By the time Rita Dove had written "Rosa" in the late nineties, the Rosa Parks bus business was straight up old news (almost fifty years old, in fact). But the impact Parks had on African-American civil rights has carried right up to the present day. Even Outkast named a track after her.
And it wasn't too old for Rita Dove to write about. She happens to be one of the most celebrated African-American poets living today, and she's spent a ton of her career writing poems about major Civil Rights figures, as well as focusing on people on "the underside of history"—those who maybe weren't in the history books, but were part and parcel of the Civil Rights struggle. (A great example of these kinds of characters can be found in Dove's collection Thomas and Beulah.)
We're thinking your eyes would probably glaze over if we listed all of Rita Dove's awards and accolades, so we'll just give you a link instead. To put it mildly, she's big time. And she's gotten that way by recognizing both humble figures in American history—the unsung heroes like Thomas and Beulah—and the major players like Rosa Parks. And it's because of her approach to figures like Rosa Parks, an approach that takes them out of the historical and into the personal, human scale, that gives them a new significance to readers like us today. So the whole "bus business" doesn't feel like a faraway chapter in a history book so much as a major (and human) part of our country's identity.
Why Should I Care?
Riding the bus might rank up there on the boring scale somewhere alongside waiting in line at the grocery store or getting your passport photo taken. You might not think of it as the ultimate American freedom, but you'd be kind of wrong.
During the time of segregation in the United States, African-Americans were second-class citizens. They didn't get to choose their seats on the bus. They could only sit in the back of the bus and, if a white passenger wanted the seat, they'd have to get up and stand for the rest of the ride. Rosa Parks, realizing the sheer messedupedness of this law, took a stand on December 1st, 1955. She sat in the front of the bus and refused to give up her seat to a white person. She was arrested, but because she took a stand (or really, a seat), she helped propel further action in the Civil Rights Movement toward equal rights for African-Americans.
So, next time you have to wait for the bus for forty-five minutes, or some guy sits down next to you and shakes his wet umbrella over your iPad, think of Rosa Parks' struggle, and think of Rita Dove's poem honoring that struggle. Then dry off that touch screen.