The bard of Bronzeville

June 7, 2017

Gwendolyn Brooks' writing painted a vivid picture of life on Chicago's South Side and the movements for civil rights and Black Power, writes Megan Behrent.

JUNE 7 marks the centenary of the birth of poet, activist and educator Gwendolyn Brooks.

The anniversary has sparked commemorations, readings and several new books, including a biography by Angela Jackson, a collection of essays about Brooks' legacy edited by Quraysh Ali Lansana and Georgia Popoff for Haymarket Books, and The Golden Shovel, a collection of poetry inspired by Brooks.

As these works attest, the words and politics of Brooks, who died in 2000, continue to inspire new generations of poets and activists.

In her hometown of Chicago, the centennial events kicked off in February with a sold-out event at the Art Institute where five living African American Pulitzer Prize winners joined a crowd of 750 to celebrate Brooks' life and work, concluding with a mass recital of "The Pool Players. Seven at the Golden Shovel"--more commonly known as "We Real Cool."

A frequently anthologized poem, widely taught in high schools across the U.S., the deceptively simple poem is an apt example of Brooks' genius, as her economy of language gives expression to a world of alienation and pain, of young men dying too soon.

Radical poet and activist Gwendolyn Brooks
Radical poet and activist Gwendolyn Brooks

As the poet Angela Jackson remarks in A Surprised Queenhood in the New Black Sun, "The impact of the poem lies in its indictment of a society that has alienated these young Black men."

While Brooks once noted that the "we" at the end of each line in the poem should be said softly to reflect the young men's tentative sense of their own identity, the rousing recitation at the Art Institute is a testament to the passion that her work inspires and its resonance in the era of #BlackLivesMatter.

As a poet, Brooks' poetry gave voice to the poor, the exploited and the oppressed--making art of the daily tragedies wrought by racism, sexism and economic deprivation, while commemorating the aspirations, relationships and community that give life meaning even amid miserable conditions.

Brooks' involvement in the civil rights and Black Power movements provided the political impulse for much of her work. Brooks lent her voice and dedicated her life and work to the struggles for freedom, from Chicago to Mississippi to Soweto, articulating the heroism of those who struggled against the brutality and dehumanization of racism.

It is fitting that her collected works were named The World of Gwendolyn Brooks (1971) and Blacks (1987), emphasizing that her poetry is never hers alone--it is the poetry of Chicago's South Side, the civil rights movement, the anti-apartheid movement the Black Power movement.

BORN IN Topeka, Kansas, Gwendolyn Brooks moved with her parents to the Bronzeville district of Chicago's South Side only a few weeks later. Her father, David Anderson Brooks, was the son of a runaway slave and had studied medicine for a time at Fisk University, but ended up working as a janitor.

Her mother, Kezia Wims Brooks, was a teacher before marriage--she nurtured young Brooks' talent, telling her that she would be "the lady Paul Laurence Dunbar."

Brooks began writing poetry at a young age, and by the age of 11, she was committed to writing at least one poem a day. In 1930, at the age of 13, Brooks made her national debut as a poet with the publication of her first poem, "Eventide," in a national magazine. It was a poem about mountain landscapes far removed from her experience in Chicago, demonstrating the power and breadth of her imagination.

Brooks would soon turn her artistic imagination to subjects closer to home.

The South Side Chicago of Brooks' youth was a cauldron of political and artistic energy. In her youth, Brooks corresponded with the writer James Weldon Johnson and met Langston Hughes, reading his work in the Chicago Defender. The Defender played an influential role in her development as a writer. Brooks published her first poem in the Defender in 1934, and published 75 more poems there over the next four years.

Brooks also became an activist in these years, joining the NAACP Youth Council in 1937, protesting lynching and demanding justice for the Scottsboro Boys in Alabama.

In 1936, Richard Wright formed the South Side Writers Group, which brought together Marxist and left-wing writers and intellectuals, including Margaret Walker, Arna Bontemps, playwright Theodore Ward and the poet-critic Edward Bland, who was memorialized by Brooks in a poem after his death in the Second World War.

Married to Henry Blakely in 1939, Brooks and her husband were deeply involved in the left-wing cultural and political milieu of Bronzeville. At the same time, the pressures of life as a young wife and mother in Bronzeville took its toll, as the search for housing and the experience of living in multiple kitchenettes would become deeply influential to her later fiction and poetry.

BROOKS' FIRST collection of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville, was published by Harper & Brothers in 1945. It gave expression to the varied lives and struggles of the people she knew best: the residents of Bronzeville's kitchenette buildings, much like her own. "If you wanted a poem, you only had to look out of a window," Brooks explained.

Prior to its publication, the manuscript was sent to Richard Wright to review, who lauded her ability to capture "the pathos of petty destinies, the whimper of the wounded, the tiny accidents that plague the lives of the desperately poor, and the problem of color prejudice among Negroes."

"Only one who has actually lived and suffered in a kitchenette," Wright noted, referring to the poem titled "kitchenette building," "could render the feeling of lonely frustration as well as she does--of how dreams are drowned out by the noises, smells and the frantic desire to grab one's chance to get a bath when the bathroom is empty."

Wright reportedly objected to one poem in the collection, "the mother," a dramatic monologue by a woman about her abortions. That Brooks chose to keep the poem in the collection published almost three decades before abortion was legalized, is a tribute to her bravery as an artist and her commitment to using her talent to describe the inner lives of Black women.

