James D. Sullivan

James Sullivan: On "Ballad of Birmingham"

[Dudley Randall’s Detroit-based Broadside Press issued a series of African-American poetry broadsides.]

The first two in the series are poems by Randall himself: "Ballad of Birmingham" and "Dressed All in Pink." Folk singer Jerry Lewis had set them to music, and to ensure his own copyright of the texts, Randall published them as broadsides in 1965. In 1966, when he met Robert Hayden, Melvin Tolson, and Margaret Walker at Fisk University's first annual Writers Conference, he asked each of them for permission to print one of their already-published poems as a broadside--Hayden's "'Gabriel," Tolson's "The Sea-Turtle and the Shark," and Walker's "The Ballad of the Free" (Randall, Broadside 23). Randall also wrote Gwendolyn Brooks, asking permission to use one of her poems. She wrote back that he could pick any one he liked, and he chose "We Real Cool" (ibid. 8). And so he had his initial "Poems of the Negro Revolt" sequence. Most of the first twenty-four issues of the Broadside Series continued to be "favorite poems" that had already been published elsewhere, but in 1968, a reviewer at Small Press Review suggested that issuing previously unpublished poems might be a greater literary service, so beginning with Number 25, "Assassination" by Don L. Lee--a response to the murder of Martin Luther King Jr.--he made the series mostly a forum for new work (ibid. 2-3 ).

"Ballad of Birmingham" deserves special attention as the first broadside Randall published and also because it places the series in relation to the tradition of popular broadsides up through the nineteenth century that recount sensational events in ballad form. Printed up, like them, inexpensively for sale, it uses the conventions of the traditional broadside ballad for contemporary political goals. Two broadside versions of this poem exist. For the first publication in 1965, the graphics are simple: brown ink in a tasteful typeface on tan paper, priced at thirty-five cents. But once the series was established, Randall reissued the poem in a new format and with a new price, fifty cents. Though the words do not change, the second, more visually complex version connects the whole series more directly to the older tradition of poetry broadsides, and it raises issues of audience use and the role of graphic format in producing meaning that other broadsides later in the series address more fundamentally.

The folded card carries the poem inside, arranged in a fairly standard format, title across the breadth of the sheet, subtitle underneath it in parentheses--"(On the Bombing of a Church in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963)"--then the poem proper in two columns occupying most of the page: all printed in black on white. But the outside (designed by Shirley Woodson, with title and illustration on front, publication information on back) is printed all black, the text and drawing appearing as negative space in this imposed black field. The white field on the inside is a given, a publishing convention. But with the outside acting as a dark border and the text itself appearing in a typeface with heavy vertical lines, it recalls the elegiac broadsides from two or three centuries earlier. The card format and the somber illustration of six figures huddled together, heads bowed, suggest a funeral.

These generic allusions in the visual format and the title indicate that, like seventeenth- and eighteenth-century elegiac broadsides, this one will use the tragic occasion to expound upon the spiritual values of the community. The tradition of basing broadside ballads on sensational disasters and crimes further determines the poem as a tragedy. In this context, the first lines already suggest the end of the story.

"Mother dear, may I go downtown

    Instead of out to play,

And March the streets of Birmingham

    In a Freedom March Today?"

Given the title and subtitle, as well as the funerary implications of the card's design, this character will have to end up at that church eventually, probably to die, as ballad characters so often do. This poem uses the ballad convention of the innocent questioner and the wiser respondent (the pattern of, for example, "Lord Randall" and "La Belle Dame sans Merci"), but it changes the object of knowledge from fate to racial politics. The child is the conventional innocent, while the mother understands the violence of this political moment:

"No, baby, no, you may not go,

    For the dogs are fierce and wild,

And clubs and hoses, guns and jails

    Aren't good for a little child."

The mother, however, still believes that there is a place safe from racial hatred. She suggests that her daughter "may go to church instead, / And sing in the children's choir." But by the end, the horror of the bombing leaves her disillusioned:

The mother smiled to know her child

    Was in a sacred place,

But that smile was the last smile

    To come upon her face.


For when she heard the explosion,

    Her eyes grew wet and wild.

She raced through the streets of Birmingham

    Calling for her child.

At the end, the child's body and the mother's naive faith in the limits of hatred and violence have been destroyed as the ballad leaves the mother transfixed among the "bits of glass and brick," where she can find only her little girl's shoe but not the girl herself.

Randall's broadside reminds the audience of what is at stake in the struggle for civil rights--no sanctuary, no respect for innocence, the potential for violent resistance not just to social change, but even to the presence, new or continued, of blacks in community with whites. There is no such thing as staying out of the struggle in order to avoid trouble. The violence touches even this woman who would keep her family out of the danger of active political protests like the Freedom March. To read, buy, have, or give the card is to participate in the struggle she could not stay out of.

