Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1866
Gwendolyn Brooks’s Annie Allen (1949) was the first book by a black writer to win the Pulitzer Prize. In A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks, George F. Kent shows that her unique development as an Afro-American writer probably contributed directly to her unusual success at a fairly young age. Born in Topeka, Kansas, on June 7, 1917, Brooks was reared in a strong, middle-class family. Though her parents struggled through the Depression in Chicago, they had settled there early enough to be well-established homeowners before the hard times arrived, and they were tenacious enough to keep the family together without resort to welfare when her father’s salary fell during the 1930’s. Strongly committed to education, her family saw her through Wilson Junior College by 1937 and supported her artistic aspirations throughout her youth.
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This solid and stable background gave Brooks what she later characterized as an illusory optimism about life, upon which she based much of her youthful self-confidence. After her marriage in 1939 to Henry Lowington Blakely, whom she met when she joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1937, she discovered a different life. Her struggle with comparative poverty, motherhood, the losses of friends in World War II, and the many pains of prejudice and racism gradually qualified her optimism, clarified her vision, and radicalized her poetry and politics. This was a slow process, however, that brought her to a decisive turning point in 1967, when she attended the Second Annual Writers’ Conference at Fisk University.
Before the 1960’s, Brooks tended to accept many elements of what has been characterized as the white liberal attitude toward the black poet’s role in American society. Kent points out, however, that Brooks’s ideas came from the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance and other black writers she admired, such as James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, and Richard Wright. In this view, the black writer was to transcend the admitted problems of racism by writing of universal themes to a universal audience. Such an approach was intended to show white readers that black writers were genuine artists, to provide role models for younger writers, and to lift the hearts and spirits of all readers, thus bringing oppressed and oppressor together on a higher, common ground of community. Such idealism appealed strongly to Brooks, as it did to white liberals. Insofar as this attitude governed her poetic practice, it helped assure that her work would be published and would attract reasonably large audiences. This is, in fact, what happened, and her first two books, A Street in Bronzeville (1945) and Annie Allen, established her as an important poet among both white and black readers.
Brooks rapidly rose from being a poor, aspiring poet whose works appeared mainly in the Chicago Defender into becoming a Chicago and then a national literary institution at the age of thirty-two, having two important and well-reviewed collections published and a Pulitzer Prize to her credit. Her rapid rise was aided by established black writers such as Richard Wright, whose recommendation was decisive in persuading Harper and Brothers to publish A Street in Bronzeville. Another key to her early success, however, was almost certainly her ability to attract and interest various powerful white patrons. Inez Cunningham Stark, a Chicago socialite, discovered Brooks in a writing workshop on Chicago’s South Side, encouraged her work, and introduced her to important people such as Henry Rago at Poetry. Paul Engle brought her work to the attention of the Midwest Writer’s Conference, which awarded her poetry prizes at the beginning of her career. Also crucial was Brooks’s editor at Harper and Brothers, Elizabeth Lawrence, who repeatedly encouraged her to universalize, to make sure that the particular stories and images that arose from Brooks’s black experience and inspired her poems were made accessible to white readers.
That Brooks’s early works were addressed fairly consciously to white audiences does not mean that they lacked biting reflections on racial injustice or that they failed to speak movingly to her black readers. Brooks knew well what her social and political condition was. Her family’s difficulty in finding satisfactory housing resulted directly from racist politics in Chicago. When Brooks visited New York with Inez Stark only a few months before receiving the Pulitzer Prize, she was humiliatingly prevented even from accompanying Stark to her room at the Barbizon Plaza Hotel. Nevertheless, Brooks’s early success, when compared to some of her more politically radical contemporaries, seems fairly clearly connected to her middle- class upbringing, which tended to slow her conversion to the attitudes and the voice that became increasingly important to her in the 1960’s and that dominated her work and thought after 1967.
Brooks’s transformation to a more radical point of view was not sudden. Like most Afro-Americans, Brooks felt her hopes rise for an end to such humiliations as those she had suffered at the Barbizon Plaza when the Supreme Court mandated an end to segregated public education in 1954. She looked on with increasing admiration as black youths asserted their rights in local labor conflicts and especially when Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, nonviolent protests began to change the American South. As the mid-1960’s approached, Brooks found herself increasingly an accepted and valued person in literary and local circles, but, at the same time, life for black Americans vibrated between elation and despair, between the victories of King and defeats such as the assassinations of Medgar Evers and President John E Kennedy. Brooks experienced these joys and sorrows deeply and personally, recording her reactions in poems. Meanwhile, her personal life was improving significantly, as she began to receive invitations to teach, give workshops, and read at colleges and universities. President Lyndon Johnson invited her to the White House. As she appeared at writers’ conferences, other writers came to know and respect her. This acknowledgment increased her confidence in her own inspiration and observation and emboldened her to follow her heart more freely.
