Books

The Radical Poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, the First Black Author to Win a Pulitzer Prize

Her poetry portrayed African American life in a complex and vulnerable way.

Photo Credit: Jim Kuhn/Flickr

The following is an excerpt from the new book A Surprised Queenhood in the New Black Sun: The Life & Legacy of Gwendolyn Brooks by Angela Jackson (Beacon Press, May 2017):

“We are each other’s harvest,” Gwendolyn Brooks would write years later. But the years from 1945 to 1949 were a time of laboring and significant harvest with the publication of two volumes of her work A Street in Bronzeville and Annie Allen. With these slim, eloquent books, Gwendolyn would establish herself as a writer of renown, a literary force to be regarded seriously. They would lead her to a place no other African American poet or writer held.

A Street in Bronzeville was published in August 1945. It hit Afro- America with the force of an atomic bomb. But it was by no means destructive. It was life-affirming for black people, who often felt a strong need to prove they were equal to whites because many whites were so blatantly disproving of this essential fact. Gwendolyn was important because she surpassed not only the expectations of whites about black people but whites themselves.

The first poem in the collection is “the old-marrieds.”

But in the crowding darkness not a word did they say
Though the pretty-coated bird had piped so lightly all the day.
And he had seen the lovers in the little side-streets,
And she had heard the morning stories clogged with sweets.
It was quite a time for loving. It was midnight. It was May.
But in the crowding darkness not a word did they say.

The speaker of the poem is omniscient, observing the absence of intimacy in an intimate setting. The eye of the poet is penetrating, as in a newsreel; the language pristine, almost mocking as the poem begins.

Whether Gwendolyn’s intention was to create a newsreel effect or not, she begins her most public announcement of herself as a poet by breaking with the past. This is neither a dialect nor sentimental poem; it is neither blues-infused, as Hughes’s work was, nor exotic. The characters in the bed are not the stereotypically hypersexual Negroes of the white imagination. They are sedate, mature, and sexually repressed. No one had imagined Negroes in poetry in this way before. They were surprisingly, refreshingly human. Indeed, Gwendolyn began with a surprising imaginative and empathetic leap. She was a young poet, twenty-eight, writing about middle-aged or elderly people. She was a relatively young wife writing about a couple who had been married for decades.

The poem opens with the conjunction “but” as if to indicate that the reader might be caught in a sentence that began a while ago. We are engaged not only in that poem but in a volume of poems. Gwendolyn suggests a street in Bronzeville with the phrase “crowding darkness”; she also suggests a claustrophobic darkness so close that it is intimate. But the couple in the poem does not speak, and they are not intimate in word or gesture. This disconnect is in spite of the romantic events of the day that should have brought them closer together. Even though it was the time for lovemaking, they do not make love. They crowd like strangers in a crowd of darkness, as each of the residents of Bronzeville may be a stranger in a dark crowd. with nineteen more portraits in verse exploring characters and landmarks of the community. After “the old-marrieds” come two popular masterpieces: “kitchenette building” and the aforementioned “the mother.” Wright had argued that “the mother” should not be published in the book, and the poem is still controversial today because the subject is so controversial. Gwendolyn could not have been a more revolutionary black feminist in the writing of and steadfast inclusion of this poem in her inaugural volume.

These two poems have a great impact—the former in its understanding of the day-to-day stresses of “drylongso”—or every day, ordinary black people—living in cut-up apartments with bathrooms separate from each unit, one bathroom per floor, five units sharing one bathroom; the latter in its understanding of the mother who has had an abortion (possibly more than one). There was no reliable birth control then beyond abstinence. Prophylactics were widespread, but unreliable. Abortion remains a hot-button topic today, even though it is legal. At the time the poem was written, though, abortions were illegal and dangerous, often performed in less than sterile conditions.

THE MOTHER

Abortions will not let you forget.
You remember the children you got that you did not get,
The damp small pulps with a little or with no hair,
The singers and workers that never handled the air.

The poem is a dramatic monologue. The speaker is a woman seized by guilt, anguish, and regret. The poem goes on in hypnotic effect offering a description of lives and people who might have been but will not. The poem is a plea for understanding of the mother’s action, a plea from her to her children who she says she has deprived of many detailed aspects of life. Her only defense is this:

Believe me, I loved you all.
Believe me, I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you
All.

What is telling about the poem is that the narrator offers such a tender description of the lives not spent as she describes her crime.

She does not offer any justification or rationale because she herself cannot articulate one that is as forceful as their loss and her own. It is a remarkable poem that can serve as an argument for or against abortion. It simply is. Gwendolyn said that she herself had never had an abortion. She was artist enough to embody the pain of a woman who has had one.

