Study Guide

Ma Rainey Themes

  • Race

    Old-school blues was a staple in the southern black community, and Ma Rainey was one of the greats. Though her music eventually had widespread appeal, it was the way in which she spoke to and sang about the black community that made her music such a hit. And that's just what Sterling Brown taps into in his poem, "Ma Rainey." Here we get a glimpse of how her blues informed and was shaped by African-American identity.

    Questions About Race

    1. What's the connection between Ma Rainey's blues and the audience members' black identity? Would the audience feel such a strong connection to her if she were white? Or if they were white? Why or why not?
    2. How does the dialect change the way you read the poem?
    3. Does Ma Rainey sing about black issues, or does she have a more universal appeal?

    Chew on This

    The black audience members connect with Ma Rainey because she has a similar racial background, which means she understands their hardships and experiences.

    Brown wrote this poem in dialect to show that Ma Rainey's music had a uniquely African-American appeal.

  • Poverty

    These folks aren't exactly staying at the Ritz when they roll into town. The audience members in "Ma Rainey" hail from farms, lumber camps, and river settlements—not swanky high rises or suburban mansions. Which is kind of the point, actually. Their poverty is one of the many things that makes them connect to Ma's music on such a deep level; she sings about he economic struggles they experience every day.

    Questions About Poverty

    1. What is the connection between poverty and race in a poem written about blacks in the Jim Crow South? How does that connection inform the way we read the poem?
    2. What forms of poverty do the speaker and fans suffer from? 
    3. In what ways does Ma Rainey's music speak to the poverty of her audience?

    Chew on This

    The fans love Ma because she comes from the same poor background that they do, and that's what she chooses to sing about.

    The fact that these fans come from far and wide, even though they probably don't have a ton of dough, is a testament to how much they love Ma Rainey.

  • Visions of the South

    "Ma Rainey" gives us a good cross-section of the South and the Mississippi river valley. What vision do we get in the poem? One of swampy river towns, where poverty is rampant and folks everywhere sing the blues. As a professor and a poet, Sterling Brown was captivated by the southern black community, and this poem is just one of his many attempts to give it a literary spin.

    Questions About Visions of the South

    1. What specific places does the speaker name in the poem? Does this add anything to the poem for you?
    2. What are the people like in these towns? How would you describe them, using evidence from the poem?
    3. What is it about the blues here that seems particularly southern?

    Chew on This

    This poem could only take place in the south. Ma Rainey has a uniquely southern appeal.

    The mention of specific southern towns only takes away from the poem's universal themes.