Crucial to her change after 1967 was her teaching. The contact with younger writers not only stimulated her but also exposed her to their thinking, their reading, and their writing. When she went to the 1967 conference at Fisk University in Nashville, she was well prepared to absorb the excitement of the growing consensus of Afro-American writers that, in the midst of a Civil Rights revolution that had to be won, the prime duty of black writers was to address black readers, to speak in prophetic voices for unity and change.
After the Fisk conference, Brooks’s life and practice changed quickly. Shortly before the conference, she clearly saw herself as the first of two kinds of poets: one who puts art above all and the other who will sacrifice art in order to be sure that the truth of the moment is spoken with power. Soon after the conference, she found herself teaching poetry to Chicago’s notorious Blackstone Rangers and getting from them and other associates a rapid and deep education in radical thought about race and American history. Most important among her teachers were two younger writer/publishers: Haki Madhubuti (Don L. Lee) and Walter Bradford. Also important among the events of this period was the completion of the Wall of Respect, a mural of famous black artists on a South Side building. Brooks was honored by inclusion in the mural, and she was also moved by the dedication gathering that developed into a spontaneous and rich sharing of community unity. As a result, she said she wanted to write poetry that would sustain and extend this feeling of solidarity with all who suffered the oppressions of American racism. By 1969, Brooks had separated from Henry Blakely, was heavily involved in teaching writing to fellow blacks, writing politically significant poetry and book reviews, and traveling widely on behalf of Afro-American solidarity.
Her marriage healed in 1973, but her writing remained changed. She ceased publishing with Harper & Row, turning instead to black small presses and eventually to her own press, finally named for her father: The David Company. In the 1980’s, she publicly began to include South Africa and issues of world solidarity of oppressed blacks among her concerns. Increasingly after 1967, as Brooks’s financial situation improved, she gave her money away to encourage young writers. She founded writing scholarships and prizes at various colleges and universities as well as one for young Chicago writers, and she gave grants to help writers work or travel, even as far as Africa. In 1981, Gwendolyn Brooks Junior High School was dedicated in Harvey, Illinois, in honor of her achievements and of her generosity in supporting young writers. Though helping to establish Afro-Americans as fully acknowledged and respected citizens of their nation became of prime importance to Brooks after 1967, she also showed increasing interest in the feminism that is implicit in a number of her earlier poems—for example, “The Anniad” in Annie Allen. Her interest in local politics surfaced when she actively supported Harold Washington in two Chicago mayoral elections and wrote Mayor Harold Washington; and, Chicago, the I Will City (1983). Her support for solidarity with black South Africans is reflected in Winnie (1988), poems inspired by Winnie Mandela.
George Kent died before he put the finishing touches on A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks. Through the efforts of D. H. Melhem, this much-needed biography is seeing print seven years after Kent’s death and eleven years after the last event he describes, the death of Keziah Brooks in March of 1978. Melhem sketches in major events of the following ten years in an afterword.
This somewhat irregular production of the biography may have combined with family reticence to produce an account of Brooks that finally seems rather distant and impersonal, much more a public than a private biography. While it is in many ways refreshing to find a biography that respects the privacy and the integrity of its subject, this book seems weakened by a lack of enough anecdotal narrative to portray Brooks’s personality effectively. The biography is very informative about Brooks’s intellectual and social struggles to realize her ambition to be a poet. There is a detailed and sometimes stirring portrait of an Afro-American woman discovering and perfecting her voice in a turbulent era, then changing the direction of her work and life in order to speak to and for her hopeful, angry, and oppressed sisters and brothers. Finally, however, the portrait is of Brooks as a public person. For more personal portraits, Kent points the reader toward Brooks’s own poetry and fiction.
Kent’s summaries and discussions of Brooks’s works are sensitive and informative. Greatly aided by Brooks’s practice of keeping notebooks, Kent gives an extended account of her juvenilia, using it to enlighten her concerns during childhood and youth and to show the development of her poetic skill. His readings of the more difficult poems are always helpful, but following those accounts with interest often requires considerable familiarity with the poems. In this sense, Kent’s biography is scholarly, intended for serious students of Brooks’s poetry. Still, on the whole, Kent’s account is easily accessible to more casual readers and is, therefore, an excellent introduction to an important American poet.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14
Booklist. LXXXV, August, 1989, p.1937.
Library Journal. CXIV, August, 1989, p.134.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVI, July 21, 1989, p.46.