Each month, the editors of the Oxford African American Studies Center provide insights into black history and culture by offering specially commissioned featured essays, photo collections, and a selected list of articles to further guide the reader. The September 2006 report explores the contributions of women to American literature. Twice a week we’ll offer additional articles that expand on that topic.
Gwendolyn Brooks, American poet, novelist, activist, and teacher, stands out for her social engagement, her professional generosity, and her literary accomplishment. In a career that spanned six decades, Brooks concerned herself with portraying the lives of American blacks, especially people hampered by social and economic circumstances. Throughout her corpus, Brooks demonstrates sensitivity to the particulars of black life in America; when tracking the work chronologically, one sees evolving her sense of the black poet’s most appropriate response to a racially charged society.
Brooks was born on 17 June 1917 in Topeka, Kansas, to David and Keziah Wims Brooks; her parents were residents of Chicago’s South Side, who had returned home for the birth of their first child. They subsequently moved back to Chicago, where Brooks lived for most of her life. Despite her family’s poverty, which necessitated both of her parents’ foregoing career aspirations, Brooks grew up in a nurturing home environment. Unfortunately, her community experience was not similarly positive. In the face of intraracial prejudice aimed at her because of her appearance, Brooks found solace and self-confidence in her writing. Her mother was especially sensitive to her daughter’s plight and encouraged Brooks to develop her creative talents. She also took Brooks to readings by authors such as James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes. Hughes strongly encouraged her in her attempts to establish a poetic career.
Youth and Early Career
By the age of thirteen, Brooks had already published a poem, Eventide, in American Childhood magazine. At the age of seventeen, she became a regular contributor to the Chicago Defender, where eventually she published seventy-five poems. Heartened by her early success, Brooks continued to hone her craft, enrolling in a poetry workshop at the South Side Community Art Center that yielded her many of the pieces for her first book of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville (1945). In a series of polished, graceful poems, Brooks takes readers inside the world of the black poor, portraying the harsh realities of economic injustice without ever losing sight of the basic human dignity of her subjects.
The second poem of Bronzeville, kitchenette building, establishes the volume’s tone. The speaker is, as Brooks was, a resident of a tenement on Chicago’s South Side; furthermore, like Brooks, the speaker experiences creative urges-the reader sees her wondering whether or not a dream could “sing an aria” in the confines of rooms marked with the stench of food smells and garbage. For all of her wondering, however, the speaker ultimately recognizes the futility of her speculation. First of all, there are practical needs to be met, such as a bath in the shared bathroom. Second, the speaker understands herself and her fellow residents as “things,” a notion that the reference to a fellow resident as “Number Five” strongly reinforces. As long as she accepts this vision of herself, the speaker cannot really afford to dream, especially not of a world that values aesthetic sensitivity. This was not so for Brooks. As this and the other poems of A Street in Bronzeville demonstrate, Brooks sees making art as a viable, even a crucial, response to this environment. In short, making beauty in this world where it is so scarce becomes for the poet one means of surviving it.
Unfortunately, many of Bronzeville’s residents are not as lucky as the poet. From the aborted babies of the mother, to De Witt Williams, whose funeral procession the reader observes, to poor Percy, the victim of his brother’s violence in the murder, the number of characters who die in the volume is sobering. Of the ones who do survive, most are scarred by their experiences. One sees, for instance, Matthew Cole, a reclusive bachelor who “Is everlasting sad” or the subject of “obituary for a living lady,” who, like Cole, is among the dead living. These are adults so broken by events in their lives that they do not live, but only exist. As poignant as these portraits are, the children of Bronzeville are even more heart-wrenching. Percy perishes in flames of his brother Brucie’s creation. The fires of poverty and intraracial oppression burn others. Of these, none is better known or more moving than Mabbie, the subject of the ballad of chocolate Mabbie.
