Rita Dove and “On the Bus with Rosa Parks”

Yesterday, December 5, marked the opening of “Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words,” a new Library of Congress exhibition dedicated to telling the life story of the extraordinary civil rights activist and icon. The exhibit draws from the Library’s Rosa Parks Collection, which includes Parks’ personal writings, photographs, reflections, records, and memorabilia.

Because of her enduring impact and legacy, one doesn’t need to look far to find Rosa Parks memorialized in poetry. In 1999, Rita Dove—U.S. Poet Laureate from 1993-1995—published her poetry collection On the Bus with Rosa Parks. With permission from the poet, we’re reprinting two poems from the title sequence of that collection here.

Rita Dove, U.S. Poet Laureate 1993-1995. Photo credit: Fred Viebahn

Rosa

How she sat there,
the time right inside a place
so wrong it was ready.

That trim name with
its dream of a bench
to rest on. Her sensible coat.

Doing nothing was the doing:
the clean flame of her gaze
carved by a camera flash.

How she stood up
when they bent down to retrieve
her purse. That courtesy.

In a video interview with poet Michael Collier soon after the book’s release, Dove reflected on the origin of the title poem sequence:

The title had come from something my daughter had said by chance. I was at a conference with high school students and a lot of ‘leaders’ in various fields, and our daughter was with me and my husband. We got on a bus to be taken to the next site of the symposium, and Rosa Parks was at the front of the bus—we were at the back of the bus—and our daughter leaned over and said, really excitedly, ‘Look! We’re on the bus with Rosa Parks!’ And it surprised me, because she was young and yet she knew the significance of this. At the same time, it seemed like an ordinary occurrence—it was very mundane; we were being ferried somewhere else. And that was the hinge that got me into the entire sequence: the fact that I wanted to have this not only be about Rosa Parks, but also about our relationship to Rosa Parks, and our relationship to the action of getting on a bus or taking that step or not.

Shortly after Dove released On the Bus with Rosa Parks in 1999, TIME Magazine published its “Heroes and Icons of the 20th Century” issue and asked prominent writers and thinkers to choose and reflect on a “person of the century.” In her piece titled “The Torchbearer ROSA PARKS,” Rita Dove wrote:

[Rosa Parks, half-length portrait, facing slightly left] / photo by Thomas.

We know the story. One December evening, a woman left work and boarded a bus for home. She was tired; her feet ached. But this was Montgomery, Ala., in 1955, and as the bus became crowded, the woman, a black woman, was ordered to give up her seat to a white passenger. When she remained seated, that simple decision eventually led to the disintegration of institutionalized segregation in the South, ushering in a new era of the civil rights movement.

This, anyway, was the story I had heard from the time I was curious enough to eavesdrop on adult conversations. I was three years old when a white bus driver warned Rosa Parks, ‘Well, I’m going to have you arrested,’ and she replied, ‘You may go on and do so.’ As a child, I didn’t understand how doing nothing had caused so much activity, but I recognized the template: David slaying the giant Goliath, or the boy who saved his village by sticking his finger in the dike. And perhaps it is precisely the lure of fairy-tale retribution that colors the lens we look back through. Parks was 42 years old when she refused to give up her seat. She has insisted that her feet were not aching; she was, by her own testimony, no more tired than usual. And she did not plan her fateful act: ‘I did not get on the bus to get arrested,’ she has said. ‘I got on the bus to go home.’

In her interview with Michael Collier, Rita Dove reads the poem that ends On the Bus with Rosa Parks (the sequence and the entire collection):

The Pond, Porch-View: Six P.M., Early Spring

I sit, and sit, and will my thoughts
the way they used to wend
when thoughts were young
(i.e., accused of wandering).
The sunset ticks another notch
into the pressure treated rails
of the veranda. My heart, too,
has come down to earth;
I’ve missed the chance
to put things in reverse,
recapture childhood’s backseat
universe. Where I’m at now
is more like riding on a bus
through unfamiliar neighborhoods—
chair in recline, the view chopped square
and dimming quick. I know
I vowed I’d get off
somewhere grand; like that dear goose
come honking down
from Canada, I tried to end up
anyplace but here.
Who am I kidding? Here I am.

About writing this final poem in the sequence and book, Dove said, “It took a long time […] but I knew at the end of the sequence that I had to come back to myself, because I think that anything you enter into as an artist and put your energies in, you’re also drawing out of your own spring. There’s something in you that resonates, and I didn’t know quite what it was when I began this with Rosa Parks.” She continued:

But I knew [the poem] wasn’t only trying to get at Rosa Parks herself, but was also trying to get myself—how I felt, what was my personal relationship to Rosa Parks. There are several things happening in the poem, but one of them is that feeling that if any of us sit there and think long enough about our place in the universe, it seems rather bizarre, and there’s no way to explain it except to say ‘Here I am.’ I don’t know how I got here; I can trace it, but I don’t know how I got here, really. ‘Here I am.’

Dove concluded her TIME Magazine piece with a powerful note on Rosa Parks’ legacy:

[Rosa Parks sitting on a public bus with other riders, 1995]

History is often portrayed as a string of arias in a grand opera, all baritone intrigues and tenor heroics. Some of the most tumultuous events, however, have been provoked by serendipity—the assassination of an inconsequential archduke spawned World War I, a kicked-over lantern may have sparked the Great Chicago Fire. One cannot help wondering what role Martin Luther King Jr. would have played in the civil rights movement if the opportunity had not presented itself that first evening of the boycott—if Rosa Parks had chosen a row farther back from the outset, or if she had missed the bus altogether.

At the end of this millennium (and a particularly noisy century), it is the modesty of Rosa Parks’ example that sustains us. It is no less than the belief in the power of the individual, that cornerstone of the American Dream, that she inspires, along with the hope that all of us—even the least of us—could be that brave, that serenely human, when crunch time comes.

We hope you’ll join us in commemorating the life and work of Rosa Parks through the Library’s new exhibition, “Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words,” and seek out other artists in whose work Parks’ legacy lives on.


Poems in this post are reprinted from On the Bus with Rosa Parks, published by W. W. Norton & Co. Inc., 1999. Copyright © Rita Dove; used by permission of the author. Excerpts from Rita Dove’s TIME Magazine article, “The Torchbearer ROSA PARKS,” are used by permission of the author.

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