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Brooks, Gwendolyn 1917—

Gwendolyn Brooks 1917

Poet, novelist

At a Glance

First Black to Win a Pulitzer Prize

Black Consciousness Influenced Poetry

Selected writings

Sources

A leading contemporary American poet and the first black writer to be honored with a Pulitzer Prize, Gwendolyn Brooks is acclaimed for her technically accomplished and powerful portraits of black urban life. Throughout a career that has spanned six decades and includes both poetry and fiction, the prolific Brooks is noted for her carefully wrought and insightful portraits of everyday black life, in which she illuminates racism, poverty, intraracial prejudice, and personal alienation. Brooks is also known as one of the most wide-ranging of contemporary black poets; while her earlier work is marked by social realism contained in masterful poetic form, technique, and language, her later efforts display a more open, free-verse style and are increasingly direct in exploring themes like social protest, revolution, and black nationalism. Brooks has been praised throughout her career for the complexity and technical skill of her work, which she combines with a compassion for the ordinary that speaks universally to many readers. She commented to Claudia Tate in Black Women Writers at Work that she would prefer not to be known as an intellectual, explaining: I do write from the heart, from personal experience and from the experiences of other people whom I have observed.

Very early in life I became fascinated with the wonders language can achieve. And I began playing with words. That word-play is what I have been known for chiefly.

Much of Brookss work is set in her native Chicago, where she has lived since she was an infant. Her path to becoming a writer started with her parents, who early on encouraged her in reading and writing. Her father, David, regularly told her stories and read aloud from his set of Harvard Classics, while her mother, Keziah, a schoolteacher, composed songs for her children and commissioned Brooks to write plays for the children of a church group she led. When Brookss parents discovered she had promising writing abilities, they relieved her of many household duties and her father set up a working desk for her. As a young girl Brooks read widely and especially admired L. M. Montgomerys Anne of Green Gables books, in addition to the poems of black writer Paul Laurence Dunbar. Fascinated with words, she would spend many hours composing rhymes and poems and record them in a notebook. Confident of her talent, her mother, as Brooks related in her 1972 autobiography, Report From Part One, assured her that one

At a Glance

Full name, Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks; born June 7, 1917, in Topeka, KS; daughter of David Anderson (a janitor) and Keziah Corrine (a schoolteacher; maiden name, Wims) Brooks; married Henry Lowington Blakely, Jr., September 17, 1939; children: Henry Lowington III, Nora. Education: Graduated from Wilson Junior College, 1936.

Poet and novelist. Publicity director, NAACP Youth Council, Chicago, IL, 1937-38; poetry instructor at numerous colleges and universities c. 1963-69, including Elmhurst College, Northeastern Illinois State College, Columbia University, and the University of WisconsinMadison; poet laureate of Illinois, beginning 1968; distinguished professor of the arts, City Col lege of the City University of New York, 1971 ; poetry consultant to Library of Congress, 1985-86.

Awards: Midwestern Writers Conference poetry award, 1943; Patron Saints Award, Society of Midland Authors, 1945; named one often Women of the Year, Mademoiselle, 1945; National Institute of Arts and Letters grant, 1946; American Academy of Arts and Letters creative writing award, 1946; Guggenheim fellowship, 1946 and 1947; Eunice Tietjens Memorial Prize, Poetry, 1949, and Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, 1950, both for Annie Allen; Robert F. Ferguson Memorial Award, Friends of Literature, 1964, for Selected Poems; Thormod Monsen Literature Award, 1964; Anisfield-Wolf Award, 1968, for In the Mecca; Black Academy of Arts and Letters Award, 1971 ; Shelley Memorial Award, 1976; Essence Award, 1988; inductee, National Womens Hall of Fame, 1988; Frost Medal, Poetry Society of America, 1989; lifetime achievement award, National Endowment for the Humanities, 1989.

