Please explain the following opening lines of Gwendolyn Brooks's poem "Riot":

John Cabot, out of Wilma, once a Wycliffe,
all whitebluerose below his golden hair,
wrapped richly in right linen and right wool,
almost forgot his Jaguar and Lake Bluff;

The full poem is available on the Poetry Foundation website.

1 Answer 1


These lines are a mocking introduction to the protagonist of the poem, describing his race, social class, pedigree, wealth, and snobbery.

John Cabot

His surname brings to mind the Cabot family, part of the aristocracy of Boston. A well-known piece of doggerel suggests that “the Lowells talk only to Cabots, and the Cabots talk only to God”, meaning that the Cabots are the snootiest of all.

The whole name suggests John Cabot the explorer, who traded slaves in the Mediterranean and visited Newfoundland in 1497. The name thus evokes the colonial history of North America and the slave trade that brought the ancestors of the rioters to Chicago.

out of Wilma

Wilma is his mother. The phrase “out of” is the way that the descent of race horses is described, for example Triple Crown winner Justify is said to be “out of Stage Magic”. This is mocking the character’s preoccupation with pedigree.

once a Wycliffe

Wilma’s maiden name. The name suggests John Wycliffe, an important early Protestant theologian, so perhaps this is a nod at the ‘P’ in the character’s WASPishness.

all whitebluerose

This poetic concatenation perhaps refers to the colour of his shirt (white), suit (blue) and skin (pink).

below his golden hair,

Blond hair is associated with whiteness, and gold with wealth.

wrapped richly in right linen and right wool,

This alliterative line emphasizes the character’s wealth and snobbery. Linen shirts and wool suits are expensive, and the repetition of “right” suggests that Cabot looks down on ordinary people for wearing cheap cotton shirts and polyester suits.

almost forgot his Jaguar and Lake Bluff

Brooks continues to emphasize the character’s wealth and social background. Jaguar is a brand of expensive motor vehicles, and Lake Bluff is a wealthy white suburb of Chicago. Today Lake Bluff is 90% white and less than 1% black or African American, according to the U.S. Census.

The word “almost” is an extra little jab: the implication is that Cabot is so attached to his possessions and status that even the imminent threat of injury or death can’t make him forget them.

  • 1
    I agree with Gareth Rees’s excellent analysis here, except for the “blue” part. Blue I think connotes blue-bloodedness, meaning it reiterates John’s preoccupation with pedigree or his bloodline’s purity. In addition, it conjures up a feeling of coldness, of being cold-hearted. Jan 18, 2020 at 22:38
  • @AprilPatrick: That's a good interpretation. Jan 21, 2020 at 19:25

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