‘The Blackstone Rangers’ is a visceral poem by Gwendolyn Brooks that wrangles poignantly with the seemingly impossible task of creating a portrait of the infamous Chicago gang. Dividing the poem into three separate but adjacent perspectives, she dispels some of the myth and propaganda that shrouds them by honing in on the individual experiences of their members.
So it is probably little surprise that the largest part of the poem is delivered from the point of view of a Black woman named Mary Ann. Peering past the veil of racist vitriol that authorities see them through, as well as the chaotic truth of their idealism and violence that’s gleaned from the actions of the Rangers leadership, Brooks reveals the true cost that’s exacted from the individual.
Explore The Blackstone Rangers
‘The Blackstone Rangers’ by Gwendolyn Brooks is a powerful poem that examines the infamous group through the lens of three different groups.
‘The Blackstone Rangers’ is a poem told in three parts, each providing a distinctly unique portrait of the titular group. In the first and shortest section, the reader perceives them through the eyes of police officers who only see them as a congregation of enemy combatants.
The middle section is from the point of view of the leaders of the Blackstone Rangers themselves: the opening stanza introduces them as “Jeff. Gene. Geronimo. And Bop.” The speaker then compares the men named to both city and Black civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael, and Malcolm X. Confessing that the Blackstone Rangers are nothing like either of these groups (for better or worse) mainly because they are outcasts from either. The speaker describes the activities of the Rangers, using imagery that is both kinetic and ambiguous, shrouding their actions (and purposes) in amoral mystery.
The third and final section of ‘The Blackstone Rangers’ focuses on a “Rangerette” named Mary Ann, a female member of the group. This section offers a Black woman’s point of view of the Rangers as understood by her duties and responsibilities to the male members. She is described as a dreamer of broad horizons and a beauty that is far from naive. The speaker describes the swift movement of the year as it appears to Mary Anne, one interceded by moments of violence and impersonal sexual gratification.
Everything she experiences appears so fleeting and disappointing: from the stolen diamond offered to her by her lover or the emotionless sex they engage in. As the Ranger in her bed climaxes, his cries of her name echo all the ways she has settled for the “props and niceties of non-loneliness.”
Structure and Form
‘The Blackstone Rangers’ is a nine-stanza poem split into three parts of varying lengths. There is no definite rhyme scheme or meter, though Brooks does create her own cadence through syntax and sound devices like alliteration. The poem is also structured around the varying points of view that exist of the Rangers, opening with a brief and shallow one by authorities, which is then followed by far more introspective and detailed ones from members of the group itself.
‘The Blackstone Rangers’ uses two types of imagery to illustrate its scenes. There is visual imagery: “There they are. / Thirty at the corner.” (1-2); “and exulting, monstrous hand on monstrous hand, / construct, strangely, a monstrous pearl or grace” (28-29). As well as examples of kinesthetic imagery: “They cancel, cure and curry” (7).
Brooks also uses a variety of figurative language, such as extended metaphor: “Black, raw, ready. / Sores in the city / that do not want to heal” (3-5). Metaphor: “Bungled trophies” (14); “Their country is a Nation on no map” (15); “but sometimes sighs for Cities of blue and jewel / beyond her Ranger rim of Cottage Grove” (33-34); “Mary is / a rose in a whiskey glass” (37-38). There is also personification: “in the passionate noon, / in bewitching night” (17-18); “bitter bureaus / (bureaucracy is footloose)” (25-26).
AS SEEN BY DISCIPLINES
There they are.
Thirty at the corner.
The first stanza of ‘The Blackstone Rangers’ opens from the perspective of some police officers severely scrutinizing this large group of Black men. The diction used by Brooks emphasizes the racist bias that comes from their position of power — these observers don’t see thirty human beings but rather thirty problems that need to be removed. The extended metaphor of the stanza’s last three lines underscores this perception. The Blackstone Rangers are compared to sores — “Black, raw, ready.” (3) — that “do not want to heal” (5).
The implication is that the “Disciplines” see the Rangers as part of the problem when it comes to racial tension, as provokers of further violence and pain, even when they themselves appear just as eager and inclined to violence. This also ignores the fact that the group formed because of racial tensions that already existed: the Blackstone Rangers are a consequence of a racist society, not instigators of it. They also condescendingly assume that the Black people who join the Rangers don’t want to heal because they refuse to acquiesce to the White powers that be.
Jeff. Gene. Geronimo. And Bop.
They cancel, cure and curry.
Hardly the dupes of the downtown thing
the cold bonbon,
The next three stanzas of ‘The Blackstone Rangers’ are described from the point of view of “THE LEADERS” of the group: men whose names are “Jeff. Gene. Geronimo. And Bop” (6). The speaker describes them in contrast with White Chicago elites and leaders of the Black civil rights movement alike. “Hardly the dupes of the downtown thing” (8), they surmise, with their artificial symbols of power like “the cold bonbon, / the rhinestone thing” (9-10). But neither are they anything like “Belafonte, King, / Black Jesus, Stokely, Malcolm X or Rap” (12-13).
