Summary: The poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, recently deceased African-American poet, illustrates how a commitment to justice begins with hope, turns to a sense of responsiblity, rises to act, but also acknowledges the depth of human sin.
The dateline was to be Little Rock, Arkansas, September 1957. The story was to be about the vicious hatred of a city whose people were resisting justice and terrifying school children. Little Rock, Arkansas, where Governor Orval Faubus had become the symbol of massive resistance, and where an indecisive president, Eisenhower, had finally taken action to protect children and enforce justice. Little Rock, where the plan to desegregate schools had been watered down to nothing more than nine young people – nine out of thousands – six girls and three boys, to carry the banner. The Chicago Defender, an African-American newspaper, sent its reporter to cover the story. It expected to print an account of atrocities. It expected to describe monstrous people who lived only to devour young children and to ravage the dreams of hard-working families. The Chicago Defender expected from its reporter a sensational story.
But let Gwendolyn Brooks tell us what actually happened, in her poem, “The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock”:
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.
Time upholds, or overturns,
The many, tight, and small concerns.
In Little Rock the people sing
Sunday hymns like anything,
Through Sunday pomp and polishing.
And after testament and tunes,
Some soften Sunday afternoons
With lemon tea and Lorna Doones.
And I believe
Come Christmas Little Rock will cleave
To Christmas tree and trifle, weave,
From laugh and tinsel, texture fast.
In Little Rock is baseball; Barcarolle.
That hotness in July … the uniformed figures raw and implacable
And not intellectual,
Batting the hotness or clawing the suffering dust.
There is love, too, in Little Rock. Soft women softly
Opening themselves in kindness,
Or, pitying one’s blindness,
Awaiting one’s pleasure
In Little Rock they know
Not answering the telephone is a way of rejecting life,
That it is our business to be bothered, is our business
To cherish bores or boredom, be polite
To lies and love and many-faceted fuzziness.
I scratch my head, massage the hate-I-had.
I blink across my prim and pencilled pad.
The saga I was sent for is not down.
Because there is a puzzle in this town.
The biggest News I do not dare
Telegraph to the Editor’s chair:
“They are like people everywhere.”
The angry Editor would reply
In hundred harryings of Why.
And true, they are hurling spittle, rock,
Garbage and fruit in Little Rock.
And I saw coiling storm a-writhe
On bright madonnas. And a scythe
Of men harassing brownish girls.
(The bows and barrettes in the curls
And braids declined away from joy.)
I saw a bleeding brownish boy …
The lariat lynch-wish I deplored.
The loveliest lynchee was our Lord.
Monsters? The reporter for The Chicago Defender couldn’t find monsters. What he found was that the people of Little Rock, “They are like people everywhere.” The utter ordinariness of sin, the sheer everydayness of hate. Harsh oppression in a land of freedom. Death in the midst of life. The impulse to lynch, to lash out. The animal instinct for wild hatred, even where people sing hymns and hear of Jesus and sip gentle refreshment. These evildoers – they look very ordinary. They are like people everywhere. Ready to hate, ready to lynch.