These themes would find even greater expression in her second collection of poetry, Annie Allen, and her one novel, the non-traditional Maud Martha--both explore the intersections of race, class and gender oppression. For Annie Allen, Brooks was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1950, making her the first African American to receive the award in any genre.

Brooks' early poetry shows her to be a master of poetic form, with a unique ability to make these forms her own. Inspired by modernist poetic innovations as well as the left-wing artistic spaces of Chicago's South Side, Brooks adapted traditional literary forms to create new ones, such as the sonnet-ballad or verse-journalism, two of her literary innovations.

The series of sonnets titled "Gay Chaps at the Bar," inspired by correspondence from Black soldiers in the Second World War, are written off-rhyme to represent their particular experience of war and racism, because, Brooks explains, "I felt it was an off-rhyme situation."

Drawing on her training in the classics, Brooks invented the form of the "anniad" in Annie Allen--a play on Virgil's Aeneid and Homer's Iliad--to create her own epic poem of Bronzeville.

IN 1963, Gwendolyn Brooks published The Bean Eaters, a volume of poetry in which the influence of the civil rights movement is palpable.

In particular, the 1955 murder of Chicagoan Emmett Till while visiting Mississippi had a powerful effect on Brooks and is the subject of two poems in the collection: "A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon" and "The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till."

Other poems in the collection articulate concerns of the burgeoning movement, including "The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock," about the struggle to desegregate schools, and "The Ballad of Rudolph Reed," which tells the story of a man killed by racist white neighbors who terrorize him and his family.

While Brooks' early life and work reflected a radical political consciousness, 1967 would mark a turning point, when she attended the Fisk Writers' Conference and was introduced to a world of radical writers and activists influenced by the Black Power movement and the Black Arts Movement. Inspired by watching Amiri Baraka, (formerly known as LeRoi Jones), she publicly identified her work with the Black Arts Movement.

In 1967, the Organization of Black American Culture in Chicago featured Gwendolyn Brooks in its famed Wall of Respect mural, alongside W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X and Nina Simone, symbolically inducting Brooks into a Black Power hall of fame.

In the Mecca, the last book Brooks published with Harper & Row in 1968 before moving to independent Black presses, captures a community in crisis, trapped in oppressive conditions, as exemplified by the Mecca, a massive 96-unit apartment building, itself. Built in 1891, it had fallen into disrepair and was destroyed in 1952.

Brooks was well acquainted with the building, having worked there in her youth as the assistant to a "spiritual adviser" who profited off the dreams of the Mecca's denizens. This firsthand view of the misery of the Mecca haunted Brooks, inspiring the title poem of the volume, which provides portraits of the building's residents, as a working mother searches for her missing daughter. Inequality is structural "in the mecca," built into its walls and halls.

The 1969 Riot, inspired by the aftermath of the Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, was the first collection of Brooks' poetry published by an independent Black press, Dudley Randall's Broadside Press. Brooks also donated the royalties of the book to support the press. From this point on, she would only publish with independent Black presses, including Broadside, her own The David Company and Haki Madhubuti's Third World Press.

In these years, she also increasingly committed herself to her role as a teacher, nurturing the talents of other writers, both within the classroom and without. Starting in early 1960s, she used her own money to give literary prizes to students in Chicago Public Schools, and as poet laureate of Illinois, she instituted two annual awards for poetry by residents of Illinois.

Brooks' growing political consciousness also led her to travel to Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana and the Soviet Union in later years, as she sought to draw connections between the struggle against racism and oppression at home and abroad.

The title poem of the 1986 collection The Near-Johannesburg Boy and Other Poems pays homage to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa from the perspective of a young boy. The poem ends with a powerful invocation of people rising up to fight back against oppression and reclaim a land that is their own.

The poem concludes without final punctuation "because," as Brooks explained, "there's no punctuation in that situation." As such, the poem suggests the continuity between the struggle in South Africa and at home, as one that is unfinished and ongoing:

Tonight I walk with
a hundred of playmates to where
the hurt Black of our skin is forbidden.
There, in the dark that is our dark, there,
a-pulse across earth that is our earth, there
there exulting, there Exactly, there redeeming, there
Roaring Up
(oh my Father)
we shall forge with the Fist-and-the-Fury:
we shall flail in the Hot Time:
we shall
we shall

GWENDOLYN BROOKS died in December 2000 at the age of 83 with a pen in hand. A Pulitzer Prize winner, poet laureate, recipient of the National Medal of Arts and many other awards, her poetic genius is unmatched.

Brooks' contributions as an activist and an educator are equally admirable, leaving a lasting legacy that continues to nurture, inspire and support writers and activists today.

A poetic portraitist and bard of Bronzeville and the Black Power movement, Brooks' formal innovations paved the way for artists of today. As Kevin Coval explains, "Ms. Brooks sits in the crown of the culture, of hip-hop and breakbeat poetic practice. She is our matriarch. If not for her, no us."

Brooks, Coval continues, was "a dedicated craftsperson who built a new literature and opened the door for the many to participate and re-inscribe and imagine who we are, have been and who we will become."

The centenary of the birth of Gwendolyn Brooks is an opportunity to remember and celebrate this legacy, to remind us to see the art in daily struggles all around us, and to recommit to a political struggle that is yet unfinished. To echo the words from "The Near-Johannesburg Boy," "we shall, we shall"

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