A shy seven-year-old whose dark skin suggested to others that she “was cut from a chocolate bar,” Mabbie develops a crush on classmate Willie Boone. Innocently, Mabbie believes that declaring her feelings will win her young Boone’s devotion. What she does not realize is that he is prone to the intraracial prejudice about skin color that makes light-skinned blacks reject those with darker complexions. Waiting outside the schoolhouse, she encounters Boone and the new object of his affections, a light-skinned girl with straight hair. The poem ends with an image of Mabbie’s isolation, her belief that she is most fit for “chocolate companions” like herself. Although not directly autobiographical, the poem does reflect a crucial part of Brooks’s experience: her own feelings of rejection and isolation associated with her darkness. Here, as in kitchenette building, the experiencing consciousness in the poem can ill afford beauty as solace: chocolate Mabbie faces a life of isolation because of her color, a reality that simple beauty cannot ameliorate. For the poet, however, the opportunity to make art out of this painful experience is much more effective, perhaps even the best response that she has to injustice.
These motifs from A Street in Bronzeville resonate through her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of poems, Annie Allen (1949), and through her only novel, Maud Martha (1953). Like chocolate Mabbie, Maud Martha knows the pain of color-based rejection; like the speaker of kitchenette building, she struggles to keep her aesthetic dreams alive in the oppressive environment of a South Side tenement. The great strength of the novel (which has unfortunately been largely overlooked by critics), is its sustained examination of the impact of the Bronzeville environment on a single individual. With this shift from the street to the individual self, the poet trades breadth for depth and thereby mutually enriches both portraits. And with these complementary approaches, Brooks fully illustrates the artist’s power as chronicler of this segment of black life.
An Increasing Interest in Politics
In 1960, Brooks published another volume of poetry, The Bean Eaters. Here, as in the earlier work, one finds finely crafted portraits of African-American life; furthermore, as in Bronzeville, Brooks shows her readers many members of a community. What changes here, however, is the tone of the work. She balances her desire for making beauty with a clearer, more obvious call for political engagement. This takes the form of commentary on specific events in poems like A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon and The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till, both of which deal with the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till, a Chicago teenager who ran afoul of a white mob in Money, Mississippi, by daring to speak familiarly to a white woman. For his boldness, he was tortured, shot, and drowned. Brooks uses the particular experiences of two women closely connected to Till’s death to comment on the larger social disorder.
“A Bronzeville Woman…” shows the mental turmoil of a white Mississippi woman whose husband was among Till’s lynchers. As she prepares breakfast, she feels the blood on her husband’s hands staining her, her children, and her home. In response to his violence, she feels “hatred” for him, a sign of her new awareness of all that is wrong with the social order she has always known and, implicitly, valued. Brooks ends the description of her enlightenment with the following lines: “The last bleak news of the ballad. / The rest of the rugged music. / The last quatrain.” Immediately following this is the poem entitled “The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till.” In this poem, Brooks shows the reader Till’s mother, Mamie Bradley, “after the murder, after the burial.” Sitting quietly alone, she regrets what has happened to her son. The last lines of the poem “Chaos in windy grays / through a red prairie” suggest that the scene takes place back home in Chicago. With these two poems, Brooks reminds her reader that Till’s death is more than an outrage against blacks, more than a southern crime. Through the ruminations of these two women, who share an outrage over the white man’s action that comes at least partially from the shared experience of maternity, Brooks suggests that change can come only through mutual recognition of the cost of racial injustice. If blacks and whites can learn this lesson and work together in response, there is perhaps hope for some sort of racial reconciliation.
The same is true of The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock, which chronicles responses to the 1957 integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Here, as in the Till poems, Brooks strikes a balance between her accurate portrayal of historical events and her hope for some transcendent sympathy that will overcome injustice. What one needs to achieve such sympathy, in her view, is action; the poet’s role in that is to raise her readers’ awareness by pointing out to them instances where such action should be taken. Subsequent to the period of The Bean Eaters, she remained true to that ideal of action but restricted her focus almost exclusively to the black community.
