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On "and when the revolution came"

Friederike Kaufel

Carolyn Rodger’s poem “and when the revolution came” is dominated by a strong tone of mockery. At first, it may seem that the “church folks” are the ones being belittled due to the constant repetition of them “gittin on they knees and praying / and tithing and building and buying;” this list does not only seem petty, but it also seems to suggest that the church folks are passive and submissive. By straightening their hair, wearing traditional clothes and adapting to the religion of the white man, they seem to give in to the system that of repression. Moreover, due to their “tithing and building and buying,” they even support the maintance of the system.

While this point of view may have been popular amongst many members of the mainly anti-Christian Black Arts Movement, it does not reflect the stance that Rodgers takes in this poem. Instead, Rodgers’ main point is that whatever it is that the militants of her poem are trying to establish, the Black Christians have reached a long time ago – both in theory and practise.  

The one important, valuable suggestion that the militants make is that they “got to / build black institutions where our children / call each other sister and brother / and can grow beautiful, black and strong and grow in black grace” (46-48).  However, it takes a lot of rather useless attempts to come to that: before focusing on the education of a new generation, they emphasize physical appearances such as combing their hair “the natural way” or a different style of clothing.  They also try to archive improvements by a shift from Christianity – the “white man’s religion” (41) – to a new spirituality and Islam: they favor “brown rice and / health food” (31/32) over pork, and they ask the church folks to “give up easter and christmas” (39).

Yet, as stated above, it is not the church folks repetitive and seemingly passive reaction that Rodgers ridicules. Rather, Rodgers’ point is that, in fact, the militant’s claims are the petty ones, while the church folks’ actions actually led to the realization and building of “fine buildings … some of em build wid schools and nurseries” (51/52) long before the militants ever even realized the importance of investing into both attitude and education of future generations.  Furthermore, the church folks long before reached the solidarity amongst them that the militants finally came to call for: “lord Jesus we been calling each other / sister and brother a long time” ((47/48).

Rodgers’ usage of different tones is of major importance.  The tone of the militants is – obviously – militant.  They do not ever ask; instead, they give orders.  The commanding tone is evoked both by use of language and short lines: “niggers wake up / you got to comb yo hair” (3-5)  These people do not leave any opportunity for their points to be discussed or compromised; whatever they say is the proper way and should be put into action right away.  However, the church folks neither follow their orders, nor do they enter a verbal conflict.  Instead, they reply with phrases like “sho ‘nuff” (6) “oh yeah?” (14) and “uh hummmm” (32) while they keep going on as they always did.  

The unaffectedness and disinterest of their replies add a certain sense of childishness to the claims of the militants: it almost makes them appear like children that can be patiently ignored by the grown-ups.  It is only when the militants challenge Christianity that the church folks express their disapproval; but even their “well well well well well” (42) sound more like a parental warning to a child that is about to cross a boundary than a reply during a conflict amongst equals.

Instead of scorning the militants, Rodgers simply claims that their movement lacks maturity. She herself was an active part of the Black Arts Movement during her youth; now she seems to claim that this movement is based on nothing but youth and immaturity. However, in order to make progress, one needs to reach a higher level of maturation – as Rodgers claims to have done herself. To her, the seemingly passive and less provocative way of the church folks are what will make a difference at last; it was only their patience and endurance that got them as far.

Copyright © by Friederike Kaufel.

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