Addresses: Home 7428 South Evans Ave., Chicago, IL 60619.

day she would become the lady Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Brooks published her first poem when she was 13 in a popular childrens magazine called American Childhood. When she was 16 she had the opportunity to meet James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes, two of the most famous poets of the 1920s literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. Brookss mother had prompted her to send samples of her work to Johnson and Hughes; they both assured her that she indeed possessed talent and urged her to continue writing and studying poetry. Johnson encouraged Brooks to study the Modernist poets T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and e. e. cummings, to, in his words, cultivate the highest possible standards of self-criticism. Johnson served, as Gary Smith noted in MELUS, as Brookss literary mentor, yet Hughes, with whom Brooks would later become great friends, was an even more profound influence. As Brooks described in Report From Part One, The words and deeds of Langston Hughes were rooted in kindness, and in pride. His point of departure was always a clear pride in his race. Mightily did he use the street. He found its multiple heart, its tastes, smells, alarms, formulas, flowers, garbage and convulsions. He brought them all to his table-top. He crushed them to a writing-paste. He himself became the pen. Smith commented that Hughes underscored the value of cultivating the ground upon which [Brooks] stood, and convinced her that a black poet need not travel outside the realm of his own experiences to create a poetic vision and write successful poetry.

While in high school Brooks focused heavily on her writing and study of poetry, and was a regular contributor of poems to the Defender, a black daily newspaper in Chicago. Brooks graduated from Wilson Junior College in 1936 with a degree in English and went on to work for Chicagos NAACP Youth Council, where she met her future husband, himself an aspiring writer. In 1941 her writing received a boost when she enrolled in a workshop led by Inez Cunningham Stark, a wealthy writer and scholar who traveled to Chicagos predominantly black south side to instruct aspiring poets. Brooks drew much from the comments and criticism of her peers in the workshop and was introduced by Stark to a wealth of contemporary poetry. The poet wrote in Report From Part One that while Stark guided the group in the principles of poetry, their own voices were allowed to develop: If, in spite of everything that she could tell us, we stubbornly clung to our own ways and words, and we often so clung, she bowed gracefully and let us alone, trusting to time to further instruct us, or trusting to the possibility that she herself might be wrong. Throughout the early 1940s Brooks developed a substantial local reputation for her poetry, and, in 1943, received a poetry award from the Midwestern Writers Conference. Soon thereafter her work would gain national attention.

Around 1943 Brooks submitted a manuscript of Negro poems to Harper & Row, who published them in 1945 as A Street in Bronzeville. The poems received wide critical acclaim and Brooks was hailed as a major new voice in contemporary poetry. Drawn from scenes and characters in Brookss Chicago neighborhood, A Street in Bronzeville offers insight into the aspirations and struggles of ordinary black people. The first section of the book depicts life in the Bronzeville neighborhood, while the second sectiona sequence of twelve sonnets entitled Gay Chaps at the Barexplores prejudice against blacks serving in the Armed Forces during World War II. Demonstrating a mastery of the sonnet, quatrain, and ballad, Brooks was praised for her high level of craft, innovative and distinctive use of idiom and imagery, and fresh glimpse into the lives of blacks. George E. Kent noted in Black World that Brookss first book revealed obsessions which would characterize all of her poetry. Brooks revealed in her first book considerable technical resources, a manipulation of folk forms, a growing sense of how traditional forms must be dealt with if the power of the Black voice is to come through with integrity. A Street in Bronzeville committed its author to a restless experimentation with an elaborate range of artistic approaches. William H. Hansell similarly noted in CLA Journal that A Street in Bronzeville demonstrated Brooks commitment to a concept of art which she has never surrendered: the artist must work with the materials most familiar to him, with his own milieu.

First Black to Win a Pulitzer Prize

Following the success of A Street in Bronzeville, Brooks received a Guggenheim fellowship and was named by Mademoiselle magazine as one of their Ten Women of the Year. Brooks received even greater honors with her next book of poetry, Annie Allen, which won the 1950 Pulitzer Prize, marking the first time the award had been bestowed upon a black writer. A complex sequence of poems that trace the coming-of-age of a black woman, Annie Allen is, according to Claudia Tate in A Life Distilled: Gwendolyn Brooks, Her Poetry and Fiction, a collection of rigorously technical poems, replete with lofty diction, intricate word play, and complicated concatenations of phrases. George Kent in Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation described the highly crafted poems as an attempt to give artistic structure to tensions arising from the artists experience in moving from the Edenic environment of her parents home into the fallen world of Chicago tenement life in the roles of young wife, mother, and artist. Regarding the centerpiece poem of the collection, The Anniad, Brooks said in an interview reprinted in Report From Part One that she was very interested in the mysteries and magic of technique and that she wanted every phrase to be beautiful, and yet to contribute sanely to the whole effect.

