On the Bus with Rosa Parks

You probably heard the story of Rosa Parks in elementary school: an African American woman arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus, sparking national outrage and drawing attention to the Civil Rights movement. But what does Rosa Park's act of resistance mean to the Black community today, decades after the end of the Jim Crow laws? In her poetry collection On the Bus with Rosa Parks (1999), poet Rita Dove (1952-) examines the Civil Rights movement, celebrates social activism, and looks toward the future. Keep reading for an analysis of the poem, its themes, and more.

On the Bus with Rosa Parks On the Bus with Rosa Parks

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Table of contents

    On the Bus with Rosa Parks Author: Rita Dove

    On the Bus with Rosa Parks (1999) is Rita Dove's seventh poetry collection. Dove established herself as a significant poet of the late-20th century in 1980 with the success of her first poetry collection, The Yellow House on the Corner. She became the second African American to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry when she won the award in 1987 for her third collection, Thomas and Beulah (1986). In 1993, Dove became the first African American to hold the official title of Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (after the title change in 1986).

    On the Bus with Rosa Parks, Rita Dove receiving the 2011 National Medals of Arts, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Rita Dove received the 2011 National Medal of arts from President Obama.

    Dove was born in 1952 and had witnessed the Civil Rights movement firsthand as a child growing up in the 50s and 60s. Much of Dove's poetry depicts the struggles and triumphs of the battle for Civil Rights, the Black experience in modern America, and the ways that Black history has often been purposefully ignored and overshadowed by a dominant white culture.

    Slaves were technically free following the Civil War; however, other systems of oppression (such as the Jim Crow laws) kept African Americans oppressed for nearly a century longer. Even today, the fight for complete racial equality continues.

    The title of On the Bus with Rosa Parks celebrates the famous activist, Rosa Parks, and her role in the fight for equality. While some poems reference Rosa Parks, the collection as a whole addresses the historical fight for civil rights and the ongoing issues of discrimination that Black people still face today.

    Rosa Parks is best remembered for refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955. A seamstress tired after a long day of work, Parks paid her fare and sat in the first row of seats reserved for "colored" people towards the back of the bus. When the seats reserved for white were full, the white bus driver demanded that she move. She refused and was arrested for civil disobedience.

    The Monday after Rosa Parks was arrested, a coordinated boycott of Montgomery busses began. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was a mass political and social protest against the segregation and mistreatment of Black people in the Montgomery bus system. After 13 months of protest, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that segregation laws on Montgomery busses were unconstitutional.

    Parks passed away in 2005.

    On the Bus with Rosa Parks Summary

    On the Bus With Rosa Parks is broken up into five sections entitled "Cameos," "Freedom: Bird's Eye View," "Black on a Saturday Night," "Revenant," and "On the Bus with Rosa Parks." Altogether the collection includes 46 separate poems.

    The first section of poems, "Cameos," noticeably differs from the rest of the collection. While the rest of the poems in each section are listed vertically with page numbers for each poem, the poems in "Cameos" are listed horizontally and are listed under a single page number. "Cameos" is intended to be read as a unit instead of as individual poems. Each successive poem further builds upon the lives of an African American family as they struggle, overcome, and grow. The first sequence introduces the broader social and political issues of the collection through an intimate glimpse into family life.

    On the Bus with Rosa Parks, Black family playing board games, StudySmarterFig. 2 - "Cameos" traces the life of an African American family responding to the changing world around them as they struggle with the Great Depression and long-lasting stereotypes.

    The succeeding sections respond to the Civil Rights movement and racial injustices that the Black community has faced throughout nearly all of American history. Challenging stereotypes, celebrating the triumphs in civil rights, and elevating Black voices, the collection is a book that empowers African Americans and the fight for equality. When reflecting on the title of the collection, Dove said,

    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 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."1

    On the Bus with Rosa Parks Poems

    Three of the collections' most impactful poems are "Rosa," "The Pond, Porch-View: Six P.M., Early Spring," and "'The situation is intolerable.'"


    "Rosa" celebrates Rosa Parks's simple but powerful mode of protest and how she sparked social change with her small act of defiance. The first two stanzas of the poem describe a woman simply sitting. Tidy, small, and nonviolent, Rosa just happens to be in the wrong place. But "Doing nothing was the doing" (7) and simply sitting in a seat was enough to get her thrown in jail. When Rosa finally stands up to be escorted off the bus by police, she is standing up against centuries of oppression, racism, and injustice.

    Rosa Parks was not planning on starting a revolution when she got on the Montgomery bus that day. When she saw it was the same bus driver who had ordered her off his bus into the rain in 1943, she decided she had enough: "When that White driver stepped back toward us, when he waved his hand and ordered us up and out of our seats, I felt a determination cover my body like a quilt on a winter night."2

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

    The speaker in "The Pond, Porch-View: Six P.M., Early Spring" contemplates her place in the universe. She wishes her thoughts were as imaginative and purposeful as they were in her youth, but her head, like her heart, has "come down to earth" (8). She is unable to go back to the self-assured state of her youth; instead, she now must go through life aware of her shortcomings and ignorance.

    As a child, the speaker thought that she would end up somewhere grand and important when she was an adult, but she disappointedly states, "Who am I kidding? Here I am." (22). This final poem in the collection can be read as a response to the Civil Rights movement overall: while we may wish society was more inclusive, less oppressive, and better in general, modern America is exactly "here," where it is now.

