Gwendolyn Brooks was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1950 for Annie Allen, a book of poems about a black girl coming of age in Chicago. Born June 7, 1917, to strict but encouraging parents, Brooks published her first poem “Eventide” at the age of thirteen in American Childhood. By the time she was sixteen, she had published seventy-five poems, most of them in the Chicago Defender, a newspaper with a primarily black readership.
Brooks was influenced by Harlem Renaissance poets Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson, who encouraged her to read as much modern poetry as possible, particularly the work of Ezra Pound and e.e. cummings. The economy of language employed by Pound and cummings is evident in Brooks’ plainspoken minimalist work. Brooks described her own poetry as “folksy narrative,” a deceptive description for a poet who could with the simplest language both enlighten and devastate. Although she did employ free verse as a technique she could just as expertly execute a sonnet, ballad or other traditional poetic form.
In 1945 she won a Guggenheim Fellowship for her collection A Street In Bronzeville. Following her Pulitzer win, in 1962 she was invited by John F. Kennedy to read at the Library of Congress after which she began teaching at a series of colleges and universities. In 1967, she participated in the Second Black Writer’s Conference at Fisk University, an event that would permanently alter her perception, politic and poetry. It was this pivotal experience that saw Brooks develop a more direct voice of protest in her work. Following the Fisk University conference, Brooks began work on In The Mecca, a book length poem concerning a mother’s search for her lost daughter in a housing project in Chicago. In The Mecca was nominated for a National Book Award.
Brooks’ “awakening” at the Fisk University conference led her to leave publisher Harper & Row to work with smaller, black publishing houses like Broadside and Third World Press. Her determination to write for a black audience about the black experience drew some unfavorable criticism; School Library Journal reviewer L. L. Shapiro described her new works as “celebrating violence.” Nonetheless, Brooks continued to garner awards and accolades; being appointed Illinois Poet Laureate in 1968, Library of Congress’ Consultant in Poetry in 1985, being inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1988 and being awarded more than seventy-five honorary degrees from schools around the globe. In her role as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, Brooks believed her most important duties were to visit schools, prisons, hospitals and rehabilitation centres, funding literary award ceremonies and providing prizes with money out of her own pocket.
In an interview with Contemporary Literature, Brooks said: “I want to write poems that will be non-compromising. I don’t want to stop a concern with words doing good jobs, which has always been a concern of mine, but I want to write poems that will be meaningful . . . things that will touch them.” It was Brooks’ ability to write with unapologetic strength and directness that led her to be a central voice reflecting the events of the civil rights movement. The lynching of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, a black boy whose crime was to whistle at a white woman in Mississippi, effected Brooks deeply and became the subject of two poems; “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi, Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon” and the following:
The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till
(after the murder,
after the burial)
Emmett’s mother is a pretty-faced thing;
the tint of pulled taffy.
She sits in a red room,
drinking black coffee.
She kisses her killed boy.
And she is sorry.
Chaos in windy grays
through a red prairie.
Social issues, poverty, racial prejudice and the lives of women were the subject of Brooks poetic scrutiny. No topic was too personal for her to touch upon, to distill, dissect and present. The following is one of her strongest poems, published in 1945 from the book A Street in Bronzeville. “The Mother” is a frank account of the authors experience with not just one, but several abortions, and unflinchingly candid. The audio clip of Brooks reading this poem is exceptionally powerful.
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.
You will never neglect or beat
Them, or silence or buy with a sweet.
You will never wind up the sucking-thumb
Or scuttle off ghosts that come.
You will never leave them, controlling your luscious sigh,
Return for a snack of them, with gobbling mother-eye.
I have heard in the voices of the wind the voices of my dim killed
I have contracted. I have eased
My dim dears at the breasts they could never suck.
I have said, Sweets, if I sinned, if I seized
And your lives from your unfinished reach,
If I stole your births and your names,
Your straight baby tears and your games,
Your stilted or lovely loves, your tumults, your marriages, aches,
and your deaths,
If I poisoned the beginnings of your breaths,
Believe that even in my deliberateness I was not deliberate.
Though why should I whine,
Whine that the crime was other than mine?–
Since anyhow you are dead.
Or rather, or instead,
You were never made.
But that too, I am afraid,
Is faulty: oh, what shall I say, how is the truth to be said?
You were born, you had body, you died.
It is just that you never giggled or planned or cried.
Believe me, I loved you all.
Believe me, I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you
Before her death at the age of 83 in December, 2000, Gwendolyn Brooks had written over twenty books, including a novel Maud Martha and a two-volume autobiography. Of herself, Brooks wrote:
“I—who have ‘gone the gamut’ from an almost angry rejection of my dark skin by some of my brainwashed brothers and sisters to a surprised queenhood in the new Black sun—am qualified to enter at least the kindergarten of new consciousness now. New consciousness and trudge-toward-progress. I have hopes for myself. . . .”
Roxanna is a freelance writer and artist educator who likes comic books, subjecting others to angry tirades, and coffee.