Established as a poet, Brooks next ventured to write her first and only novel, Maud Martha, which was published in 1953. Like Annie Allen the novel focuses on the life of a young black woman and, as with all of Brookss poetry, scrutinizes the ordinary and everyday to illuminate larger issues and themes. Patricia H. and Vernon E. Lattin in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction noted that Mauds stage is the home in which she grew up, the schools she attended, the kitchenette where she lives after marriage, and most often her own mind and heart as she struggles to be creative and to be an individual in a gray, oppressive world. On a different scale than sweepingly dramatic black novels like Richard Wrights Native Son, Maud Martha has been largely overlooked, according to the Lattins: With a very loose organization consisting of a series of short vignettes, and with lyrical language never far from poetry, this short novel has a deceptively light and simple exterior which belies the complexity of the interior. David Littlejohn in Black on White: A Critical Survey of Writing by American Negroes, similarly called Maud Martha accomplished, a striking human experiment, as exquisitely written and as effective as any of Gwendolyn Brookss poetry.

In her 1960 book of poems, The Bean Eaters, Brooks continued to portray the immediate environment and ordinary people and events, noted Hansell. The book also, however, showed Brooks becoming more direct in her concern about black social issues. In The Bean Eaters Brooks writes about the integration of the Little Rock, Arkansas, school system, the lynching of blacks in the South, and the misguided efforts of cultured whites to help blacks. Due to its timing The Bean Eaters appeared just as the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentumand political overtones, the book received mixed reviews. Maria K. Mootry reported in A Life Distilled that some reviewers found The Bean Eaters sufficient in content and form, while others found it too tame in its protest mission; still others were upset and put off by what they deemed an unseemly social emphasis.

Brookss thematic transition in The Bean Eaters was also reflected in a further evolution in her poetic style, which Kent described as a bolder movement into a free verse appropriate to the situation.

Black Consciousness Influenced Poetry

In 1967 Brooks attended a writers conference at Fisk University and became acquainted with a group of young writers, including John Killens, Ron Milner, and LeRoi Jones, who were advocating a new perspective for black authors. She commented to Tate on this new breed of black writers: They seemed proud and so committed to their own people. The poets among them felt that black poets should write as blacks, about blacks, and address themselves to blacks. Their message took hold of Brooks and profoundly influenced the direction of her poetry. Beginning with her 1968 book of poetry, In the Mecca, Brooks displayed what Toni Cade Bambara called in the New York Times Book Review a new movement and energy, intensity, richness, power of statement and a new stripped lean, compressed style. The title poem of In the Mecca, set in an inner-city apartment building, traces a mothers search for her missing daughter among the tenants, only to discover in the end that the little girl has been murdered. The Virginia Quarterly Review called the poem both an impressionistic and naturalistic journey through a huge ghetto apartment house, through the black precincts of despair. R. Baxter Miller in Black American Poets Between Worlds, 1940-1960 deemed In the Mecca a most complex and intriguing book; it seeks to balance the sordid realities of urban life with an imaginative process of reconciliation and redemption. Other poems in the book treated contemporary black heroes Medgar Evans and Malcolm X; another was dedicated to the Rangers, a Chicago street gang. Frederick C. Stern in MidAmerica called the latter quite powerful, an appreciation for those outside the system, which comes quite close to being revolutionary.

