Form and Fiction: Geraldine Brooks’ “The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock”
Copyright 2019 by Michael W. Rickard
Editor's Note: I took a master's poetry class this spring and gained a better appreciation for poetry. While my poetry knowledge is still limited, the class was great. Here's a mid-term essay I wrote for the class about Geraldine Brooks's poem "The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock.”
Geraldine Brooks’ “The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock” (“Chicago Defender”) exemplifies Brooks’ use of poetic form and free verse to express her concerns for social justice. In “Chicago Defender,” the speaker examines the people of Little Rock, noting their capacity for love and their dual equal capacity for racial hatred. Brooks largely uses traditional poetic form such as rhyme and stanzas to show societal racism. This use of European poetic forms supports Rachel Edford’s thesis that Brooks used whatever poetic forms she felt appropriate in both her early work and her later work, particularly in addressing social justice issues.
The poem’s speaker is a reporter sent to cover the Little Rock, Arkansas school desegregation crisis as African-American children are threatened, harassed, and attacked while attempting to enter a recently desegregated school. The speaker’s evaluation of the people of Little Rock displays a harsh reminder of people’s dual capacity for good and evil. Brooks uses rhyme and poetic form to convey this irony.
Throughout the poem, the speaker establishes that the citizens of Little Rock are ordinary people with a capacity for decency and goodness. For example, the speaker notes the mundane aspects of life:
In Little Rock the people bear Babes, and comb and part their hair And watch the want ads, put repair To roof and latch. While wheat toast burns A woman waters multiferns. (1-5)
The speaker recognizes that Little Rock’s citizens show goodness, noting values such as:
There is love, too, in Little Rock. Soft women softly Opening themselves in kindness, Or, pitying one’s blindness, (27-29)
Brooks uses powerful imagery of everyday life to reflect the idea that evil can happen among the most ordinary people. After building up the people of Little Rock, she reveals the ugliness of their reaction to small children trying to enter a recently desegregated school.
Part of the effectiveness of Brooks’ poem is that she uses the simple rhyme scheme for when she shows the evil side of the people of Little Rock. Brooks could have used a different form (or used free verse ) to show the chaos but she continues with a simple (not simplistic) rhyme scheme, suggesting how easy it is for the supposedly good people to turn ugly, “Of men harassing brownish girls/ (The bows and barrettes in the curls)” (55-56).
Rachel Edford’s comparison between Brooks’ use of traditional European forms of poetry and her later views on European forms vs. free verse can be seen in “Chicago Defender.” Although Edford’s critical article focuses on Brooks’ World War Two-era poems, her comments are applicable here as Brooks plays with form and rhyme to explore societal racism. For example, Edford notes, “The variations in the poem’s structure reflect the mutability of these supposedly fixed orders and boundaries even as the logical structure of the Petrarchan sonnet strengthens the poem’s argument against segregation” (83). I will show how Brooks uses poetic structure in a similar manner to show societal racism.
While critics and Brooks herself were skeptical of Brooks use of European forms, Edford notes the power of Brooks pre-1967 work, “The complicated representations of identity in these often overlooked poems militate against dividing Brooks’s work into pre-1967 integrationist poetry constrained by Anglo-European forms and post-1967 black poetry empowered by free verse” (90). “Chicago Defender” not only shows Brooks’ effective use of poetic form, but her versatility in subject matter. Although many of Brooks’ poems dealt with African-American life, this examines the white majority’s dual capacity for good and evil.
Brooks use of European forms is ideal here as the speaker examines the white residents of Little Rock. Edford discusses Brooks’ use of structured poetic forms such as the sonnet to show racism in “Negro Soldiers” and the African-Americans’ effective tactics in overcoming it:
The African American soldiers figured here cannot be subordinated by a white racist framework that views them as an abstract and homogenous group of “Negroes.” Nor are they poster boys for African American and white integrationist agendas that seek to reduce them to one-dimensional symbols for racial progress and equality. In contrast, the speaker in “Negro Hero” loses his identity in the poem’s rambling free-verse lines, which fail to create an alternative to his flawed media image. (90)
Thus, just as Edford notes Brooks’ ability to use traditional forms such as the sonnet to show a white racist framework imposed on African-American soldiers, she uses the ordered framework of a simple rhyming structure to reveal an orderly society that celebrates certain virtues while also sanctioning racism.
Brooks also uses foreshadowing in the poem when she states:
I forecast And I believe Come Christmas Little Rock will cleave To Christmas tree and trifle, weave, From laugh and tinsel, texture fast (14-18)
The speaker presents several possibilities for Christmas, a season usually associated with peace on earth and good will towards men. Brooks’ wordplay is subtle and clever as she uses the word “cleaving” and the phrase, “To Christmas tree and trifle, weave” (17) The speaker forecasts that people of Little Rock can unite, they can fight by pushing for segregation. Her use of cleave holds two possible meanings as it can mean to split apart (often violently) but it can also mean to hold fast (often with affection and/or intensity). “To Christmas tree and trifle, weave,” (17) suggests another chance for peace with the spirit of Christmas (symbolized by the Christmas tree) and “trifle” (a disturbing word to reflect attitudes towards opposition to school desegregation but one which shows how some people see it as an inconvenience rather than a social evil). The speaker seems to argue that these clashing forces of love and hate can meet and weave an understanding. The speaker’s hopeful attitudes (as well as her realization that things may not work out) reflect Brooks’ optimism in her work that while racial animosities can continue, there is also room for reconciliation.
The most disturbing point of the poem comes when the speaker notes her realization that, “They are like people everywhere” (48). These same seemingly decent people can be capable of terrible behavior. The speaker has spent the entire poem building up Little Rock’s citizens decency, only to show the ugly side of racism as people resort to violence to keep their schools segregated.
Brooks uses wordplay to suggest that Little Rock is a microcosm of racism in the United States. The lines, “And true, they are hurling spittle, rock/Garbage and fruit in Little Rock” (51-52). Brooks’ use of rock and Rock is clever, suggesting Little Rock is an example of the larger picture, just as Rock is of rock. The lower case “r” in rock compared to the uppercase “R” in (Little) Rock is an analogy for how Little Rock is a microcosm of America, a place populated by seemingly decent people who can do evil things.
Brooks use of simple European rhyme schemes and poetic form in “Chicago Defender” correspond with Rachel Edford’s argument that Brooks uses European form before and after 1967 to address the complexities of social justice issues such as racism. Brooks’ repeated use of European forms demonstrates the societal racism exposed in “Chicago Defender,” offering an outsider’s view (that of an out-of-town reporter) of a racist city that is a microcosm of America.
Brooks, Gwendolyn. “The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock.” Selected Poems. Harper Perennial, 1963.
Edford, Rachel. "Forms of identity in Gwendolyn Brooks's World War II poems." College Literature, vol. 41, no. 4, 2014, p. 71+. Academic OneFile, http://link.galegroup.com.proxy.buffalostate.edu/apps/doc/A388564553/AONE?u=buffalostate&sid=AONE&xid=ae4e933e. Accessed 17 Mar. 2019.