The Real Trailblazers: Feminism in “That Boy from Georgia”
Ravaged by devastating effects of the Civil War, America sought to reconstruct its nation on the basis of racial equality. However, even though the war ended, racial discrimination still continued, eventually leading to the push for legislative reforms during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. However, while prominent male figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. became famous for their rousing speeches and constant cries for reform, the impact that women had on affecting the reform movement often went unnoticed. Thus, authors and poets employed their literary skills to persuade their contemporaries of the crucial role of women in the drive for racial equality. Consequently, in “That Boy from Georgia,” Jaki Green suggests that Martin must acknowledge the important role that women played in facilitating the African-American civil rights movement. Green illustrates this through the imagery of food that the women set up for Martin, the sacrifices that the women made during times of war, and the support that grandmothers gave throughout the political movement.
The lavish cuisine cooked specifically for Martin represents the vital role of women of nourishing the soldiers during the Civil War, which Green suggests must be greater appreciated by Martin and his contemporaries. The poem begins with a description of the various delicacies that the women have prepared for the arrival of Martin in their town, which included “cornbread, okra, turnip salad, stewed chicken, / fried chicken, dressing, / killed the prized hen, / gravy, corn, potatoes, rice, sweet potato custard, / lemon pie, rice pudding, coconut cake” (Green l. 8-12). Green suggests that this is no ordinary meal by specifying that they “killed the prized hen,” indicating that the arrival of Martin is a momentous occasion. Moreover, the foods listed are all gourmet foods of the time, such as the “lemon pie” and “sweet potato custard,” illustrating the considerable effort that the women undertook as they “cooked all night” in preparation of this feast (Green l. 6). However, in order to ensure that Martin acknowledges this effort on the part of women, Green explicitly states the value of providing such food: “soldiers need meat on their bones / martin” (Green l. 31-32). Given the context in which this poem was written, Martin is likely an allusion to the revolutionary Martin Luther King Jr., who traveled from town to town advocating his beliefs of racial equality. Thus, Green reminds Martin of how necessary having “meat on their bones” is, and the role that women are playing is essential in order to achieve their goals of desegregation.
Green’s narrator further accentuates the importance of food when he posits that “a war on evil takes a lot of planning / takes a lot to get troops / stirred up” (Green l. 25-27). Essentially, the narrator notes that the lengthy “war on evil” – a reference to both the Civil War and the petitions for racial harmony thereafter – requires a substantial amount of food, and the soldiers absolutely needed the “stewed corn with fatback, fried chicken / sliced tomatoes and cucumbers in vinegar / [that] were passed around several times” (Green l. 28-30). To further emphasize the significance of the efforts of women, the narrator repeatedly urges Martin to recognize that women fully mobilized their resources for the advancement of racial equality: “old sisters / opener their front rooms for you / opened preserves and jams / that had been put away / for something special / you were something special” (Green 1. 37-43). Here, the narrator is trying to highlight the fact that the “old sisters” regard Martin and his civil rights campaign as “something special.” Thus, Martin should appreciate how the women did their their best and “opened their front rooms” specifically for Martin’s cause. By addressing Martin in the second person, the narrator phrases his appeal to the role of women as a request to Martin to acknowledge the struggles of women. The narrator concisely references the purpose of women’s work: “all for you martin” (Green l. 14). By repeatedly demonstrating that the women were fully mobilizing their efforts in the home “all for” the purpose of the civil rights movement, this coerces Martin to acknowledge that women also had a substantial responsibility during the Civil War, which significantly assisted Martin Luther King Jr.’s movements for racial parity.
Moreover, women were further obligated to make sacrifices to support the men fighting in the war, and Green underscores how these wartime sacrifices were prerequisites in paving the way for Martin Luther King Jr.’s political movement. The narrator explains that during the war, mothers were forced to let their sons go to war “when they were about your age / before they drowned / in the dust” (Green 1. 45-48). By sending their children to war, these women themselves were “painting numbers / on their children’s heads” as a sign that they were fully aware that their sons would most likely perish and be “drowned in the dust” of the war (Green l. 76-77). The narrator further arouses sympathy for these women who lost their sons by describing those who died in the war in the hope of establishing an equal society as “your first infantry, martin” (Green l. 51). This quote demonstrates that the soldiers who lost their lives in the Civil War were critical to the progression of the civil rights movement, and without this “first infantry,” Martin Luther King Jr. would likely not even have the opportunity to politically reform the system in the first place. In order to illustrate to Martin that he must acknowledge the importance of the soldiers whose lives have been lost prior to his arrival, the narrator mocks Martin in his attitude towards the soldiers who have “drowned / in the dust / that you so gallantly / stepped lightly through” (Green 47-50). Here, the narrator refers to Martin taking the sacrifices that women and soldiers had previously made “lightly” and also “gallantly” taking those sacrifices for granted. This scorn for Martin’s ingratitude would encourage him to recognize that other people have created the pathway for him, and that Martin should not be taking advantage of those who lost their lives during the war for the same cause of equality that he steadfastly believes in.
Martin severely under-appreciates the emotional support that grandmothers provide, and thus Green underlines this supportive role of grandmothers to make Martin understand their significance in his reform movement. The narrator explains the function of grandmothers when he states, “GRANDMOTHERS / whose words and dreams / shot straight bullets / these were your first line” (Green l .52-55). In this quote, Green compares the emotional support of grandmothers through their “words and dreams” to the highly important “first line” of defense to signify how equally crucial the words of grandmothers were in getting the soldiers through the tough times. The narrator furthers his emphasis on grandmothers in his description: “GRANDMOTHERS / always ready to rinse out / a soul or two / these were the first line who put the armor of sassafras” (Green l. 56-59). With the repetition of “these were the first line” as a reference to the grandmothers, the narrator is trying to ensure that Martin understands his message: the supporting role that women played was just as important as the role of the men in the battlefield. Moreover, due to the devastating effects that a war can have on a soldier’s soul, the capability of grandmothers to cleanse the war torn “souls” of the male soldiers was exceptionally important during the Civil War. To ensure that Martin understands this crucial role of women, the narrator once again illustrates that the women were arduously working to ensure his success, as the grandmothers “in [his] name they gathered / washing, sharpening knives / polishing bullets” (Green l. 73-75). Thus, it is evident that the women in the household were performing various types of work that would assist in the civil rights movement, and Green eventually explicitly states that the “songs / sung in kitchens /… carried the same verses / carried the same weapons/ carried the same vision” as that of the male reformers (Green l. 62-63, 65-67). By resolutely affirming that the efforts of grandmothers and women as a whole carried the same “verses,” “weapons,” and “vision,” the narrator makes a full effort to convince Martin of the equal importance of the jobs that females and males held during the reform movement. As a result, the narrator hopes that Martin will acknowledge the significance of the roles of women in the past and greater appreciate their role in enabling the civil rights movement to occur in the first place.
Through employing imagery of food, illustrating the grave sacrifices that women made, and emphasizing the supporting role of grandmothers, Green contends that Martin must appreciate the sizable responsibilities of women during the Civil Rights movement. By giving women the recognition they deserve, women will feel incentivized to continue advancing causes such as the Civil Rights Movement because they know that whatever role they play, they will be valued. However, although legal discrimination ended fifty years ago, racial tensions exist till today – thus, in order to reduce these entrenched racial biases, our society needs to appreciate every effort or movement, regardless of size, that aims to reduce systemic prejudice. Valuing every effort, just like the crucial role that women played in the 1950s, will encourage reform on a widespread basis that can potentially lead to positive change in the long term.
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