In a move to support black publishers, Brooks left her longtime publisher Harper & Row after In the Mecca and chose to have her next several books published by Broadside Press, run by Detroit poet Dudley Randall. Riot (1969), Family Pictures (1970), and Beckonings (1975) further displayed Brookss evolution in theme and style. Most noticeably, Brooks began to discuss revolution, black power, and black nationalism and her style became almost totally free verse. Norris B. Clark in A Life Distilled noted a difference from her earlier work in that Brookss *emphasis shifted from a private, internal, and exclusive assessment of the identity crises of twentieth-century persons to a communal, external, and inclusive assessment of the black communal experience. Brooks described her change in focus to Tate: What Im fighting for now in my work, [is] for an expression relevant to all manner of blacks, poems I could take into a tavern, into the street, into the halls of a housing project. I dont want to say these poems have to be simple, but I want to clarify my language. I want these poems to be free. I want them to be direct without sacrificing the kinds of music, the picturemaking Ive always been interested in. Critics noted that Brooks was no less masterful in her craft in these later poems, and, as in her earlier work, still focused on the situations of individuals with compassion and understanding.

Kent in Black World summarized Brookss overall stature as a poet: Brooks shares with Langston Hughes the achievement of being most responsive to turbulent changes in the Black Communitys vision of itself and to the changing forms of its vibrations during decades of rapid change. The depth of her responsiveness and her range of poetic resources make her one of the most distinguished poets to appear in America during the 20th Century. Throughout her writing career Brooks has been noted for maintaining a level of objectivity which, however specific and direct her subject matter, gives her poetry a universal appeal. According to Blyden Jackson in Black Poetry in America: Two Essays in Historical Interpretation, Brooks offers the close inspection of a limited domain, a view of life in which one may see a microscopic portion of the universe intensely and yet, through that microscopic portion see all truth for the human condition wherever it is.

In addition to her own writing, Brooks is active in promoting and encouraging the work of other poets. In her native Illinois, where she was named poet laureate in 1968, Brooks has organized numerous poetry competitions, often offering prize money from her own funds. She has visited elementary schools, colleges, prisons, and drug rehabilitation centers, bringing people the art of poetry. In 1985, at the age of 68, she was appointed poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, the first black woman to be named to the post. Among the many other honors she has received in her distinguished career, The Gwendolyn Brooks Center for African-American Literature was established at Western Illinois University, and a junior high school in Harvey, Illinois, was named for her.

Selected writings

Poetry

A Street in Bronzeville, Harper, 1945.

Annie Allen, Harper, 1949.

Bronzeville Boys and Girls (juvenile), Harper, 1956.

The Bean Eaters, Harper, 1960.

Selected Poems, Harper, 1963.

In the Mecca, Harper, 1968.

Riot, Broadside Press, 1969.

Family Pictures, Broadside Press, 1970.

Aloneness, Broadside Press, 1971.

(Editor) A Broadside Treasury, Broadside Press, 1971.

(Editor) Jump Bad: A New Chicago Anthology, Broadside Press, 1971.

Aurora, Broadside Press, 1972.

The Tiger Who Wore White Gloves (juvenile), Third World Press, 1974.

Beckonings, Broadside Press, 1975.

Primer for Blacks, Black Position Press, 1980.

To Disembark, Third World Press, 1981.

Black Love, Brooks Press, 1982.

Mayor Harold Washington [and] Chicago: The I Will City, Brooks Press, 1983.

The Near Johannesburg Boy, and Other Poems, The David Co., 1987.

Other

Maud Martha (novel), Harper, 1953.

The World of Gwendolyn Brooks (contains A Street in Bronzeville, Annie Allen, Maud Martha, The Bean Eaters, and In the Mecca), Harper, 1971.

Report From Part One: An Autobiography, Broadside Press, 1972.

Young Poets Primer (writing manual), Brooks Press, 1981.

Very Young Poets (writing manual), Brooks Press, 1983.

Also author of short stories. Contributor to numerous anthologies. Contributor of poems, articles, and reviews to periodicals.

Sources

Books

Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans, Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984.

Black Writers: A Selection of Sketches from Contemporary Authors, Gale, 1989.

Brooks, Gwendolyn, Report From Part One: An Autobiography, Broadside Press, 1972.

