A Song in the Front Yard
I’ve stayed in the front yard all my life.
I want a peek at the back
Where it’s rough and untended and hungry weed grows.
A girl gets sick of a rose.
I want to go in the back yard now
And maybe down the alley,
To where the charity children play.
I want a good time today.
They do some wonderful things.
They have some wonderful fun.
My mother sneers, but I say it’s fine
How they don’t have to go in at quarter to nine.
My mother, she tells me that Johnnie Mae
Will grow up to be a bad woman.
That George’ll be taken to Jail soon or late
(On account of last winter he sold our back gate).
But I say it’s fine. Honest, I do.
And I’d like to be a bad woman, too,
And wear the brave stockings of night-black lace
And strut down the streets with paint on my face.
—Gwendolyn Brooks, from Selected Poems (1963)
We end our Gwendolyn Brooks weekend with “A Song in the Front Yard.” Following the theme of the last two days, the speaker of this poem, a sheltered child, sees what she thinks is greener grass on the other side and wants to go there. The “back yard” or the “alley” could represent the other side of the train tracks, the rougher side of town, the bad neighborhood. She’s curious; she sees the children there having more fun, doing what they want, but her mother keeps her in the “front yard” where she’s protected and not influenced by those no good kids with no home training—because either their parents don’t care, are as young as they are, or just aren’t around, leaving the task of raising the children to the grandparents—who have no future but prison (George) or prostitution (Johnnie Mae).
I love this poem because it embraces the innocent child’s voice so effortlessly. Children are notorious for wanting the very things their parent forbid them from having. “But all the other kids are doing it,” I can hear her whine, “and Johnnie Mae looks so pretty.” It’s only natural that they look at other children doing something they’re not allowed to do and automatically think that it’s cool. “Why not?” they cry, “it doesn’t look so bad.”
Brooks balances out the child’s “song” with the inclusion of the mother’s rational thinking. With age, she’s old enough to understand. She sees the path the other children are running toward, and she wants to save her own child from that. This mother reminds me so much of my own, who wouldn’t let us go to certain parks by ourselves, or play with certain kids in our neighborhood, or stay outside past the time the streetlights came one. At the time, I just thought she was being overprotective and too strict.
Years later, those kids I wanted so desperately to play with don’t have careers; they aren’t working, or if they are, they’re working low-wage jobs because they didn’t go to college. Their priorities are messed up because they live beyond their means. Most of those boys are in jail, and those girls have kids of their own with deadbeat dads, cursed to follow the same fate as their parents. Maybe they’re happy with the paths they chose, but boy, mama sure does know best.
For today’s BlaPoWriMo prompt, write a song from the front yard. What does the child see that she just has to have? What makes it dangerous? Who is the voice of reason that saves her from a life of poor decisions and a permanent residence in the unkempt “back yard”?