Brooks’s Slow Path to Recognition

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

However the canon of African American poetry is to be construed—from Phillis Wheatley to Paul Laurence Dunbar, Countée Cullen to Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka to Michael S. Harper, Robert Hayden to Haki R. Madhubuti—there can be no way of diminishing, or sidelining, the wholly singular achievement of Gwendolyn Brooks. Quite simply, she ranked as a prime American imagination from the publication of her first collection, A Street in Bronzeville (1945). Black by birthright, consciously or not “womanist” (in Alice Walker’s term), she showed the ability to range from a modernist experimentalism (Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, and Countée Cullen being key influences) to a “down-home” intimacy of idiom drawn from blues, spirituals, jazz, and rap, and, from the start, the example of Langston Hughes. Even so, and despite the Pulitzer Prize that deservedly came her way in 1950 for Annie Allen (1949), she remains seriously undervalued, a writer whose virtuosity only began to receive anything like its due during the last years of her life.

Kansas-born but reared and educated in the Chicago of Hyde Park and the South Side, she attended in turn Hyde Park High School, the all-black Wendell Phillips High School, and Englewood High School, before graduating from Wilson Junior College in 1935. The “Bronzeville,” or black Chicago, of her poems thus draws upon a lived familiarity. Brooks was also a deeply committed family woman, and the strength of her relationship with her parents, David and Keziah Brooks, would readily carry over to her brother Raymond, to her husband and fellow poet, Henry Blakely, and to her two children, Henry, Jr., and Nora. To Brooks “family” meant more, namely black “family” or “community” oneness. That attitude showed in her poetry from the start, whether in “the old marrieds,” from the 1940’s, with its lovely cadence of “But in the crowding darkness not a word did they say;” or in “The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till,” from the 1960’s, with its imagistic, affecting “She kisses her killed boy./ And she is sorry./ Chaos in windy grays/ through a red prairie;” or in “Paul Robeson,” from the 1980’s, with its insistence “that we are each other’s/ harvest:/ we are each other’s/ business:/ we are each other’s/ magnitude and bond.” In each of these poems, as in most of her poetry, the colloquialism is subtle, a complex, highly wrought simplicity.

Moreover, she never gave way to...

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The Difficulty of Achieving Simplicity

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The Bean Eaters contains some of Brooks’s best-honed poems, preeminent among them “In Honor of David Anderson Brooks, My Father,” an exquisite memorial, with its opening Eliotesque quatrain: “A dryness is upon the house/ My father loved and tended./ Beyond his firm and sculptured door/ His light and lease have ended.” Likewise, the collection’s title poem calls upon memory, the intimate, unspoken remembrances of an “old yellow pair” amid “their rented back room that is full of beads and receipts and dolls and cloths, tobacco crumbs, vases and fringes.” So lyric a poem plays against the staccato, imitatively laid-back youth talk of “We Real Cool,” or the hard-hitting, satiric slap at white, middle-class patronage in “The Lovers of the Poor,” which ends “They allow their lovely skirts to graze no wall,/ Are off at what they manage of a canter,/ And, resuming all the clues of what they were,/ Try to avoid inhaling the laden air.” Brooks was never short on variety.

Again, too, Brooks displays throughout a controlled impressionism, a poetry whose technical skills of free verse, of assonance, and of an inventive, unpredictable rhetoric of likeness in difference belie any apparent simplicity of theme. In this respect, the ending of “The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock” bears out the point to perfection:

And true, they are hurling spittle, rock,Garbage and fruit in Little Rock.And I saw coiling storm a-writheOn bright madonnas. And a scytheOf men harassing brownish girls.(The bows and barrettes in the curlsAnd braids declined away from joy.)I saw a bleeding brownish boy. . . .The lariat lynch-wish I deplored.The loveliest lynchee was our Lord.

This poem, too, points the way to the radical change that came about for Brooks in the 1960’s: her response, as one virtually reborn, to the call of Black Power. In each of her subsequent main collections, “Blackness” becomes a more explicit dynamic. As she wrote in “To Kereoapetse Kgositsile (Willie),” from Family Pictures, “Blackness is a going to essences and unifyings.” In “Boys. Black,” from Beckonings, she spoke from another vantage point, that of a motherly, custodial presence encouraging “Black Boys” to “Take my Faith./ Make of my Faith an engine./ Make of my Faith/ a Black Star. I am Beckoning.”

Discovering Black Nationalism

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

One major impetus for this changed direction lay in her writerly association with Madhubuti, Baraka, and their fellow nationalists. Then, too, she reacted admiringly to the clenched-fist militancy of the Black Panthers, the Black Muslims, and other groups. She especially felt at one with the rest of black America in her reaction to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968, and, on her home turf, with the ensuing “Chicago disturbances” under the regime of Mayor Richard Daley. Not least in her “awakening” was the pilgrimage she took to East Africa in 1971. So, in her Report from Part One: An Autobiography (1972), she could say engagingly:I—who have “gone the gamut” from an almost angry rejection of my dark skin by some of my brainwashed brothers and sisters to a surprised queenhood in the new black sun—am qualified to enter at least the kindergarten of new consciousness now. New consciousness and trudge-towards progress. I have hopes for myself.

In the Mecca, in its first part of the same name, portrays black Chicago as a multiverse, a polyglot, mosaical city of both high culture and vernacular African American memory and voices. Deservingly, it has been compared with Hart Crane’s The Bridge (1930), another myth of urban America. In its second part, “After Mecca,” Brooks can thus write both of “The Chicago Picasso” (“Art hurts. Art urges voyages”) and of “The Blackstone Rangers” (“There they are./ Thirty at the corner./ Black, raw, ready./ Sores in the city/ that do not want to heal.”), double-tokens of a citied, metropolitan America as a kind of living tableau. Primer for Blacks assumes a speaking voice even more direct: “Blackness/ is a...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Evans, Mari, ed. Black Women Writers, 1950-1980: A Critical Evaluation. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1983. Reprints an extract from Brooks’s autobiography, together with essays by Addison Gayle on black self-awareness in Brooks and by George Kent on the range of styles and voice in her poetry.

Kent, George E. A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990. The most authoritative biography. Contains an excellent account of her Chicago upbringing and literary life, a full set of readings of the poetry and fiction, and a helpful placing of Brooks as a leading African American writer.

Madhubuti, Haki R., ed. Say That the River Turns: The Impact of Gwendolyn Brooks. Chicago: Third World Press, 1987. A timely celebration of Brooks both for her writings and her example as role model.

Mootry, Maria K., and Gary Smith, eds. A Life Distilled: Gwendolyn Brooks, Her Poetry and Fiction. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987. Eighteen essays covering the entire range of Brooks’s writing. Contains important essays by Houston A. Baker (on Brooks’s overall achievement), George E. Kent (on Brooks’s aesthetics), Gayl Jones (on “Community and Voice”), and Barbara Christian (on Maud Martha). The bibliography is especially helpful.

Shaw, Harry B. Gwendolyn Brooks. Boston: Twayne, 1980. Dutiful (if at times contentious) life-and-works overview. Annotated bibliography.

Tate, Claudia, ed. Black Women Writers at Work. New York: Continuum, 1983. Includes a revealing interview on Brooks’s move toward black nationalism.