It was not only artistic daring that distinguished Gwendolyn. There were few forums for black poets and writers in the late 1930s and 1940s. But the George Cleveland Hall Branch Library on Forty-Eighth and Michigan provided one such place. Initially, the librarian, Vivian Harsh, had concentrated on developing a vast collection of books and materials on Negro literature, life, and history. Then, in tune with Richard Wright’s essay “Blueprint for Black Writing”—in which he encouraged a literature by Negroes truly reflective of the genuine humanity of Negroes, and the development of a readership for such a literature—Harsh opened the library as a forum for poets and writers. Initially organized in October 1933 as the Book Review and Forum, the library’s “chief adult activity,” its aim was to “enrich the lives of readers and draw attention to books by black writers.”

During those years, poets and writers who read at the Hall Branch Library included William Attaway, Arna Bontemps, Horace Cayton and St. Clair Drake (the coauthors of Black Metropolis), Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Alain Locke, Margaret Walker, and Richard Wright—as well as Gwendolyn Brooks.  The Hall Branch Library was a national cultural beacon, and it was in its light that Gwendolyn was amplified in Chicago.

In the 1940s, Gwendolyn also read her poetry, accompanied by a harpist, at the South Side Community Art Center, whose director was her old friend Margaret Taylor Goss. These sophisticated afternoon salons showcasing Gwendolyn were warmly reviewed in the Chicago Defender.

Besides reading in the Hall Branch Library and South Side Community Art Center, Gwendolyn drew audiences elsewhere in the city when A Street in Bronzeville was released. She stepped out into a world that was somewhat prepared for her in its appetite for reading. But were they ready for her revolutionary vision?

In literature, Gwendolyn and other female Visionaries were not the only women who rose to the forefront during wartime. In 1944, schoolteachers Fern Gayden and Alice Browning founded Negro Story magazine to publish the work of Negro writers who represented Negroes as real human beings and not the stock characters usually found in print. Browning had been impelled by a rejection slip from Esquire magazine of one of her own stories and the idea of Story magazine. She wanted a Story magazine for Negroes. Gayden had been a member of the South Side Writers Club with Richard Wright, and Browning was a dynamic woman whose penchant for organization lasted into her most-senior years. In the 1980s, she was still a vibrant, light-skinned lady with bright lipstick, a presence on the black Chicago literary scene as she organized an annual Black Writers Conference. It was always a well-attended event with national representation. Alice was energetic, smart, and young at heart, as committed to black literature as she had been in 1944.

During World War II, paper stock was hard to come by, so the two women purchased some from the Chicago Defender. They published the prominent and promising Negro writers: Richard Wright, Chester Himes, Ralph Ellison, poets Frank Marshall Davis, Margaret Walker, and, of course, Gwendolyn Brooks. The journal lasted from 1944 to 1946, and Gwendolyn gained additional notice through it. Readers of these national organs were waiting for the arrival of work by a poet of gathering recognition. Negro Story and the Chicago Defender heralded the publication of A Street in Bronzeville.

In their life as a young married couple, Gwendolyn and Henry lived in a number of residences in Bronzeville. Several of these were kitchenette buildings. Gwendolyn knew the sounds and odors of these spaces. She knew the preoccupations of its denizens, the mentality that circled round “rent” and “feeding a wife” in the male province or “satisfying a man” in the female province. These were quotidian and prevailing concerns. What was “a dream?” And how could it fare against the heavy necessities of reality itself ?

KITCHENNETTE BUILDING

We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,
Grayed in, and gray. “Dream” makes a giddy sound, not strong
Like “rent,” “feeding a wife,” “satisfying a man.

But could a dream send up through onion fumes
Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes
And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,
Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms

Even if we were willing to let it in,
Had time to warm it, keep it very clean,
Anticipate a message, let it begin?

We wonder. But not well! not for a minute!
Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now,
We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it.

Life is grim in these kitchenette buildings. The color gray captures the mood of entrapment as in a prison. People here are not people; they are things, dehumanized by the nature of a system they did not volunteer for but were assigned to. To be strong is to meet the requirements of day-to-day living: pay rent, buy groceries, and satisfy a man’s sexual needs (though not a woman’s). A dream cannot withstand the weight of reality; reality stinks. A dream must be nurtured, takes a measure of attention. Do the residents have time for such a thing? They cannot even consider it long, for a realistic necessity comes up and they have to meet necessity. They take what they can get.

At first the poem seems to have an appealing comic ending, but upon reflection, it is sad. The best that one can hope for is lukewarm water for a bath.

The poems “the mother” and “kitchenette building” offer potent portraits of lives lived in desperation. They are elegantly executed and do not belabor the points Gwendolyn is making with these poor people. Other Bronzeville residents are memorable. Often quoted are “hunchback girl: she thinks of heaven,” “a song in the front yard,” “the preacher ruminates behind the sermon,” “Sadie and Maud,” “when you have forgotten Sunday: the love story,” and “of DeWitt Williams on his way to Lincoln Cemetery.”