    One the Bus with Rosa Parks, Man standing in a "you are here" circle, StudySmarterFig. 3 - "The Pond, Porch-View: Six P.M., Early Spring" essentially reads as a "You Are Here" sign for the speaker, society, and Dove as racism and injustice continue in modern America.

    "'The situation is intolerable'"

    In the first line, the speaker stresses the word "intolerable" (1). She calls it a "civilized word" (1) and states that people had gone to war when they viewed their situation was intolerable, calling to mind the Intolerable Acts that led to the American Revolution.

    The speaker then says that African Americans press their pants, starch their shirts, and are civilized. Black people, she says, were born into intolerable circumstances where they aren't given opportunities to better their lives but instead oppression to keep them in their place. At the end of the poem, the speaker argues the only thing worse than being born into intolerable circumstances is doing nothing to get yourself out of them, rallying African Americans to keep fighting for the freedom the American Revolution was supposed to give to all.

    On the Bus with Rosa Parks Analysis

    The collection On the Bus with Rosa Parks interweaves personal stories with historical events in order to give the Civil Rights movement more intimate meaning and showcase how individual lives are dictated by the overarching social context of the time.

    "Cameos" introduces an African American family that grows with one another but also experiences financial strain and personal struggles. Lucille is a bright woman who worries about the pressures of motherhood and being able to provide for her children. Joe struggles with his own personal demons as he strays away from home in an effort to escape some of the responsibility that crushes him. Their children are smart but numerous and demand much of them. The family experiences instances of unity and isolation, as they struggle with their historical context, including the Great Depression and Jim Crow laws.

    The rest of the collection is less personal and directly connected, but situates the family's struggle in the grander history of racial injustice in the United States. As the collection progresses, the poems become more hopeful, as resiliency and determination gives way to real change. The final section of poems celebrates activists like Rosa Parks and Claudette Colvin, both of whom were instrumental in enacting change and paving the way toward equality and social justice.

    Claudette Colvin was arrested at age 15 on her way home from school after refusing to give up her seat on the bus. Although Colvin's act of resistance occurred nine months before Park's, she was not publicized because she was young, unmarried, and pregnant.

    On the Bus with Rosa Parks Themes

    Two of the major themes in the collection are the oppression and resiliency of African Americans.

    The Oppression of African Americans

    The Civil Rights movement began because African Americans have been systemically oppressed since European colonizers first brought African slaves into America. Slaves were given no legal standing, education, or opportunity to make their lives any better. To make matters worse, they were treated more like property than actual people. This has led to centuries of racism and injustice, where white people were elevated socially and politically over people of color.

    On the Bus with Rose Parks examines many of the ways in which African Americans have been oppressed, from physical oppression to the social obstacles (in terms of education, employment, and representation) that stand in their way. These lines from "'The situation is intolerable'" perhaps best sum up the ongoing oppression:

    So what if we were born up a creek

    and knocked flat with the paddle,

    if we ain't got a pot to piss in

    and nowhere to put it if we did?" (15-18)

    On the Bus with Rosa Parks, Puppet pinning another puppet to ground, StudySmarterFig. 4 - "On the Bus with Rosa Parks" examines how African Americans have been oppressed throughout history.

    Resiliency of African Americans

    Regardless of the centuries of oppression they face, the African American people are resilient. Quiet, peaceful Rosa Parks, who sparked national protests and trigged a year-long boycott, is also a symbol of strength, power, and resiliency for Dove. No matter how many times they are knocked down, the Black characters in Dove's collection continuously get back up and continue fighting. In response to the opposition that Black community faces, the final two lines of "'The situation is intolerable'" speak to their unrelenting resiliency:

    Our situation is intolerable, but what's worse

    is to sit here and do nothing." (19-20)

    Dove's African American characters are constantly fighting to make their lives better and free themselves of racial oppression.

    On the Bus with Rosa Parks - Key takeaways

    • On the Bus with Rosa Parks was written by Rita Dove.
    • Dove is an African American poet who is known for responding to the civil rights movement and the oppression of Black people in much of her poetry.
    • The collection celebrates Black activists like Rosa Parks, who continued to fight for racial equality despite the consequences.
    • Some of the most impactful poems in the collection are "Rosa," "The Pond, Porch-View: Six P.M., Early Spring," and "'The situation is intolerable.'"
    • Two of the major themes in the collection are the oppression of African Americans and the resiliency of African Americans.


    1. Holmes, Anne. "Rita Dove and On the Bus with Rosa Parks." Library of Congress. 6 Dec. 2019.
    2. Williams, Donnie; Greenhaw, Wayne (2005). The Thunder of Angels: The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the People who Broke the Back of Jim Crow. Chicago Review Press.
    Frequently Asked Questions about On the Bus with Rosa Parks

    What is the book On the Bus with Rosa Parks about?

    It is about the Civil Rights movement, the importance of social activism, and the resiliency of African Americans.

    Who wrote the book On the Bus with Rosa Parks?

    On the Bus with Rosa Parks was written by Rita Dove. 

    What is the main theme of On the Bus with Rosa Parks?

    The two main themes are the oppression of African Americans and the resilience of African Americans. 

    When was On the Bus with Rosa Parks published?

    It was published in 1999.

    The book contains a poem about who? 

    On the Bus with Rosa Parks is notable for containing a poem about Rosa Parks. (It also contains a poem about Claudette Colvin) 

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