Brooks uses two powerful metaphors to underscore why this is the case. The speaker refers to the Rangers first as “bungled trophies” to highlight the fact that although they are a representation of Black power and unity, their actions are not always in-line with other Black leaders. “Their country is a Nation on no map” (15), the speaker also declares. The figurative language illustrates the way the group is both ostracized from the United States by racism and wields some territorial sovereignty while also underscoring their cohesion is based on something more than geography.
Forced to fend for themselves, the final two stanzas describe the often violent activities that the members of the Rangers find themselves engaged in. The diction wavers between romantic and idealized to dark and malicious. The Rangers are pervasive and “copious” (19), appearing at all hours between “passionate noon, [and] in bewitching night” (17-18). Their “concerts” (i.e. the harmony of their actions and ideas) are described as “not divine, vivacious” (22), a possible allusion to their dominance through violence orchestrated via “bitter bureaus” (25).
Another piece of personification drives home the chaos and anarchy of the discordance within the Rangers, as the speaker makes a parenthetical quip: “(bureaucracy is footloose)” (26). This section ends with a potent image of this conquest as a “monstrous hand on monstrous hand” that creates, “strangely, a monstrous pearl or grace” (28-29). The “monstrous pearl” symbolizes the contentious nature of the Rangers themselves as an image of Black power that has become unwieldy and dangerous to its own survival.
Gang Girls are sweet exotics.
uses the nutrients of her orient,
but sometimes sighs for Cities of blue and jewel
The final five stanzas of ‘The Blackstone Rangers’ is told from the perspective of “A Rangerette” named Mary Ann. Unlike the previous sections in the poem, this one focuses on a Black woman’s experience. She is characterized as devoted to the Rangers but also as someone who desires a broader horizon: “but sometimes sighs for Cities of blue and jewel / beyond her Ranger rim of Cottage Grove” (33-34). As well as beautiful but strong: “Mary is / a rose in a whiskey glass” (37-38).
Yet despite these merits, Mary Ann’s life is characterized by its swiftly fleeting nature amongst the Rangers. The speaker moves briskly across months in the span of just a few words before exclaiming — “And that’s the Year!” (44) Like the Rangers, the things that keep her passionate and alive are tied up in that which also deteriorate it. So when “her Ranger” (48) returns with a diamond, she has to force herself not to ask where it came from, insinuating it was most likely stolen.
Her resignation is rendered physical in a melancholic series of images: “But swallow, straight, the spirals of his flask / and assist him at your zipper; pet his lips / and help him clutch you” (52-54). The diction here indicates Mary Ann’s desire to cultivate something meaningful out of their physical intimacy but also in their status as Black Rangers. She yearns for “arrivals, confirmations” (56) — perhaps even a child — when most of her life is defined by disappointments and divergences.
The poem ends with a powerful expression of this sentiment when her partner starts to yell her name during intercourse, and the words echo all the things she feels she has had to settle unfairly for. Here Brooks uses a variety of impactful phrases to emphasize the bittersweetness of what it means to be a Ranger: from the food and clothing to the “sudden blood” (64) that comes with violence.
She also mentions an “aborted carnival” (64), a powerful image that represents her deferred hope. All of it is done to acquire “the props and niceties of non-loneliness” (65). In other words, the Rangers exist because of a vacancy in the protections and enrichment that the community brings to its people, banding together desperately to fill that void.
One of the core themes of the poem centers on the Rangers’ status as an imperfect symbol of Black power and unity, throughout, Brooks tempers their strength and idealism with violence and chaos. All of these motifs are made even more lucid in the poem’s final section, which utilizes the subjective experiences of Mary Ann to highlight the strife of the individual as opposed to just a generalized or amorphous group.
The poem attempts to paint a composite portrait of the Rangers, answering questions such as who they are, what their purpose is, and why Black Americans join them. Brooks wrote the poem as a means of contradicting the dismissive perceptions of White authorities and comparisons to Black civil rights leaders. The poem spotlights all the complexity and controversy that surrounded the Rangers during the poet’s life. She acknowledges the group’s descent into violence while also affirming the dignity and life of the individuals who joined because of inescapable circumstances.
The Blackstone Rangers was a street gang that was co-founded by Eugene Hairston and Jeff Fort. It started as a community organization created for Black youth that lived in South Chicago but eventually evolved into a powerful gang that engaged in crime and drug trafficking.
When Mary Ann is referred to as a “shakedancer’s child,” it implies that her mother danced provocatively for men for money.
Here are a few more poems by Gwendolyn Brooks that you may enjoy as well: