Gwendolyn Brooks

‘Riot’ by Gwendolyn Brooks is a poem that illustrates the dissonance that exists between the privileged and those who are driven to desperation to riot.

Gwendolyn Brooks

Nationality: American

Gwendolyn Brooks was the first Black author to win the Pulitzer Prize.

She is one of the most widely-read poets of the 20th century.

Key Poem Information

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Central Message: Race and economic privilege blinds but will not always protect the White/wealthy

Speaker: An omniscient observer

Emotions Evoked: Anger, Disgust, Panic

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 20th Century

Gwendolyn Brooks' poem is a lucid and forceful rebuke of those who would self-righteously dismiss the grievances that inspires a group of oppressed people to riot. One that uses stunning imagery and figurative language to create a rapturous scene.

‘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.

Literary Devices

‘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)

Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

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.

Stanza Two

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.

Stanza Three

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).

Stanza Four

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.

Stanza Five

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.


What is the theme of ‘Riot?

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.

Why did Gwendolyn Brooks write ‘Riot?

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.

What is the significance of the poem’s epigraph?

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.

Who is John Cabot?

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.

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Gwendolyn Brooks

This powerful poem by Gwendolyn Brooks serves as her perception of a moment of immense turmoil. Written after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., it provides a visceral look at the racist indifference that sits at the heart of the many ways Black Americans have been oppressed and vilified. It takes on the voice and point of view of a racist man of privilege and should be considered one of her best poems.
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20th Century

Brooks was an important 20th-century poet in America whose poems incisively uncovered the sources and effects of racism in the country. Her poetry is characterized by its emotional intensity and spiritual tenacity. This poem contains all those hallmarks but is also made sadly timeless by its portrayal of the inherent lack of understanding or empathy that divides the oppressed and the privileged.
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Brooks was and remains an important poet that gave voice to racial tensions in the United States. Her poems still resound with truth and meaning today. They serve as a thoughtful rumination on Black identity, a guard against virulent racism, and a rallying point for greater empathy through verse. Her poems are central to this country's continued navigation out of its racist past.
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Death is a prominent theme in the poem, one that hangs like a specter over the ensuing riot as a consequence of the chaos that ensues. For the racist John Cabot, their death is perceived in their narcissism to be that of a martyr, it is one that compares their death to that of Jesus Christ. However, this just highlights further the man's hypocrisy and ignorance.
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Identity is another theme found in Brooks' poem. Two identities are present within the poem: the extensive descriptions of John Cabot and his skewed perceptions of the Black people rioting. Both of these identities clash, and there is even a moment where they appear to fuse together in the fire and violence. But, ultimately, one burns away the other in a scene of retribution.
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Spirituality appears in the poem in the hypocritical and sanctimonious form of John Cabot. To them, their religion and appearance of piety are not different from their wealth and skin color, a means of establishing and maintaining their privilege. They lack any real spirituality or the empathy that would come with it. The irony is made all the more potent when Cabot refers to themselves as a Christ-like figure.
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Anger is an emotion inspired by the poem as well as insinuated through its different characters. For one, there is the brief anger of John Cabot when he realizes the mob is coming towards him. His intense racism flares up in indignation, but it does not last long before it is overpowered by the Black bodies that wash over him.
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Disgust is another potent emotion expressed by John Cabot. His racist remarks themselves inspire their own disgust from the reader as well. Part of the poem's power is how acutely Brooks recreates the words of a man so consumed by such prejudiced perceptions and the vitriol that spills from their mouth when they come face to face with the people they are so disgusted by.
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John Cabot's anger gives way to panic rather quickly in the poem. It makes him forget all the expensive things his privilege has allowed him to enjoy, and it even momentarily dispels his more vividly racist thoughts. He cannot fathom being so near, let alone touched, by the very people he is so disgusted by. It sends him into a reeling panic that highlights just how much his racism is fueled by fear.
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African Americans

This is a powerful poem about the history of the treatment of African Americans in the United States. It reveals how easily and ignorantly the privileged dismiss the actions of the oppressed and infantilizes their struggle. This poem by Brooks poem was prescient for its time and remains a timeless representation of the way racist perceptions always paint themselves as the victim.
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Black Lives Matter

Brooks' poem remains relevant because of the Black Lives Matter movement. But it is also a resounding reminder of the way riots are still characterized as the tantrums of ungrateful children when in reality, they are the final outcry of an oppressed group of people. Racism and privilege are what drive the necessity of riots. This poem is a potent chastisement of those who would argue otherwise.
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Oppression is the reason for the riot that occurs in the poem. It is the force that keeps a group of people in poverty and powerless to better their position in society, creating institutional roadblocks and ceilings that force them into desperation. Historically, when that desperation hits its flashpoint, the riots begin. But so does the posturing of the privileged as either martyrs, victims, or hypocritical moralizers against the destruction of property.
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Racism is at the center of this poem by Brooks. Her decision to use John Cabot as the focal point of the poem is part of what makes it such a stunning read. It offers a glimpse into the backward and selfish thinking that those who are privileged use to justify the suffering of other people.
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Free Verse

Brooks' poem is written in free verse, giving it a free-wheeling cadence that flows alongside her powerful imagery and figurative language. From the cataloging that fills the first stanza to the stream-of-consciousness movement of John Cabot's racist thoughts. The poem is a display of fiery emotion and rapt energy that is developed by the poet's unrestrained style.
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Steven Ward Poetry Expert
Steven Ward is a passionate writer, having studied for a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and being a poetry editor for the 'West Wind' publication. He brings this experience to his poetry analysis on Poem Analysis.

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