The Black Arts Era and Beyond
In the mid-1960s, Brooks underwent what she called a transformation after attending the second Black Writers’ Conference at Fisk University; there she met, among others, Don L. Lee (Haki Madhubuti). She subsequently became involved in Chicago’s Black Arts Movement, running a workshop that included many future founders of the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC). The younger poets Brooks met through her contact with OBAC also taught her much of the theory and practice of the Black Aesthetic. It was Brooks’s immersion in this set of values and principles that moved her toward a new vision of the poet’s role as activist.
Brooks acknowledges her indebtedness to the OBAC poets by offering tribute to thirteen workshop members at the beginning of In the Mecca (1968), her volume that maps the terrible, wonderful landscape of the Chicago ghetto. The title poem, which presents a mother’s frantic search for her missing (and, the reader ultimately learns, murdered) daughter, reflects Brooks’s conviction that the most significant art is relevant to the community that inspires it. In this case, part of the relevance of the poem comes in Brooks’s effort to balance affirmation of and challenge to her community. That translates into a critique of individuals and institutions that harm the community; but even as she presents that commentary, she tries to locate whatever redeeming features her subject might have.
In the Mecca demonstrates that attempt. As Mrs. Sallie Smith roams the filthy halls of the decrepit, overcrowded building, searching for her abducted daughter, Pepita, she encounters a range of characters that inspire admiration and fear, often for similar reasons. For instance, she pairs St. Julia Jones, a devout Christian, with Prophet Williams, a charlatan whose transgressions include killing his wife in a domestic abuse incident. In the process, she also creates conflicting emotional responses to this landscape. She describes one of Pepita’s siblings, Thomas Earl, who “loves Johnny Appleseed” and notes “It is hard to be Johnny Appleseed.” And yet, despite these challenges, Thomas Earl’s love remains. Even in the face of this horrible environment, Thomas Earl does not surrender his hope. Brooks’s representation of this tension suggests the conflict between hope and economic reality that one sees in kitchenette building. Furthermore, in both instances, Brooks rejects a deterministic viewpoint. To be sure, the Mecca can kill people, as the Smith family soon learns, but dreams survive there.
Perhaps the most significant of these dreams belongs to Don Lee, the young Mecca resident who seeks a revolutionary art. One has the sense that his experiences living in the Mecca fuel his desire for a new world where blacks like the Mecca’s residents have and exercise power. In making a character named for one of Chicago’s most significant young poets a resident of this complex and awful world, Brooks aligns herself with Lee (and, by extension, his OBAC peers) and announces the role that the group can play in the community. Black artists may not be able to actually tear these buildings down, but they can change their meaning by going among the residents and spreading the message of their new art, their new vision. In a sense, Don Lee is the true Johnny Appleseed of the Mecca, and although it may be hard to be him, the fruit of his work makes the effort worthwhile.
Even as Brooks shows one of her younger peers in this role in the poem, she is adopting it herself. From In the Mecca forward, her work reflects a strong commitment to political action, a recognition that the poet’s responsibility is to use words as weapons in the fight against injustice. She coupled that commitment with economic action in 1969, when she shifted from Harper, her publisher for twenty-five years, to a series of small black presses: Broadside in Detroit, Third World in Chicago, and, starting in 1982, her own companies, Brooks Press and the David Company. The result was increased business for these companies and no diminishment of Brooks’s prominence or relevance. She continued her work, garnering awards that include a National Book Award nomination for In the Mecca, an appointment as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress in 1985, induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1988, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1989, the Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America in 1989, the Jefferson lecturer award in 1994, and more than fifty honorary degrees from universities and colleges. As she continued, her vision of the boundaries of black community expanded; in the 1980s and 1990s, she connected herself to blacks all over the world, challenging the implications of the term “African American” as too narrow. Instead, she called for blacks from America to South Africa to unite in celebration of their common black humanity. At her death on 3 December 2000, she was hailed as a poetic and a political force in black life; such a designation reflects her own sense of how those roles can and should intertwine. In acting out those beliefs through her writing, Brooks helped change the face and the orientation of American literature.