Gwendolyn Brooks often portrays the injustice suffered by Blacks in an urban setting. Brooks being an African American poet herself, has been persistently subjected to the practice of Apartheid. Therefore, she comes across as a mouthpiece of the collective consciousness of the blacks. Her constant reference to the same in all her writings point to how it has entered the very core of their daily lives. Brooks once asserted that the most valid and significant art had direct relevance to the life of the people from which it derives .She reflects a similar theme in “Negro Hero”.
The poem is in the form of a dramatic monologue. The point of view is that of the black soldier in the World War II. It verges on the racial politics.”These poems are especially interesting in their multi-voiced interrogation of racial politics in America. In these poems, Brooks reconstructs ” The Enemy ” not as foreigners holding howitzers, but
as fellow Americans with white skin. ” Negro Hero ” and ” Gay Chaps at the
Bar ” address in varying ways the tenuous and contradictory situation of black
soldiers in a white man’s army. However, they do so by making the direct link
between war and racism, thus narrowing the gap between military (foreign)
and racial (American) struggle, between soldiers and civilians.”
The poem in real life is modeled on Dorie miller who defied America’s confinement of blackmen to the roles of messmen; and is a legend of World War II .He is renowned for seizing an ant-craft gun and drowning four attacking Japanese planes. The speaker may refer to this as he asserts that sometimes people had to be dealt with devilishly to take them ashore. Else, they will haul you with themselves to the trash in an act of self-destruction. By doing so, he has engraved their name in gold, rendering them into martyrs. Otherwise, these so-called martyrs would have spikes in their hands transformed into terrorists over the turn of time. The poet neither endorses war here, nor does he denounce it. The protagonist asserts how he had to save the white people and their system of democracy from their self-created social stigma: he had to challenge the military segregational policies based on colour:
I had to kick their law into their teeth to save them.
He was confined to the galley as a messman on the crowded ship. When the ship was attacked in the World War II, he took charge and took command of a gun. He was shooting down the Japanese planes, not only did he counter the enemies, he also challenged the hitherto dictums that constrained blacks to limit themselves to menial industry and mechanical labour. This factor underlines the speaker’s statement that the his fight was more against the prejudice at home, rather than with the enemy. D.H.Melhem in Gwendolyn Brooks:Poetry and the Herioc Voice , in connection with the “Negro Hero” maintains that “his fight was even more against discrimination at home than it was against the Japanese.”
The time was indeed very eventful, that the speaker mentions “it was a tall time.” As he tries to acquaint himself with the gun, the images of his delicate attempts at the same in his childhood rushes past him like in a mirage. It was kindled with the raw instinctive energy now, as opposed to the raw instinctive emotion in his childhood coloured with innocence. The whole endeavor was consuming him like liquor did .His first taste (swallow) of the battle bleeding black points to the sacrifice offered by a black. Though the gesture had a devilish touch to it was paraded as a banner of kindness to be held in awe rather than to be regarded.
The Negro Hero protected the country with unconditional love as a knight would valiantly protect his lady-love. He loved the country with a fervor in spite of the racial hatred that prevailed.
I loved. And a man will guard when he loved.
Their White-gowned democracy was my fair lady.
With her knife lying cold, straight, in
The softness of her sweet-flowing sleeve
But for the sake of the dear smiling mouth
And the stuttered promise I toyed with my life.
The phrase like “softness of her sweet-flowing sleeve” point to the sophistication that was projected. The “Knife lying cold, straight, in “reflects the underlying animal instinct that is masked in the guise of sophistication. He criticizes the army’s attitude towards him. He sacrifices all considerations and relegates all concerns for the sake of the “dear smiling mouth” What dominates his concern is the well-being of the country and the stability of the democracy. Also, note that the promise is a “stuttered “one. One that falters in spite of the determination. The term ‘stutter’ may also signify that the ability to deliver a straight promise is a handicap on their part. He toys with his life, as his life is ‘played upon’ and not attributed any worth.
Still – am I good enough to die for them, is my blood bright
enough to be spilled,
Was my constant back-question – are they clear
On this? Or do I intrude even now?
Am I clean enough to kill for them, do they wish me to kill
For them or is my place while death licks his lips and strides
In the galley still?
As he offers selfless service, he ruminates over the blood lost; whether it was bright enough to challenge the tenets of Apartheid. Was he intruding into unchartered territory still? Is he ‘clean enough’ to kill; or do they want to leave such dirty works to him. Or does he still belong to the galley, while death is hungry to approach them at the earliest.
He points to the meaningless of the whole endeavour as some man in some Southern city declares that he would be dead rather than have a black man save him. The anonymity of the man points to the universality of racial prejudice. The stance of this particular Man, is a screeching instance of regression in spite of all the material progressiveness. The law was preferred despite the inherent hypocrisy and dignity that it lacked; it appeared as a way of life for the whites.
The military segregation that prevailed ended during the Korean War. Harry Truman volunteered for the civil rights movement favoured political equality, though he relegated social equality, and recognized the need for the Black Vote. He succeeded to a certain extent in barring discrimination in federal employment and also called for equal treatment in the armed forces.
Stanford, Anne Folwell. “Dialectics of Desire: War and the Restive Voice in Gwendolyn Brooks’s ‘Negro Hero’ and ‘Gay Chaps at the Bar.'” African American Review 26.2 (Summer 1992).