“Sadie and Maud” and “a song in the front yard” share a theme of the satisfaction of the fast life and the deprivation of being safe and sheltered and good. And the couple in “when you have forgotten Sunday: the love story” manage to be actively sexual in a committed relationship. There is even a sweet excitement in the urgency of their love. In this poem, Gwendolyn endorses romantic sexual love. There is no child or children breaking the romantic mood. Perhaps these are young married people being celebrated. This couple and their circumstance come closest to Gwendolyn’s own. The female lover has a “presentiment” that the war will be over before the male lover is called to service. In any case, the war is raging and the speaker may be addressing a beloved one absent because he is a soldier. We do not know, but we are engaged.

Gwendolyn, in her fashion, was an advocate for sexual liberation, the shrugging off of middle-class Puritanical values. Gwendolyn Brooks as a poet, that is. “Sadie and Maud” and “a song in the front yard” both witness the fulfillment that “combing life with a fine tooth” provided; explorations and adventures bring forth gifts to the spirit. Experience and wisdom were gathered. Children were the offspring of sexual exploration and openness. Spinsterhood and powerlessness, like a little brown mouse living in an old house, were the result of adhering to the expectations of others, following the rules.

Gwendolyn herself had broken ranks with her parents’ authority. She married young. But in her personal life, she had not thumbed her nose at middle-class morality. Perhaps a part of her did yearn to live freely as did the speaker in “a song of the front yard”—wearing black stockings and strutting down the street with paint on her face. Gwendolyn was the opposite of that image, demure and dignified. But she has more to say on the topic of female sexuality. Her “Queen of the Blues” is an ample, hip-shaking, shimmying singer who craves the respectability of a lady. She says, “Men are low down / Dirty and mean. / Why don’t they tip / Their hats to a queen?” This queen pays the penalties of living outside the bounds of respectability, of singing and performing in a sexualized arena. This suggests that if Gwendolyn were not a full advocate for sexual exploration, at least she spoke bravely about the subject. It is as if Gwendolyn were dialoguing with herself on the benefits and detriments of sexual experience. For her, the argument is weighted in favor of sexual experience and passion. Young Gwendolyn was a gentlewoman and an artist, and her weighing in on the side of sexual expression was a call to love, experimentation, and the full living of life. She did not believe women should be closed in or fenced off from life. To explore female sexuality was to enter into an unspoken terrain. She entered this terrain throughout the volume.

Other residents of the Bronzeville street are represented in the remaining poems of the section. Gwendolyn’s vision was radical in her selection of whom she saw and the way in which she saw them. She imagined a hunchback girl who dreamed of a straight heaven. This awareness of a Negro girl with a physical abnormality is highly unusual and is a testament to Gwendolyn’s extended sensitivity to people. She imagined a preacher “ruminating behind a sermon” on the possible loneliness of God. This irreverent view of the Most High demonstrates Gwendolyn’s social and religious daring. Church people might have been offended by the poem. Church people might also have been offended by a “living lady” who retreated from the sexual desires of suitors into a devout and living death of religiosity, only to be preyed upon by a lecherous preacher. There is an innocent accidental child murderer, an adulteress, and a boyfriend with “patent leather hair” on this street. DeWitt Williams was “a plain black boy” on his way to his burial, his body being carried past landmarks of his Bronzeville.

When Richard Wright served as Harper & Brothers’ in-house reader for the volume, he suggested that Gwendolyn needed a long poem or several short poems that spoke in a “personal” way about her feelings for the residents of Bronzevillle. Gwendolyn responded to this call with one of her signature pieces, “The Sundays of Satin Legs Smith.” It is a narrative of a day in the life of a Negro youth—a zoot-suiter. Gwendolyn would say about these sources of her inspiration, “You probably don’t remember the zoot-suiters; they were still around in the forties, in the early forties. They were not only black men but Puerto Rican, too, who would wear these suits with the wide shoulders, and the pants did balloon out and then come down to tapering ends, and they wore chains—perhaps you’ve seen them in the movies. That’s the kind of person I was writing about in ‘The Sundays of Satin Legs Smith.’” She refers to the zoot-suiters’ hats “‘like bright umbrellas’ which implies that he is protecting himself under that fancy wideness.” Gwendolyn explores the interior by scrupulously recording the exterior, and by intimately addressing the reader.

Inamoratas, with an approbation,
Bestowed his title. Blessed his inclination.

That is, a girlfriend, with a kiss, gave him the nickname that honored his walk and tendency to dress in satin-like fabrics.

Gwendolyn perfects the detached yet cozy tone of the newsreel in this extended narrative that strays from descriptive narrative in a few lines when she makes her social agenda most plain. She departs from her elaborate documentary overview and speaks directly to the reader in a most heartfelt way.

People are so in need, in need of help.
People want so much that they do not know.

Excerpted from A Surprised Queenhood in the New Black Sun: The Life & Legacy of Gwendolyn Brooks by Angela Jackson (Beacon Press, 2017). Reprinted with Permission from Beacon Press.

Angela Jackson is a poet, playwright and novelist. She is the author of numerous collections of poetry, including the National Book Award-nominated And All These Roads Be Luminous: Poems Selected and New. Her novel Where I Must Go won the American Book Award in 2009. 

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