‘Riot’ is a powerful poem by Gwendolyn Brooks that was actually part of a series she composed after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. What follows is only the first of the trio of poems and serves as its stunning introduction.
Part of what makes the poem so powerful is the fact that it is less about the riot itself and more about the perception of the privileged. Brooks chooses to use the point of view of a man named John Cabot, a White man flush with wealth and haughty sanctimony. But everything that this man vapidly covets disappears in an instant when he gets caught in the flashpoint of tension that consumes the city of Chicago in the aftermath of Dr. King’s death.
‘Riot’ by Gwendolyn Brooks is a visceral poem that satirizes the perspective of a wealthy White man who gets swept up in the violence of a riot.
‘Riot’ opens on the curious character of John Cabot — a man who has no idea he has about to be engulfed in a fiery riot. The first stanza begins in medias res with the speaker narrating a cataloged list of all the things that Cabot starts to forget about when he sees “the Negroes” heading down the street towards him. The list highlights all that makes a man like him so terribly out of touch with the crowd now moving toward him: he is White, wealthy, egotistically pious, and infatuated with the perceived superiority of his pedigree.
The reasons for Cabot’s horror in seeing the group heading toward him are also incredibly racist, as these are not the type of Black people he is accustomed to or prefers. These “were black and loud.” The choice of diction emphasizes his distaste for their poor appearance, describing them as “sweaty and unpretty.” But to his terror, they are unstoppable in their movement.
Cabot attempts to escape their touch — all the while still proclaiming his inflated self-importance as a privileged White man — but he is consumed by “It” (i.e. the crowd). “It” breathes on him and touches him until he is consumed in the “smoke and fire / and broken glass and blood.” The violence would be shocking if not for Cabot’s pathetically arrogant decision to echo the same words Jesus Christ supposedly spoke while being crucified, painting himself as the martyr of the riot and not the one in desperate need of forgiveness.
‘Riot’ uses an exceptional amount of imagery to illustrate all the sensory details experienced in the poem. There is visual imagery: “all whitebluerose below his golden hair, / wrapped richly in right linen and right wool,” (2-3); “Because the Negroes were coming down the street. / Because the Poor were sweaty and unpretty / (not like Two Dainty Negroes in Winnetka)” (10-12); “John Cabot went down in the smoke and fire / and broken glass and blood,” (28-29). Auditory imagery: “They were black and loud.” (14); “‘Don’t let It touch me! the blackness! Lord!’ he whispered” (19); “cried, ‘Cabot! John! You are a desperate man, / and the desperate die expensively today.” (26-27); “he cried ‘Lord! / Forgive these nigguhs that know not what they do.'” (29-30).
There is also tactile imagery: “on It drove / and breathed on him: and touched him.” (21-22). Olfactory imagery appears as well: “In that breath / the fume of pig foot, chitterling, and cheap chili” (22-23). Finally, Brooks also taps into a variety of gustatory imagery: “the kidney pie at Maxim’s” (8).
There are also historical allusions evoked by the use of the name “John Cabot” (1). As well as figurative language in the use of metaphors to describe the crowd’s unstoppable movement: “In seas. In windsweep.” (14)
A riot is the language of the unheard.
—martin luther king
John Cabot, out of Wilma, once a Wycliffe,
all whitebluerose below his golden hair,
wrapped richly in right linen and right wool,
In the first stanza of ‘Riot,‘ the reader is introduced to a man named John Cabot. Through a series of precise pieces of imagery, Brooks insinuates a number of important characteristics about him. There is his “golden hair” (2), which reveals that he is blonde and White, as well as possessing an inflated ego. His clothing and choice of a car are also described as being quite affluent: “all whitebluerose … / wrapped richly in right linen and right wool” (2-3) and the owner of a “Jaguar” (4). He also has an appreciation for expensively fine Scotch, art, and decadent morsels of food like the “Grenadine de Boeuf at Maison Henri” (9). This first stanza paints a portrait of a man impossibly disconnected from the world of Black Americans.
Because the Negroes were coming down the street.
Throughout the first stanza, the reader is told that each of the things cataloged is forgotten by Cabot. The reason he forgets these clearly beloved byproducts of his wealth is owed to the riot itself. The second stanza consists of just one powerful line that illustrates the vision that has sundered this man from everything he previously valued and loved. It is a moment of reckoning that he cannot understand and therefore fears.
