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In Brown’s poetry, the struggle of black against white appears not merely as an unequal battle -- this in full conformity with reality -- but as a conspiracy carefully plotted long before and the execution of which proceeds with all the inexorable precision of a piece of clockwork. This theme is worked out in particularly striking fashion in a poem like "Old Lem," which in its vigor has elements both of Carl Sandburg's somewhat brutal robustness and of the forceful realism of the protest songs of slavery days. In a struggle that finds all the weapons in the hands of one side, neither courage nor even heroism are any use. The result is always foreordained, and the most fanatical resistance will be pulverized in the end. Whether the innocent Negro succumbs to the collective hysteria of a lynch mob set on him ("He Was a Man") or to the mindless panic of a rookie cop ("Southern Cop"), his murderers will always find official justice on their side.

In a certain sense, Brown’s anti-racist poetry may be said to have eased to protest; it has gone far beyond. Protest takes place not only against, but also on behalf of, something. If Brown's forerunners could protest against the injustice that was victimizing their race, that was because they had faith in the democratic ideal the American nation so eagerly flaunted, and they invoked this ideal in demanding justice. Brown, on the other hand, has already lost all illusions concerning the practical efficacy of the "American dream." 


From Black Poets of the United States: From Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes. Copyright © 1973 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.