The poem paints a vivid image of Claudette Colvin’s character as she makes her historic decision not to give up her bus seat when asked. The reader can sense a certain feeling of resignation in the poem’s tone that makes the poem feel incredibly sad. Today, Claudette is very well-known as a civil rights activist, but the poem takes a different look at her life, one that feels very much based on reality.
Explore Claudette Colvin Goes to Work
‘Claudette Colvin Goes to Work’ by Rita Dove is a poem that chronicles the life of Claudette Colvin, a civil rights activist.
This deeply emotional poem describes a few hours in the life of Claudette Colvin, years after the incident for which she is best known today. The poet writes about Colvin getting home and going back out to work as a nursing aid while adding in some details about the surrounding environment. The poem uses colloquial language from Colvin’s perspective that helps readers imagine what her life was like.
Structure and Form
‘Claudette Colvin Goes to Work’ by Rita Dove is a free verse poem that’s divided into five stanzas of seven lines each. There are several examples of half-rhyme, and full rhyme, despite the fact that the poet did not use a regular rhyme scheme. For example, “here and there” in line three of stanza one is a perfect internal rhyme. Additionally, the poet used the words “lay” and “away” at the ends of lines one and two of stanza two.
Rita Dove uses a conversational tone to express the emotion of her main character and subject, Claudette Colvin.
The poet uses a few literary devices in this poem. They include:
- Allusion: a reference to something outside the direct scope of the poem. In this case, Dove alludes to Colvin’s historic act of protest and her personal life.
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words, for example, “bring me a beer” at the end of stanza one.
- Consonance: the repetition of the same consonant sound in multiple words. For example, “brilliance lightbulbs.”
Menial twilight sweeps the storefronts along Lexington
as the shadows arrive to take their places
among the scourge of the earth. Here and there
a fickle brilliance lightbulbs coming on
in each narrow residence, the golden wattage
of bleak interiors announcing Anyone home?
or I’m beat, bring me a beer.
The poem begins by setting the scene. The speaker, who is meant to be Claudette Colvin herself, describes the twilight and the setting sun on the stores along Lexington street in Montgomery, Alabama. It’s a dark night, one that seems to hold little promise for the residents of this area of town.
Poet uses the word “menial,” ensuring that readers interpret the twilight in a dreary way rather than in a beautiful and peaceful way. The personified shadows take the place of the light, that has now receded for the day, near to the “scourge of the earth.” These negative images paint the city in a dark and foreboding way, alluding to the state of everyday life and the way that its citizens suffer.
The speaker states that around town, it is possible to see a few lights coming on. They show off the bleak interior of poor homes that seem to announce to those watching things like “Anyone home?” and “I’m beat, bring me a bear.” These are far from the inspiring phrases that one might expect in this kind of poetic scene. They are far more realistic and jarring, a fact that fits the overall tone of the poem.
Mostly I say to myself Still here. Lay
my keys on the table, pack the perishables away
into brocade residue. Sometimes I wait until
it’s dark enough for my body to disappear;
In the second stanza, this speaker uses first-person pronouns to describe what happens when she walks into her home and what she experiences there. She puts the groceries away and notes the delicacy of the environment. To her, it seems like all it would take is one drop of sweat to dissolve her world. It is this darkness that signifies to Claudette Colvin that it’s time for her to go to work.
As the poem progresses, it becomes clear that this image of Claudette is one that goes beyond her historic refusal to give up her bus seat. This poem takes a look at her life after this event when she was a grown woman, working as a nursing aid.
then I know it’s time to start out for work.
the most injury they can do is insult the reason
The speaker returns to the streets, walking down the “Avenue” and noting the way that the city is starting in on its nightly routine. There are the neon lights flicking on, the cabs starting up, and the “male integers” lighting up a smoke. They stand on the street, yelling at those (like Claudette) passing by.
When they don’t get a response, their sexually suggestive comments like “Hey Mama” turn into “Your Mama.” The speaker comments on this, saying that their attitude suggests that the most injury they can do is to insult “the reason / you’re here at all.”
While the speaker is discussing events from her perspective, she also offers phrases that use “you,” a second-person pronoun. Dove’s choice allows readers to interpret the way that the speaker’s words are related to far more people than just Claudette herself. She is one of many who experience these things every night on their way to work.
you’re here at all, walking in your whites
Who wrote in class she was going to be President.
The fourth stanza mentions “walking in your whites,” likely what’s meant to be a reference to Claudette’s job as a nursing aid. She’s on the street at this time of night because she has to get to work to help take care of her family.
The third line of stanza four is written in italics and uses a great example of repetition. This evocative line relays some of the many insults that Claudette Colvin likely heard directed at her and at others during her life leading up to this point. It is clear that this image of everyday life is a painful and emotional one. This is furthered through the fourth line in which Dove writes the phrase, “What do we have to do to make God love us?”
This hard-to-read, emotional question suggests that the speaker is struggling with the long-lasting effects of racial discrimination and the belief, or feeling, that African-Americans are less, in some way, than their white counterparts. This racially prejudiced opinion is one that Claudette likely encountered repetitively throughout her life and that, sadly, Dove suggests, impacted her way of seeing the world.
She describes her parents’ jobs in these lines, suggesting that they, like she is, have had to work hard to make a living throughout their lives. This even means taking jobs, like mowing lawns, that are seen by some as demeaning.
She refers to herself as the “crazy girl off the bus.” This alludes to her famous act of protest in 1955. But this section of the poem also adds she is more than that. She has always seen potential and herself and had the desire to make more of her life.
This line sadly contrasts with the rest of the poem, which seems to indicate that her life has not lived up to her hopes.
I take the Number 6 bus to the Lex Ave train
whenever sleep comes down on me.
This stanza also includes images that solidify the fact that this poem is meant to be set during the period that Claudette was working as a nursing aid, from 1969 to 2004. She describes helping in whatever way she can at her job and behaving in an entirely pleasant and professional manner. She intentionally contrasts the reality of her life with the way she was described in 1955 when she was arrested at the age of 15.
She was charged with assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest, something that history has proven to be false but which Colvin was likely judged for throughout her life.
The poem does not end on a dramatic note, as readers might’ve expected when they started the text. Instead, it drifts off in the same way that Colvin describes herself drifting off to sleep whenever she gets the chance.
The main theme of the poem is the struggles of everyday life, particularly for marginalized groups. The poem alludes to racial discrimination and economic inequality through a semi-fictional depiction of Claudette Colvin’s life as an adult.
The purpose of this poem is to highlight the life call Colvin lived many years beyond her historic act of protest in 1955. She worked as a nursing aid until 2004 and was forced to contend with day-to-day discrimination and economic inequality as she worked to make ends meet.
The message is that life is not made up of historically important acts or life-changing accomplishments. Instead, this image of Claudette Colvin’s life suggests that day-to-day life is, in fact, a series of moments, each of which is influenced by one’s environment, life struggles, and the attitudes of the time.
This important poem describes a few hours in the life of civil rights activist Claudette Colvin who is best known for something she did when she was 15 years old.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Rita Dove poems. For example:
- ‘American Smooth’ – speaks about the movements of two dance partners.
- ‘Canary’ – commemorates the life of Billie Holiday.
- ‘Cozy Apologia’ – is an interesting poem that reflects on relationships.