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Gwendolyn Brooks’ "The Boy Died in My Alley" also explores violence by focusing on the issue of individual transformation. In the poem, the literal cause of the violent death of a black boy whose blood, whose body "ornaments [the poet's] alley," remains unmentioned. Indeed, no possible cause is ever speculated about, encouraging the reader to consider the multiple ways in which young black men in this country mysteriously end up dead: deaths that are alcohol or drug related, products of gang warfare, a robbery gone awry, police violence, suicide--all of these are secondary causes to racism, poverty, powerlessness, and despair. The poet acknowledges a sorrowful and determined responsibility for the death of the boy, and in so doing teaches each of us the tragic consequences of "knowledgeable unknowing," of ever failing to act against oppression and violence:

I never saw his face at all.

I never saw his futurefall.

But I have known this Boy.


I have always heard him deal with death.

I have always heard the shout, the volley.

I have closed my heart-ears late and early.

And I have killed him ever.

Brooks insists upon accountability, not self-indulgent guilt; it is that accountability, as well as Brooks' compassion, which transforms the waste of a young man's life into not only the hope for a different world but a call to action.


From "The Bones of This Body Say, Dance: Self-Empowerment in Contemporary Poetry by Women of Color" in A Gift of Tongues: Critical Challenges in Contemporary American Poetry. Ed. Marie Harris and Kathleen Aguero. Copyright © 1987 by The University of Georgia Press.