October 28, 2015

Gwendolyn Brooks & Positive Integration

Gwendolyn Brooks, the first black person to win a Pulitzer Prize is therefore well known for her artful approach to complex subject matter.  This poem, "The White Troops Had Their Orders But the Negroes Looked Like Men," is no different. In the vein of many in the twentieth century, here Brooks is reacting to war, but what's interesting about this sonnet is it goes further than just war. "The White Troops Had Their Orders But the Negroes Looked Like Men" uses the context of WWII to examine the impact of the racial integration of the armed forces in the United States. 

Contrary to the prevailing opinion at the time, scrambling the contents of the "box for dark men" (10) and the "box for Other" (10) didn't destroy the fabric of society. This is the focus of  "The White Troops Had Their Orders But the Negroes Looked Like Men." The poem begins with the speaker examining the white troops' ideas about what it means to be a soldier. Then, there's a shift that coincides with the arrival of the "Negroes" (4). The white soldiers are "perplexed" (4) and the poem changes focus from the white soldiers' precision and "formula" (1) to images of boxes to explain the result of desegregation. In the speaker's eyes, this desegregation, the arrival of the black soldiers was almost a non event beyond the white soldiers' initial confusion; the speaker remarks, for example, that "neither the earth nor heaven ever trembled / and there was nothing startling in the weather" (13-14). In fact, the calm transition the speaker depicts could be said to be a positive development. In the face of having to work alongside their black counterparts, the white soldiers start to see how much energy
it takes to "remember those / Congenital iniquities that cause / disfavor of the darkness" (6-8). In other words, they're feeling how draining it is to reinforce racist attitudes when confronted with conflicting evidence. Being forced to interact with those they had always considered lesser, simultaneously forced the soldiers to confront the irrational foundation of the black soldiers' supposed inferiority

In his 1966 article, sociologist Charles Moskos, Jr. posits a similar idea. Moskos argues that integration in the armed forces erased any perceived differences in combat performance between black and white soldiers, improved the performance of black soldiers and therefore allowed them to advance in rank, and positively influenced the attitudes of white soldiers towards integration in general (132). All of these things are present in "The White Troops Had Their Orders But the Negroes Looked Like Men." For example, the speaker says that the white soldiers have "to remember" (6) that there are supposed inequalities between them and their black counterparts, the implication being that the inequalities aren't tangible, that the black soldiers fight no differently. This relates directly to another of Moskos' conclusions. After analyzing data from an armed forces' survey on soldiers' attitudes towards racial integration, it was found that the white soldiers' "opposition to integration goes from 84 per cent in 1943 to less than half in 1951" (Moskos 139-140). This supports the correlation between exposure to black soldiers and increased white favorability towards integration that the speaker of  "The White Troops Had Their Orders But the Negroes Looked Like Men" notes in lines 5-8. More broadly, though, this idea that interacting with black soldiers changed white perceptions is the central theme of both the poem and the article, and it is an idea that is continued to be reflected today.

In the 21st century, Moskos' findings and Brooks' poetic insights continue to be relevant to more than just the military. Katherine Phillips, the Paul Calello Professor of Leadership and Ethics at Colombia Business School, has devoted her entire academic career to researching this topic. A she explains, groups made up of people with different ages, races, genders, and other social identities perform better in terms of creativity, critical thinking, and innovation than groups where all the members share the same identity. So, as we look back to the tumultuous social change that integration brought and admonish our posterity for their hyperbolic fears, let us not forget the net gains of exposing ourselves to different people and experiences. In the end, it's more than likely there will be "nothing starling in the weather" (14).

Works Cited
Brooks, Gwendolyn. "The White Troops Had Their Orders But the Negroes Looked Like Men." The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 8th ed. Vol.
                  D. New York/London: W.W. Norton, 2012. Print.
Moskos, Jr. Charles C. "Racial Integration in the Armed Forces." American Journal of Sociology 72.2 (1966): 132-48. JSTOR. Web. 23 Oct. 2015.
Phillips, Katherine W. "How Diversity Makes Us Smarter." Scientific American. Nature Publishing Group, 16 Sept. 2014. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.

NOTE: this poem is written in iambic pentameter, which is pretty neat. Of all the poetic forms, sonnets are one of my favorites, and I have so much respect for contemporary poets that use them; exploring modern themes and issues using modern language but in the ancient(ish) structure of a sonnet... so cool. Sherman Alexie does this a lot, so if you're interested, look him up. "Blood Sonnets" is a perfect example. For more information on the way that exposure to different people makes us better, check out other research by Katherine Phillips.

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