Claudette Colvin Goes to Work

Another Negro woman has been arrested and thrown into jail because she refused to get up out of her seat on the bus and give it to a white person. This is the second time since the Claudette Colbert [sic] case. . . . This must be stopped.
— Boycott Flier, December 5, 1955

Menial twilight seeps the storefronts along Lexington
as the shadows arrive to take their places
among the scourge of the earth. Here and there
a fickle brilliance — lightbulbs coming on
in each narrow residence, the golden wattage
of bleak interiors announcing Anyone home?
or I’m beat, bring me a beer.

Mostly I say to myself Still here. Lay
my keys on the table, pack the perishables away
before flipping the switch. I like the sugary
look of things in bad light — one drop of sweat
is all it would take to dissolve an armchair pillow
into brocade residue. Sometimes I wait until
it’s dark enough for my body to disappear;

then I know it’s time to start out for work.
Along the Avenue, the cabs start up, heading
Toward midtown; neon stutters into ecstasy
as the male integers light up their smokes and let loose
a stream of brave talk: “Hey Mama” souring quickly to
“Your Mama” when there’s no answer — as if
the most injury they can do is insult the reason

you’re here at all, walking in your whites
down to the stop so you can make a living.
So ugly, so fat, so dumb, so greasy —
What we have to do to make God love us?
Mama was a maid, my daddy mowed lawns like a boy,
and I’m the crazy girl off the bus, the one
who wrote in class she was going to be President.

I take the Number 6 bus to the Lex Ave train
and then I’m there all night, adjusting the sheets,
emptying the pans. And I don’t curse or spit
or kick and scratch like they said I did then
I help those who can’t help themselves,
I do what needs to be done . . . and I sleep
Whenever sleep comes down on me.

— Rita Dove

Claudette Colvin in 1953. Image courtesy: The Visibility Project / Claudette Colvin

Rita Dove, former Poet Laureate of the United States, wrote this poem about Claudette Colvin, a fifteen-year-old high school student from Montgomery, Alabama. On March 2, 1955, as Colvin was on her way to school at Booker T. Washington High School, the bus driver demanded she give up her seat so a white woman could take it. Colvin refused to get up and was subsequently dragged off the bus and sent to an adult detention center. She was eventually convicted in juvenile court of disturbing the peace, violating the segregation law, and assault.

[Research note: Rita Dove, On the Bus with Rosa Parks (New York: W. W. Norton & Co.), p. 79]

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