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“Ballad of Birmingham” by Dudley Randall Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: Dec 6th, 2021

“Ballad of Birmingham”, written by Dudley Randall, is considered to be deep and meaningful through the number of sophisticated philosophical elements introduced by the author. A close reading of the poem makes the reader see the interaction of political and religious aspects through social interference leading to death. The poem appears to be rather tragic and discloses its emotionality by means of literal elements and the basic theme of death showed through human beliefs and mother-child relationships.

The poem depicts the influence of the Civil Rights Movement on the social life of the population; the author tries to disclose the hopes of ordinary people leading to the great tragedy and mass death of children.

“And March the streets of Birmingham / In a Freedom march today…“(Randall 123). The quote demonstrates the spirit of social freedom expressed by people at that period through their hopes for a better future. “For the dogs are fierce and wild,/ And clubs and hoses, guns and jails…”(Randall 123)

According to Albert Ward in the book Dudley Randall, Broadside Press, and the Black Arts Movement in Detroit, 1960-1995, the poem highlighting the period of strategic civil movements has the notes of the religious impact of state regulations of that period. “Ballad of Birmingham” has the tragic end, the death of the child, through the consequences of civil instability; the mother feels safety for her child letting her go to the church but instead she faced her death. The author tried to underline that religion was centralized for middle-class social groups stressing usual visits to the child’s chorus. Nevertheless, the church led the child to death, thus, bringing tragedy to the family. (Thompson 115)

The form of the ballad chosen by the writer can be explained by his necessity to underline the mother’s mood to her daughter. Dudley Randall demonstrated the event of the church bombing in 1963 for the purpose of epoch illustration of social life and stressed the graphic account of the social atmosphere suffered by the population. It is shown throughout the poem when the author involved the participation of the masses in a demonstration of freedom and tragedy caused by the explosion. The author manages to move slowly from an optimistic description of the freedom march to the tragic death of the child; this shift is important to the readers as it transfers the mood of the poem. (House & Weatherston 159)

Mother-child relationships are demonstrated from the very beginning of the poem; calling for political participation, the girl expresses her desire to follow her peers’ actions. “But, mother, I won’t be alone./ Other children will go with me…” (Randall 123) The breakage of the conversation observed in the middle of the poem shows the child’s obedience and mother’s feeling of safety because of the church’s reliance and beliefs. Such words as the “smile” and “the last smile” stress their parallel with “explosion.” It means that the mother’s last smile caused by the explosion is contradicted to the smile of happiness presented at the beginning of the poem. The image of the church being described as “the sacred place” gradually turns into the so-called “grave” of the little girl and her mother who was also morally killed.

The author tried to depict the theme of death as one of the principal aspects of that period; an individual example of one family was shown for the purpose of reflecting the life of all humanity at that period suffering the consequences of political instabilities having taken away thousands of lives. (Caplan, 2006)

The theme of religious influence on the social sphere of life is expressed through the death concept reflection as the public occasion which was characteristic of that time. James Sullivan states that the poem can be compared to the 18th-century elegiac tradition aimed at making the death public for the sake of community values. (Thompson 130) On the other side, the poem shows the example of normal Christian death but stresses that even church cannot be perceived as a safe place. The main idea of the poem was to depict not the individual’s grief but the community’s one. The author managed to mix the religious idea of the poem with African American culture through the insertion of “may” repetitions underlining the patterns of call-and-response characterizing its language style of writing.

Emotionality and expressiveness closely interact with ironic motifs observed at the beginning of the poem when the little girl refuses to play desiring to be part of a political demonstration. So, the author managed to combine the elements of mother-child love, happiness, harmony with the “last smile”, explosion and death. (Caplan 87)

“Ballad of Birmingham” managed to combine a number of themes and social aspects: religion, politics, social instability, and cultural peculiarities. It should be stressed that Dudley Randall reflected the atmosphere of the period allowing the readers to evaluate its historical meaning through the vision of political and social instabilities. African American culture and racism are involved as the integral part of religious interference with social life; the church is not presented as the safe place but beliefs of the community are underlined. The usage of stylistic and expressive means was aimed at making the poem more emotional, involving, and thought-provoking. The poem is considered to be the treasure of modernity because Randall managed to explain successfully the tragedy of the 18th century community in a simple language. (Thompson 127).


Boyd, Melba. Wrestling with the Muse: Dudley Randal and the Broadside Press. Ballad of Birmingham. Columbia University Press, 2003.

Caplan, David. Questions of Possibility: Contemporary Poetry. Oxford University Press US, 2006.

House, Gloria and Weatherston, Rosemary. A Different Image. Wayne State University Press, 2004.

Thompson, Julius. Dudley Randall, Broadside Press, and the Black Arts Movement in Detroit, 1960-1995. McFarland, 2005.

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