The Boy Died in My Alley

Lynda Koolish: On "The Boy Who Died in My Alley"

Gwendolyn Brooks’ "The Boy Died in My Alley" also explores violence by focusing on the issue of individual transformation. In the poem, the literal cause of the violent death of a black boy whose blood, whose body "ornaments [the poet's] alley," remains unmentioned. Indeed, no possible cause is ever speculated about, encouraging the reader to consider the multiple ways in which young black men in this country mysteriously end up dead: deaths that are alcohol or drug related, products of gang warfare, a robbery gone awry, police violence, suicide--all of these are secondary causes to racism, poverty, powerlessness, and despair. The poet acknowledges a sorrowful and determined responsibility for the death of the boy, and in so doing teaches each of us the tragic consequences of "knowledgeable unknowing," of ever failing to act against oppression and violence:

I never saw his face at all.

I never saw his futurefall.

But I have known this Boy.


I have always heard him deal with death.

I have always heard the shout, the volley.

I have closed my heart-ears late and early.

And I have killed him ever.

Brooks insists upon accountability, not self-indulgent guilt; it is that accountability, as well as Brooks' compassion, which transforms the waste of a young man's life into not only the hope for a different world but a call to action.

From "The Bones of This Body Say, Dance: Self-Empowerment in Contemporary Poetry by Women of Color" in A Gift of Tongues: Critical Challenges in Contemporary American Poetry. Ed. Marie Harris and Kathleen Aguero. Copyright © 1987 by The University of Georgia Press.

Craig Werner : On "The Boy Died in My Alley"

Ralph Ellison . . . defines the blues as "an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one's aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism."  Langston Hughes . . . is in basic agreement when he writes: "sad as Blues may be, there's almost always something humorous about them--even if it's the kind of humor that laughs to keep from crying.". . .

This resigned lyrical attitude toward experience has, however, come under heavy attack recently [in the 1970s] from some militant Black critics.  While praising the lasting beauty of the blues, Ron Karenga asserts that "the blues are invalid; for they teach resignation, in a word acceptance of reality--and we have come to change reality."  [Amiri] Baraka, conversely, presents a strong defense for the blues tradition. . . .  Baraka, presenting an "organic" theory of Black music, argues that "the songs, the music, changed as the people did."  The blues, Baraka continues, "is, it seems, the deepest expression of memory.  Experience re/feeling.  It is the racial memory. . . .  The Blues (impulse) lyric (song) is ever descriptive of a plane of evolution, a direction."   The specific content of the blues, in this scheme, is a function of a fluid reality rather than a determinant of attitude, making them much more adaptable to a militant Black perspective.

Brooks' recent poems support Baraka's contention.  For without sacrificing any of her characteristic lyrical emphasis on painful past experience, she has put an increasingly greater emphasis on Black pride and assertion. . . .  A Black youth has been murdered in the alley behind the speaker's home.  When asked by a policeman if she heard the shot which killed him, the speaker's first reaction is a feeling of historical inevitability and resignation. . . .   When pressed further by the policeman's questions, however, the speaker begins to recognize her own involvement in the youth's death, an involvement stemming from exactly the passive attitude Karenga associates with the blues tradition. . . .  But the act of realization is also an act of dissociation from the passivity of the tradition.  At the poem's climax the speaker perceives the essential bond linking all Black people, while maintaining the lyrical blues attitude toward the immediate generative experience. . . .  The final lines quietly endorse the blues' confrontation of the past painful experience, but at the same time hold the promise of the transformation hinted at in the immediately preceding lines.  Implicitly they promise that the insight derived from the blues can be transformed into a direct form of resistance: "The red floor of my alley / is a special speech to me."

Werner, Craig.  "Gwendolyn Brooks: Tradition Black and White."  Minority Voices 1.2 (1977): 27-38.