American Poets of the 20th Century The Poets Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000)

About the Poet

A landmark poet, novelist, and autobiographer, Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks is treasured for an abiding humanity strongly grounded on the experiences of wife and mother. A symbol of commitment to her race, she became the first black American to win a Guggenheim Fellowship, American Academy of the Arts and Letters Grant in literature, and the Pulitzer Prize. She is immersed in the rhythms, themes, and language of the black American. She committed her art to the commonalities and hardships of living in a racist society.

Brooks is a native of Topeka, Kansas, born on June 7, 1917, the eldest of three children. Rooted in Chicago's South Side, she kept detailed notebooks from age six, because she was determined to become a spokesperson for black people.

Brooks' education at Hyde Park Branch, Wendell Phillips High, and Englewood High was uninspiring, primarily because it presented Brooks no black role models among teachers and staff and few nonwhite peers. Withdrawn, she read from the foremost white authors of the day — T. S. Eliot, e. e. cummings, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, John Crowe Ransom, and Wallace Stevens — and began learning the intricacies of sonnet, alliteration, and wit. At age 13, certain she would one day be a member of America's best, she buried a sheaf of verse in the backyard for later discovery. Three years later, her mother escorted her to readings of James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes. Johnson had little to say, but Hughes eagerly nudged Brooks toward a career in poetry.

Brooks graduated from Wilson Junior College, then married poet Henry Lowington Blakely, Jr., writer for Wilson Press and father of their children, Henry and Nora. While on the faculty of Chicago Teacher's College, she graduated to professional poet with A Street in Bronzeville (1945), a landmark series of portraits highlighting the verve of city-dwellers. That same year, she won the Midwestern Writers' Conference Poetry award for the third year as well as recognition as one of Mademoiselle's ten outstanding women of 1945, which afforded her introductions to Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison.

After her publisher rejected a novel proposal, Brooks shifted to woman-centered verse. She highlighted the ambiguities of women's lives with a mock epic, "The Anniad," in Annie Allen (1949), winner of the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. She experimented with a semiautobiographical novel, Maud Martha (1953), a repressed self-study that sidesteps family frustrations, and issued a children's compendium, Bronzeville Boys and Girls (1956), a continuation of Chicago-based observations.

The burgeoning civil rights movement influenced Brooks' independent period. No longer courting white readers, she produced The Bean Eaters (1960), a collection of idiosyncratic verse that editors often pilfer for representative black verse to flesh out multicultural texts. Buoyed by critical response to Selected Poems (1963), she wowed critics with a dark, groundbreaking ballad series, In the Mecca (1968), based on her secretarial work for an evangelist. The text is a sophisticated satire of city opulence from the vantage point of a domestic worker, Mrs. Sallie, who searches a city center for Pepita, her lost child. The narrative concludes with praise for black heroes Malcolm X and Medgar Evers.

Brooks' verse sharpened in Riot (1969), Family Pictures (1970), Aloneness (1971), Broadside Treasury (1971), and Jump Bad (1971). This flood of new writings anticipated the height of her skills displayed in an urgent, fiercely militant collection, The World of Gwendolyn Brooks (1971), the last manuscript she entrusted to a white publisher. She contracted with black presses and published an impressionistic autobiography, Report from Part One: The Autobiography of Gwendolyn Brooks (1972), which showcases memories and photos of her younger brother Raymond.

Richer, fuller statements of black loyalties infuse Brooks' The Tiger Who Wore White Gloves (1974), Beckonings (1975), Primer for Blacks (1980), To Disembark (1981), The Near-Johannesburg Boy and Other Poems (1986), Gottschalk and the Grande Tarantelle (1988), and Winnie (1988). With the anthology Blacks (1987), Brooks began publishing through her own press. Her many achievements include election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and, in 1973, appointment to the poetry consultancy of the Library of Congress. A distinguished professor of English at Chicago State University, Brooks was the impetus for the Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Black Literature and Creative Writing, a continuation of her support for the next generation of artists.

Brooks died on December 3, 2000.

Chief Works

Early on, Brooks displayed a finely tuned, yet accessible poetic vision. A favorite, "The Mother" (1945), looks into the mind of a woman troubled by repressed grief for aborted non-babies. Composed in somewhat artificial rhymed couplets, the text breaks into a liberating candor with the emergence of "I" in the second stanza. As though suffering wavelike contractions, the speaker moves to confession in line 21. With a late-developing reverence for life, the speaker acknowledges through repetition a regret that her lost children "were never made."

A lyric sequence, The Womanhood (1949), draws on structured questions about motherhood. The second stave, "The Children of the Poor," uses the fourteen-line Petrarchan stanza to frame questions of legacy. Implicit in a cry against judgments of "my sweetest lepers" is the mother's self-blame for giving birth to children condemned as "quasi, contraband." Out of kilter is the coming of age of her "little halves" in autumn, when their fruits freeze before ripening. Segueing to a conclusion with "True," she notes that blacks intent on being less black miss the "silver" under their darkness and never pause to mine a "treasure of stars."

On the outer edge of the coming civil revolt, "A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi" (1960) expresses through melodramatic urgency a miscarriage of justice in a nation where "Nothing and nothing could stop Mississippi." The poem narrates a vignette in which a white woman dwells apart from the "milk-white maids" and dashing prince-rescuers of anthologized verse. As she prepares breakfast for her family, she mourns the demonizing of a young black teen, yet watches as a malodorous hatred, "big / Bigger than all magnolias" engulfs her family. In reply to the poem's high drama, "The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmet Till" (1960) closes obliquely on the victim's mother. The starkness of reds and blacks summons a single image: "Chaos in windy grays / through a red prairie." Heavy with the poet's conviction that imperfections cloud America's past glories, the poem anticipates upheaval.

Prefiguring a generation captivated by rap some three decades hence, "We Real Cool" (1960) frames a time line out of street jive, alliterated monosyllables, and the dicer's roll of seven. Situated "at the Golden Shovel," the eight-stage litany honors with sharp-edged irony the self-adulating pool sharks. Cool for dropping out of school, cruising the streets, and romancing self-destruction, the deluded males, like self-cloned victims, move from sin to gin to an erotic tease ("Jazz June") before succumbing to an unnamed killer. A flip warning, the poem throws back in the faces of knowing teens the premature death that becomes an eighth player in their trite street drama.

Discussion and Research Topics

1. In many of her poems, Brooks focuses on mothers and motherhood. Write an essay in which you discuss Brooks' treatment of motherhood. Is being a mother a positive experience to Brooks? Support your argument by citing her poems.

2. Summarize the social and educational milieu of the speakers in Brooks' "Negro Hero," "Ulysses," "Kitchenette Building," and "The Coora Flower."

3. Characterize the portraiture of Brooks' "A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi" and "The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith."

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