Eighteenth-century broadside elegies used death as a public occasion for defining the values of the community. The dead provided a moral lesson--either an example of a good Christian death or a warning to sinners. Such broadsides disseminated Christian teachings and situated them as the values of the community. The practice of distributing such broadsides and, today, of sending sympathy cards (or, in Catholic tradition, Mass cards) reinforces, as a material expression of shared grief, commuaal bonds among the living. The group of mourners figured on the front of "Ballad of Birmingham provides a graphic model of communal grief over that bombing and other acts of racist terrorism. The card, then, was a site for recognizing a shared emotional and political response, part of a shared national identity. It contributes to that African American identity an awareness of the ubiquitous threat of racial violence. it suggests a division between those willing to risk violent injury by challenging Jim Crow through direct action and those unwilling to take such risks, but it shows, through the story of this church bombing, that the basis of that division, the risk of harm, can be the same for each group. The whole community has the same stake in social change.

James D. Sullivan: On "We Real Cool"

Compare two presentations of "We Real Cool" by Gwendolyn Brooks: first, the single most widely accessible edition of the poem, on a page of her 1963 Selected Poems published by Harper & Row, and second on the 1966 broadside published by Broadside Press.  The words, in a formal linguistic sense, remain the same, but the material presentation does not.  Those physical qualities, as a necessary condition for reading the poem, as an unavoidable part of the thing read, create a different set of meanings in each artifact.

First consider the book version. . . .  [The pool players'] first dramatic line, "We real cool," repeats the title, a complete Black English sentence, and it suggests an interpretation of what follows: these actions are manifestations of coolness.  The non-standard grammar of the title and first line transgresses the normal decorum of English language poetry, showing the social distance between the pool players and the middle class subjects of much of our poetic canon.  The second sentence, "We / Left school," establishes what I will call the moral relationship between the players and the literate reader, buyer of poetry books.  This reader knows they shouldn't do that--knows better than they do that this first manifestation of their coolness will surely harm them, as it eventually does. . . .

The simple, but strong and regular rhythm, reinforced by the jarringly nonstandard grammar, creates a sense of energy and aggressive physical power.  But in the end, rhythm and syntax contain and finally cut off that vitality.  The word "We" begins each short subject-predicate sentence and ends each line but the last.   To maintain the syntactic pattern, the last line ends on the predicate, "Die soon," omitting the final "We."   The predominant rhythm of the poem--two strong beats, one weak beat--resolves (satisfyingly) on the two strong beats in the last line.  These two patterns, syntactic and rhythmic, converge to eliminate the final "We."  The group dissolves in the last line, "Die soon," the final consequence of coolness, of energetically rejecting the middle-class respect for education.  This satisfying little tragedy confirms the dominance and the rightness of values foreign to the players themselves.  By the end, they are completely powerless, dead.

. . . But what would an increased attention to visual design add to this reading?  Can we find here a stronger value in the whiteness of the paper and the blackness of the ink . . . a metaphorical reading of color . . . a critique of humanist assumptions in whiteness as a universal standard of legible space--ubiquitous, non-contingent whiteness--and black as a differentiation upon it?  The very conventionality of the white page denies that it carries any such meaning. . . .

The elegance of the typeface and the evenness of the layout in Selected Poems are products of craftsmanship, so well produced that they are refined out of notice.  That particular grace and craft are from a world outside the pool hall. . . .  The speech is first person, but the studied aesthetics of the type does not emerge from the aesthetic values of the pool-playing dropouts who are supposedly speaking. . . .  The alternative aesthetic of pool hall cool in the language of the poem thus is reshaped to fit the Procrustean bed of book design.  The (aesthetic) values of the (white) middle class prevail.

The broadside version appeared in 1966, when Brooks was becoming more radically engaged in racial politics. . . .  The design inverts the most pervasive printing convention of all into white lettering on a black field. . . .  This is not the even, neutral, potentially infinite space of the white page; here the field of discourse is itself the inked intrusion. . . .  Language clears space in that field, exposing the white surface rather than concealing it.  By creating an unconventional relationship between ink and paper, this broadside makes that relationship legible.  It raises the question of whether that more conventional book page works any differently, whether the familiar habits of book design are any less contingent in their composition or more innocent of meaning themselves.

. . . [T] he broadside "We Real Cool" privileges the title, byline, and dramatic exposition . . . by placing them at the top, but it prints them in smaller letters than the body of the poem.  Considered as an image also rather than only as a poem, it privileges the large figures in the center, the letters that represent the speech of the pool players; the small figures above and below--the otherwise controlling dramatic, literary, and publishing context--are subordinate.

It looks like either a chalkboard or graffiti.  The refined transparencies of classical typography and the printed, bound pages of a well-produced hardcover book would not be available for these pool players to use to speak for themselves.  As chalkboard writing, it appears in a setting familiar, if uncongenial, to the pool players.   These are the rough letters they can make themselves in order to speak in a setting that has been available to them.  Appearing thus so brazenly in the school setting that the pool players themselves have rejected, this text is an empowering nose-thumbing at the institution that once controlled and restricted them--thus, also, a rejection of the school-values that would interpret the poem as an endorsement of education.  As graffiti, the poem is an anonymous, unregulated, transgressive utterance, not the work of that contained, knowable, critically manageable construction, the imagination of the poet.

Sullivan, James D.  On the Walls and in the Streets: American Poetry Broadsides from the 1960s.  Urbana: U of Illinois Press, 1997.