Some background on 20th-c. sonnets

If you were reading Seamus Heaney’s “The Haw Lantern” and wondering what a haw is, another course blog answers that question (and interprets the poem).

The “Gay Chaps at the Bar” in Gwendolyn Brooks’s sonnet are African American soldiers who had returned from battle during World War II. Historian Robert Mullen provides a bit more context:

When they were often turned away while trying to contribute blood to the Red Cross Program, when America, “the last bulwark of democracy,” was planning separate air-raid shelters for blacks and whites in Washington, D.C., when lynchings continued unabated during the war, when race riots broke out against black GIs trying to use the same facilities as their white counterparts, it was only natural that blacks should feel that they were involved in two simultaneous wars–one against Hitler in Germany and the other against the Hitlers in the United States.

(Quoted in Ann Folwell Stanford, “Dialectics of Desire: War and the Resistive Voice in Gwendolyn Brooks’s ‘Negro Hero’ and ‘Gay Chaps at the Bar,’ African American Review 26.2 [1992]: 199. For what it’s worth, Stanford also notes that gay means “outwardly cheerful.”)


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