was what Rosa Parks defied when she stood up for herself as being human and deserving of equal treatment. For all of the blacks that walked for 381 days, that supported the new magazines Jet and Ebony - which were the only magazines at the time that printed the truth and got people overseas to apply pressure to our government, that helped a young preacher named King, and the mother of Emmitt Till be heard -- I'm incredibly sorry for your (and our) loss.

Comments

( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
bisi
Oct. 25th, 2005 08:06 am (UTC)
That's one very amazing poem

Gosh. Hurty.
stoney321
Oct. 25th, 2005 08:11 am (UTC)
She slays me. Sums up so much in a short space.

*pets* Sorry for being Debbie Downer this morning...
bisi
Oct. 25th, 2005 08:18 am (UTC)
Course you're not being a downer. Thanks for the reference in fact, I don't know much about poetry so just googled Gwendolyn Brooks. yeah. thanks for that.
stoney321
Oct. 25th, 2005 09:10 am (UTC)
You might want to pick up some Langston Hughes. Oh, laws, the man speaks to me. Bit earlier time period: the Harlem Renaissance of the 30s and onward, but his "I, Too, Sing America" is still so powerful.

*hugs*
likeadeuce
Oct. 26th, 2005 12:48 pm (UTC)
adding to Stoney's rec -- Langston Hughes' selected poems is one of the few books of poetry that I can just sit down and read through; as a bonus, it has his early-50s era long poem "Montage of a Dream Deferred" printed all together, instead of just in little bits like we are used to seeing.
amybnnyc
Oct. 25th, 2005 08:57 am (UTC)
Thank you for this.
stoney321
Oct. 25th, 2005 09:11 am (UTC)
*squeezes*
bitchygrrl
Oct. 25th, 2005 10:32 am (UTC)
I was just sitting down to to do a post about Rosa when I saw this on my flist. Thank you for acknowledging her and for that wonderful poem. I love Brooks.
*hugs you*
(Deleted comment)
serenelystrange
Oct. 25th, 2005 04:30 pm (UTC)
It was sad to me, although I had never really thought about her too much, I didnt even know that she was still alive, as awful as it seems. I was sad because she did this incredible thing that she probably didnt know was so incredible. It seems like we just lost an important part of our American history you know, because you tend to forget people easier when they die. So, yeah, she'll be missed, :)
likeadeuce
Oct. 26th, 2005 12:46 pm (UTC)
I had this marked and just came back to read it -- am reading Brooks for the class I'm teaching now, but I hadn't read this one and, wow, thanks for sharing.

I went to a writers' conference last spring in Chicago, and at one of the events, several students and family members of GB spoke, and it was quite an event. She would have been an amazing person to meet, like Mrs. Parks.

( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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Reading this? I'm just curious. Because that's really detail-oriented of you. Feel free to stop reading. But you can see that there's more here, so are you going to keep reading? Really? That's pretty dedicated. I'm impressed. No, really. I'm not being sarcastic, why do you get like that? See, this is the problem I have with your mother - yes. YES. I'm going there. It's time we put all of our cards on the table.

I love you, why are you doing this? After all we've been through? You don't have to be like this. You know, still reading. You could be baking a pie. And then sharing it with me.

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