The Ballad of Rudolph Reed

By Gwendolyn Brooks 1917–2000 Gwendolyn Brooks
Rudolph Reed was oaken.
His wife was oaken too.
And his two good girls and his good little man   
Oakened as they grew.

“I am not hungry for berries.   
I am not hungry for bread.   
But hungry hungry for a house   
Where at night a man in bed

”May never hear the plaster   
Stir as if in pain.
May never hear the roaches   
Falling like fat rain.

“Where never wife and children need   
Go blinking through the gloom.   
Where every room of many rooms   
Will be full of room.

”Oh my home may have its east or west   
Or north or south behind it.
All I know is I shall know it,   
And fight for it when I find it.“

It was in a street of bitter white   
That he made his application.   
For Rudolph Reed was oakener   
Than others in the nation.

The agent’s steep and steady stare
Corroded to a grin.
Why, you black old, tough old hell of a man,   
Move your family in!

Nary a grin grinned Rudolph Reed,
Nary a curse cursed he,
But moved in his House. With his dark little wife,   
And his dark little children three.

A neighbor would look, with a yawning eye   
That squeezed into a slit.
But the Rudolph Reeds and the children three   
Were too joyous to notice it.

For were they not firm in a home of their own
With windows everywhere
And a beautiful banistered stair
And a front yard for flowers and a back yard for grass?

The first night, a rock, big as two fists.   
The second, a rock big as three.
But nary a curse cursed Rudolph Reed.   
(Though oaken as man could be.)

The third night, a silvery ring of glass.   
Patience ached to endure.
But he looked, and lo! small Mabel’s blood   
Was staining her gaze so pure.

Then up did rise our Rudolph Reed   
And pressed the hand of his wife,
And went to the door with a thirty-four   
And a beastly butcher knife.

He ran like a mad thing into the night.   
And the words in his mouth were stinking.   
By the time he had hurt his first white man   
He was no longer thinking.

By the time he had hurt his fourth white man   
Rudolph Reed was dead.
His neighbors gathered and kicked his corpse.   
”Nigger—“ his neighbors said.

Small Mabel whimpered all night long,   
For calling herself the cause.
Her oak-eyed mother did no thing   
But change the bloody gauze.

Gwendolyn Brooks, “The Ballad of Rudolph Reed” from Selected Poems. Copyright © 1963 by Gwendolyn Brooks. Reprinted with the permission of the Estate of Gwendolyn Brooks.

Source: Selected Poems (1963)

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Poet Gwendolyn Brooks 1917–2000

Subjects Family & Ancestors, War & Conflict, History & Politics, Social Commentaries, Death, Living, Relationships

Holidays Kwanzaa

Poetic Terms Ballad

 Gwendolyn  Brooks


Gwendolyn Brooks was a highly regarded, much-honored poet, with the distinction of being the first black author to win the Pulitzer Prize. She also was poetry consultant to the Library of Congress—the first black woman to hold that position—and poet laureate of the State of Illinois. Many of Brooks's works display a political consciousness, especially those from the 1960s and later, with several of her poems reflecting the civil . . .

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SUBJECT Family & Ancestors, War & Conflict, History & Politics, Social Commentaries, Death, Living, Relationships

Poetic Terms Ballad

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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