The Sturdy Years

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Her first two books of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville and Annie Allen, and others written in the 1950’s and 1960’s appear to conform to tradition in their use of the sonnet form and of slant rhyme. There is, however, nothing traditional about one 1945 sonnet’s subject: abortion. In many ways, A Street in Bronzeville is untraditional, innovative, and courageous, although written with a sturdy respect for tradition. Annie Allen, for which Brooks was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in poetry—the first awarded to an African American—uses narrative verse to trace the growth of a semiautobiographical character from girlhood to womanhood. Brooks drew upon personal experiences and social issues as subjects for many early poems. In 1960, she published The Bean Eaters, a collection containing two well-known poems: “We Real Cool,” about seven pool players at the Golden Shovel, and “The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock,” written after the 1957 murder of Emmett Till. Her early career also includes publication of Bronzeville Girls and Boys (1956), a children’s book, and Selected Poems.

The Sure Years

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Although her poetry remained grounded in the joy, frustration, injustice, and reality of black life, Brooks’s involvement with young writers in the late 1960’s and her poetry workshops for the Blackstone Rangers, a Chicago gang, produced a new voice. Earlier structured forms gave way to free verse. Vocabulary flowed more freely into black vernacular. In In the Mecca, a book-length poem about Chicago’s old Mecca Building, a mother’s search for her child ultimately becomes a metaphor for the individual search for self in an inhumane society: “The Lord was their shepherd./ Yet did they want.”

Her sure years produced another identity-affirming change in Brooks’s career: the decision to publish with black publishers. Riot, Family Pictures, and Beckonings chronicle social unrest and anger. Although discouraged by the lack of societal change, Brooks continually praises the indefatigable black spirit. Little Lincoln West in “The Life of Lincoln West” finds comfort in knowing he is “the real thing” in spite of society’s abuse. In “To Black Women” from To Disembark, she calls upon her black sisters in the diaspora to create flowers, to prevail despite “tramplings of monarchs and other men.” Later books, such as The Near-Johannesburg Boy and Winnie, reflect the wider black community. Whether writing about leaders in Africa or children in Chicago, Brooks is conscious of the fact that her people are black people. To them she appeals for understanding.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Evans, Mari. Black Women Writers. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1984.

Kent, George E. A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990.

Melhem, D. H. Gwendolyn Brooks: Poetry and the Heroic Voice. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1987.

Mootry, Maria K., and Gary Smith. A Life Distilled: Gwendolyn Brooks, Her Poetry and Fiction. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987.