Concise Dictionary of Literary Biography, 1941-1968, Gale, 1985.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume 1, 1973; Volume 2, 1974; Volume 4, 1975; Volume 5, 1976; Volume 15, 1980; Volume 49, 1989.

Contemporary Poets, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 1986.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 5: American Poets Since World War II, Gale, 1980.

Jackson, Blyden, and Louis D. Rubin, Jr., Black Poetry in America: Two Essays in Historical Interpretation, Louisiana State University Press, 1974.

Kent, George, Gwendolyn Brooks: A Life, University Press of Kentucky, 1988.

A Life Distilled: Gwendolyn Brooks, Her Poetry and Fiction, edited by Maria K. Mootry and Gary Smith, University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Littlejohn, David, Black on White: A Critical Survey of Writing by American Negroes, Viking, 1966.

Madhubuti, Haki R., Say That the River Turns: The Impact of Gwendolyn Brooks, Third World Press, 1987.

Melhem, D. H., Gwendolyn Brooks: Poetry and the Heroic Voice, University Press of Kentucky, 1987.

Miller, R. Baxter, Black American Poets Between Worlds, 1940-1960, University of Tennessee Press, 1986.

Shaw, Harry F., Gwendolyn Brooks, Twayne, 1980.

Tate, Claudia, Black Women Writers at Work, Continuum, 1983.

Periodicals

Black World, September 1971.

CLA Journal, March 1987.

Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Summer 1984.

MELUS, Fall 1983.

MidAmerica, Volume 12, 1985.

New York Times Book Review, January 7, 1973.

Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter, 1969.

Michael E. Mueller

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Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks (born 1917) was the first African American to receive a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and is best known for her intense poetic portraits of urban African Americans.

Gwendolyn Brooks was born on June 7, 1917, in Topeka, Kansas. The eldest child of Keziah (Wims) Brooks, a schoolteacher, and David Anderson Brooks, a janitor who, because he lacked the funds to finish school, did not achieve his dream of becoming a doctor. Brooks grew up in Chicago and, according to George Kent, was "spurned by members of her own race because she lacked social or athletic abilities, a light skin, and good grade hair." She was deeply hurt by this rejection and took solace in her writing. She became known to her family and friends as "the female Paul Lawrence Dunbar" and received compliments on her poems and encouragement from James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes, prominent writers with whom she initiated correspondence and whose readings she attended in Chicago. By the age of sixteen, she had compiled a substantial portfolio, consisting of over 75 poems.

Early Career

After graduating from Wilson Junior College in 1936, she worked briefly at "The Mecca," a Chicago tenement building. She participated in poetry readings and workshops at Chicago's South Side Community Art Center, producing verse that would appear in her first published volume, A Street in Bronzeville in 1945.

In 1939 she married Henry L. Blakeley, and together they would raise two children: Henry, Jr., and Nora. When she married she became a housewife and mother. But instead of directing her creative energy entirely to domestic chores, Brooks wrote poetry when the children were asleep or later while they were in school. In this way she wrote several collections of poetry, which constitutes her early work: A Street in Bronzeville, Annie Allen (1949), The Bean Eaters (1960), and Selected Poems (1962). During this time she also wrote a novel, Maud Martha (1953).

The work of this period is characterized by her portraits of urban African American people involved in their day-today activities and by her technical form, lofty diction, and intricate word play. Critics have frequently labeled her early work as intellectual, sophisticated, and academic. Although these poems sing out against social and sexual oppression, they are frequently complex and, therefore, in need of close textual reading to uncover their protest and Brooks' own social commentary. In many of these works she criticized the color prejudice which African American people inflict on one another by calling attention to their tendency to prefer light-skinned African American people. In Annie Allen and Maud Martha she examined the conventional gender roles of mother and father, husband and wife, and found that they frequently stifle creativity out of those who try to live up to artificial ideals. But this social criticism tends to be pushed back into the complicated language.

In recognition of these works, in 1950, Brooks was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and became the first African American to be granted this honor.