Because the Poor were sweaty and unpretty
(not like Two Dainty Negroes in Winnetka)
The third stanza of ‘Riot’ continues from Cabot’s point of view and uses racist diction to define his fears. Ironically, it is not the destruction of property that he most detests (as is often the claim made by people who vapidly criticize riots motivated by racial tension and oppression). Cabot is rather disgusted by their appearance: “Because the Poor were sweaty and unpretty” (11). He even compares them to other Black people he has encountered before, like the “dainty” (12) ones from Winnetka, a village in Chicago that is predominantly White and wealthy.
He also uses diction that militarizes them, referring to the group as having “ranks” (13). But the main reason Cabot has an issue with them is that they are “black and loud. / And not detainable. And not discreet.” (14-15). This is the crux of his racist perception of the riot: in being ignorant of any empathy towards Black Americans, he is consumed only by a desire to control and silence them. But Brooks’ use of figurative language asserts that they will not be stopped by anyone, let alone Cabot, as they pour towards him “In seas. In windsweep.” (14).
Gross. Gross. “Que tu es grossier!” John Cabot
itched instantly beneath the nourished white
that told his story of glory to the World.
“Don’t let It touch me! the blackness! Lord!” he whispered
‘Riot’ reaches its fever pitch in the fourth stanza. “Gross. Gross. ‘Que tu es grossier!’” (which translates from French to “That’s so rude!”) Cabot thinks and mutters to himself, continuing his racist rant. But as they get closer, he starts to become physically distressed, and the speaker describes how his skin starts to itch “beneath the nourished white / that told his story of glory to the World.” (18). The “nourished white” is a reference to his skin color and race, which Cabot perceives as a sign of his superiority.
His self-righteousness rears itself again when he issues a racist prayer: “‘Don’t let It touch me! the blackness! Lord!'” (19). The “It” is initially just another racist attempt to dehumanize Black people but near the end of the fourth stanza, the “It” becomes an ambiguous and ethereal force. “It drove / and breathed on him: and touched him” (22), mocking him through a catalog of olfactory and gustatory imagery that recalls Cabot’s own ruminations in the first stanza.
The visceral experience causes an “old / averted doubt” (24-25) to jerk forward and proclaim the man’s folly in being a “desperate man” (26). What’s interesting about this chastisement is the parallel the stanza’s final line creates between the desperation of Cabot (a man frightfully clinging to his delusions of grandeur and piety) and the desperation of the Black rioters.
John Cabot went down in the smoke and fire
The last stanza of ‘Riot’ sees Cabot being consumed “in the smoke and fire / and broken glass and blood” (28-29). The imagery, although exceptionally vehement, is ambiguous about the circumstance of his death. All we know is he perished in the riot and that he viewed himself as a martyr right up until the end. His profound narcissism is on par with his racist perceptions, and he goes to his grave, continuing to patronize and infantilize the oppression faced by Black Americans.
The poem places a searing spotlight on the swift judgments expressed by those who are ignorantly out of touch with the very reasons such riots occur in the first place. Satirizing the bigoted naivete of people like John Cabot, who are so egotistical that they see themselves as martyrs. The poem’s theme centers on the ability of the privileged to twist such a desperate expression of anger and frustration like a riot into a situation that makes them the victim.
Brooks wrote the poem in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the riots that erupted in Chicago in response to his death. It serves as an attempt to hold up a mirror to those who would tout their own self-righteous moralizations in the face of such an event. Unfortunately, this poem remains woefully prescient of the still exacerbated racial tensions that exist in the United States today.
The quote from Martin Luther King Jr. that Brooks borrows serves as a foundation for understanding the phenomena of riots through the perspective of a Black person. All John Cabot sees is a grotesque rabble of angrily misguided bodies, not a group of people who refuse to continue enduring their oppression in silence.
There are two possible historical sources for the name John Cabot. The first is that of an Italian navigator who made a 1497 voyage to North America and therefore serves as an allusion to European colonialism that would eventually birth the slave trade. The second is the Cabot family of Boston, MA, who had a reputation for wealth and self-righteousness. Elements of both these personages appear in the poem and, if anything, highlight the character’s obsession with their ancestry and their sanctimonious self-perception.
- ‘Who Said It Was Simple’ by Audre Lorde – this poem examines intersectionality through the lens of the poet’s identity.
- ‘Nothing’s Changed’ by Tatamkhulu Afrika – this poem takes a hard look at the racial divide in South Africa.
- ‘They Feed They Lion’ by Philip Levine – this poem offers another powerful look at racially motivated riots from the perspective of a White speaker.