The Theme of Racism in Ballad of Birmingham and Incident
Poetry is often inspired by the events and context of the time that it is created. During the 1900’s, racism was extremely prominent, and it inspired various authors to craft their work around the scenarios that people of color experienced. Racism comes in many forms and is life changing for those who are involved. These poems are used to highlight the damage that was caused and the impact that racism has. Poems based on racism are often told in the form of a ballad and can be extremely detailed because of the use of literary elements. The poems, “Incident” by Countee Cullen and “The Ballad of Birmingham,” by Dudley Randall illustrate a common theme of racism, while both using form and imagery.
The theme of racism is very clear in both ballads. Although the situations depicted are quite different, they both accurately portray the lives that people of color lived. Cullen’s short but intense poem retells the memory of a then eight-year-old black boy, who gets called “nigger” straight to his face (Cullen line 8). Rather than having happy memories of his visit to Baltimore, the narrator distinctly recalls this single incident for the rest of his life. As an adult, the narrator can still easily recall the details of this event. This poem not only shows what racism was like during this time, but also emphasizes the mental and emotional impacts that racism has on those affected. “The Ballad of Birmingham” also shows how intense racism was, but from a different perspective. Randall’s poem highlights the violent aspects of racism by illustrating the bombing of a people filled church in Alabama (Randall line 25). This poem is based off a true event that was racially motivated, amplifying the message that it sends. Young children were being targeted because of their color and they still are today. Dudley uses this poem as a chance to remember the young girls who were murdered this day, but also as an opportunity to describe the reality of racism. Racism impacts people in every aspect and poetry allows us to depict these life changing moments in history many years after the fact.
The form of a poem is important to its intended message. Poetic forms can have various shapes, structures, rhythms, rhymes, and lengths. Authors decide which type of poem they feel will effectively translate what they are trying to portray. Ballads are an old poetry form, frequently used to retell a moment in time, often a tragic story. Cullen and Dudley both wrote their poems in ballad form and followed the traditional poetic style of an ABCB rhyming pattern. In the final stanza of “Incident,” the narrator expresses how he saw the entire city during the months “May to December,” but that single event is all he can remember (Cullen lines 9-12). The words “December” and “remember” were paired together, showing that despite the longevity of the trip, this short incident is what impacts him the most. The most valuable aspects of the poem intentionally rhyme together, and the less important do not. This focuses the reader’s attention on the words the author desires. “The Ballad of Birmingham” also rhymes in this same ABCB pattern. In the seventh stanza, lines 26 and 28 read, “Her eyes grew wet and wild. / Calling for her child” (Dudley). These two lines rhyme together and specifically describe the tragedy of a mother losing her child. The realization for the woman that her daughter may be injured, or dead is an emotion that, unfortunately, many parents of color must face, due to racism. Although the thought of this is sad and sickening, it is the truth of our history and it needs to be depicted properly. This rhyming pattern gives power to specific words and lines in the poem, emphasizing the message and carrying it through in an interesting way for the reader. Writing poems of this kind in ballad form stresses the actuality of the stories being told and intentionally calls attention to the most impactful parts.
“Incident” and “The Ballad of Birmingham” are heavy with the use of imagery, which helps to illustrate the events they are inspired by. The stories that these poems retell are not easy to understand. Without the amount of detail that the imagery includes, the reader may not fully grasp the reality of the story. The use of imagery gives the reader the ability to picture the same situation that the narrator is in. In Cullen’s poem, the boy is described as “Heart-filled, head-filled with glee” (line 2). This line gives the reader the image of a very joyful little boy, allowing them to acknowledge his level of excitement. It also implies his large amount of innocence, that gets stolen from him soon after this description. Without the understanding of the boy’s happiness and innocence, the ending of the poem may not translate the desired way. Imagery runs all throughout Dudley’s poem as well, drawing endless images in the reader’s mind. In the final stanza, the mother “clawed through bits of glass and brick / Then lifted out a shoe” (Dudley lines 29-30). One can picture a distraught mother searching frantically through a destroyed church, picking through the remains of a once beautiful haven, all to discover her child’s lonely shoe. This imagery places the reader into that moment with the mother, where she finally uncovers her unfortunate reality. The readers can almost feel the desperateness and hope of the woman climbing through the remnants of the church. The details that these poems entail make the stories messages much deeper and realistic. Imagery has the ability to engulf the reader into the text, opening a new perspective of understanding for the story.
Countee Cullen’s poem, “Incident,” and Randall Dudley’s, “The Ballad of Birmingham,” are two powerful poems that depict racism in the 1900’s. The poems both use three important literary elements: theme, form, and imagery. Using these literary elements accurately shows the emotional and physical impacts that racism has on colored individuals. Themes such as racism are important to show in literature and illustrating them properly can be difficult. Their ballad forms help to fully narrate tragic moments in a short amount of text, while emphasizing the most influential and impactful parts with its intended rhymes. While the descriptions from the imagery work to make the words in the poems come to life for the reader. These three elements work together to create poems that show the reality of our world.
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