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Rita Dove’s "Rosa"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Introduction and Text of "Rosa"

On December 1, 1955, an Alabama seamstress named Rosa Parks started a movement that altered history. Tired from her day of work at the department store, she boarded a city bus in Montgomery to head home. Being a law-aiding citizen, she took her seat in the front row of the section of seats allocated for her race at the back of the bus.

As the bus filled up, the white passengers had to take seats in the black section. The bus driver directed Rosa Parks to relinquish her seat to a white male rider and move farther back.

Rosa Parks refused, the bus driver called in law enforcement, Parks was arrested and soon the Jim Crow Laws and Black Codes were also arrested. The Civil Right era began with the simple act of refusing to give up her seat on the bus, and Rosa Parks became known the "Mother of the Modern-Day Civil Rights Movement."

Former poet laureate of the United States (1993-95), Rita Dove, has penned a powerful tribute to Rosa Parks.

So simple, yet exquisitely profound, Dove’s poem describes the quiet yet determined woman, whose uncomplicated act of resistance changed the country’s history in a way that led to a broader fulfillment of the Founding Father’s plan of freedom for all American citizens enshrined in the U. S. Constitution.

Rosa

How she sat there,
the time right inside a place
so wrong it was ready.

That trim name with
its dream of a bench
to rest on. Her sensible coat.

Doing nothing was the doing.
The clean flame of her gaze
carved by a camera flash.

How she stood up
when they bent down to retrieve
her purse. That courtesy.

Rita Dove explains the genesis of and reads "Rosa"

Rosa Parks with Arrest Number

Rosa Parks with Arrest Number

Commentary

In 60 words, this tribute to a genuine hero offers a heartfelt observation of courage and determination that changed a nation’s consciousness.

First Stanza: She Just Sat There

How she sat there,
the time right inside a place
so wrong it was ready.

The speaker is musing on the actions taken by the "Mother of the Modern-Day Civil Rights Movement" on that fateful day only decades ago.

The speaker effuses on "how" Rosa "sat there" because that just-sitting-there remains the heart of Parks’ resistance: she just sat there in defiance of a humiliating, immorally legislated mandate that had kept her a second class citizen for most of her life.

Parks was tired from her day’s work, but she was even more tired of mandates that insulted her humanity on a daily basis. She was already sitting in the "colored" section at the back of the bus, and then a white patron wanted her seat.

She would have to move farther back or even stand up to accommodate the injustice being leveled again her and her race. But today she just "sat there."

Because of all that had gone on before in terms of the Jim Crow/Black Codes South, it was time to stand up and say "enough." All the wrong that had been done to black citizens was now "ready" to be righted. Rosa stood up by just sitting there.

Second Stanza: A Sensible Woman

That trim name with
its dream of a bench
to rest on. Her sensible coat.

The speaker then muses on the simple name "Rosa" who at the time just wanted a place to sit and rest from her labors.

The plain, ordinary things in life should never be beyond the dreams of citizens who simply wish to exercise their civil rights, yet for Rosa and other of her skin tone, those rights had been abridged too long. Her dream was one worth purchasing with some jail time, and she her "trim name" was up to the task.

The speaker then makes the observation that Rosa was wearing a "sensible coat." She was a sensible woman, an uncomplicated, intelligent, law-abiding woman and now she needed to rest her weary body that had finished her day’s contribution to the work force.

Third Stanza: Doing Much by Doing Nothing

Doing nothing was the doing.
The clean flame of her gaze
carved by a camera flash.

The speaker then emphasizes the simplicity of Rosa’s action: she was doing a great service to humanity by "doing nothing." By forcing the ludicrous law to take her to jail, she was showing how utterly bankrupt the laws had been.

The very description of what happened sounds utterly impossible: a woman arrested for failing to give up her seat on a bus and to a man— aren’t gentlemen supposed to give up their seats for ladies?

In the Jim Crow South, however, black woman were expected to give up their seats on the bus to both white men and women who demanded it.

With the law on their side, the authorities, including bus drivers, had for decades demanded compliance from both black men and women and had established the precedent that Rosa Parks, a black woman, would be jailed for non-compliance of that insane Jim Crow law.

The speaker of the poem has observed the calm demeanor of the photographs that began to appear in the news outlets of Rosa Parks as the cameras began to flash in her face.

The "clean flame of her gaze" burned through the lenses as they revealed her solemn yet determined demeanor as she was undergoing her ultimate humiliation at the hands of unjust legal maneuvering.

Fourth Stanza: An Act of Courtesy

How she stood up
when they bent down to retrieve
her purse. That courtesy.

The speaker then recalls how Rosa "stood up," her purse falling to the floor and someone bending down to pick it up for her.

That simple act of human kindness registers on the cosmos of time to show that people are simply people, face to face, and "courtesy" remains as natural as saying some simple greeting like "hello."

After the elimination of the evil institution of slavery had been accomplished by the bloody Civil War of 1861-1865, a number of Civil Rights Acts had still not been efficacious in restoring full citizenship to America’s black population.

The Jim Crow/Black Codes South had continued to undermine the rights of its black citizens. The straightforward, uncomplicated act of defiance took place at a time when society was finally ready to right wrongs that it had lived with for a century.

Historical Significance of Dove’s Tribute

Rosa Parks’ act of civil disobedience leading to her arrest led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which began after Jo Ann Robinson sent out 50,000 protest pamphlets, and E. D. Nixon, a labor leader called a meeting of black leaders.

At this meeting, those leaders formed an organization they called the "Montgomery Improvement Association." The MIA called for a bus boycott and began negotiation with the bus company to end the segregated sections on the buses.

Despite losing around 40,000 fares daily because of the boycott, the bus company stubbornly tried to keep its Jim Crow laws in effect. But then almost a year later, on November 13, 1956, the Supreme Court ruled those segregation laws unconstitutional, and the bus company finally reluctantly relented and complied.

The boycott resulted in the rise of the modern Civil Right Movement with Martin Luther King, Jr., who had been elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), as the charismatic and most effective leader.

The final result was the Civil Right Act of 1964 and the Voting Right Act of 1965, which guaranteed the American black population would finally be recognized as true citizens of their country.

Dove’s uncomplicated, straightforward, 60-word poem, very appropriately offers a clear glimpse at the uncomplicated act of defiance of the woman, who by just sitting there, helped roll out the most significant and efficacious civil rights acts the United States of America had ever experienced.

Such a tribute remains a remarkable achievement by the accomplished poet.

Sources

  • Editors. "Biography." The Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development. Accessed December 15, 2021.
  • Curators. "Montgomery Bus Boycott." U.S. Department of the Interior: National Park Service. Accessed December 15, 2021.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Linda Sue Grimes