New Tone

In 1967, Brooks' work achieved a new tone and vision. She simplified her technique so that her themes, rather than her techniques, stood in the forefront. This change can be traced to her growing political conscienceness, previously hinted at in Selected Poems, after witnessing the combative spirit of several young African American authors at the Second Black Writers' Conference held at Fisk University that year. These works include: In the Mecca (1968), Riot (1969), Aloneness (1971), Family Pictures (1971), the autobiographical Report from Part One (1972), The Tiger Who Wore White Gloves: Or, What You Are You Are (1974), Beckonings (1975), and Primer for Blacks (1980). These works are much more direct, and they are designed to sting the mind into a higher level of racial awareness. Foregoing the traditional poetic forms, she favored free verse and increased the use of her vernacular to make her works more accessible to African Americans and not just academic audiences and poetry magazines.

During the 1970s, Brooks taught poetry at numerous institutions for higher learning, including Northeastern Illinois State College (now Northeastern Illinois University), University of Wisconsin at Madison, and the City College of the City University of New York. She continued to write, and while her concern for the African American nationalist movement and racial solidarity continued to dominate her verse in the early-1970s, the energy and optimism of Riot and Family Pictures were replaced in the late-1970s with an impression of disenchantment resulting from the divisiveness of the civil rights and "Black Power" movements. This mood was reflected in Beckonings (1975) and To Disembark (1980), where she urged African Americans to break free from the repression of white American society and advocated violence and anarchy as acceptable means.

Later, Brooks spent her time encouraging others to write by sponsoring writers' workshops in Chicago and poetry contests at correctional facilities. In 1985, she was named as the consultant in poetry for the Library of Congress. In short, she has taken poetry to her people, continuing to test its relevance by reading her poetry and lecturing in taverns, barrooms, lounges, and other public places as well as in academic circles.

In later years Brooks continued to write, with Children Coming Home (1992) and Blacks (1992). In 1990 Brooks' works were ensured a home when Chicago State University established the Gwendolyn Brooks Center on its campus. She continued to inspire others to write, focusing on young children by speaking and giving poetry readings at schools around the country.

In 1997, on the occasion of her 80th birthday, she was honored with tributes from Chicago to Washington D.C. Although she was honored by many, perhaps the best description of Brooks' life and career came from her publisher, Haki Madhubuti, when he said, "She is undoubtedly one of the top 100 writers in the world. She has been a chronicler of black life, specifically black life on the South Side of Chicago. She has become almost a legend in her own time."

Honors

In addition to her Pulitzer Prize, Brooks has been awarded an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award (1946), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1946 and 1947), a Poetry magazine award (1949), a Friend of Literature Award (1963), a Black Academy of Arts and Letters Award (1971), a Shelley Memorial Award (1976), an Essence Award (1988), a Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America (1989), a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Endowment for the Arts (1989), a Jefferson Award from the National Endowment for the Humanities (1994), as well as some 49 honorary degrees from universities and colleges, including Columbia College in 1964, Lake Forest College in 1965, and Brown University in 1974. Moreover, she was named poet laureate of Illinois in 1969 and was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1988. In 1985 she reached the pinnacle of her career when she became the poetry consultant at the Library of Congress, the second African American and the first African American woman to hold that position.

Further Reading

The best source of biographical information is Brooks' own autobiography, Report from Part One (1972). Critical information on Brooks includes Don L. Lee "The Achievement of Gwendolyn Brooks," in Black Scholar (Summer, 1972); Gloria T. Hill "A Note on the Poetic Technique of Gwendolyn Brooks," in College Languages Association Journal (December, 1975); Suzanne Juhasz "A Sweet Inspiration … of My People: The Poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks and Nikki Giovanni," in Naked and Fiery Forms (1976); Hortense J. Spillers "Gwendolyn the Terrible: Propositions on Eleven Poems," in Shakespeare's Sisters (1979); George E. Kent "Aesthetic Values in the Poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks," in Black American Literature and Humanism, edited by R. Baxter Miller (1981); Mari Evans "Gwendolyn Brooks," in Black Women Writers, 1950-1980 (1983); and Claudia Tate "Gwendolyn Brooks," in Black Women Writers at Work (1983).

Further biographical information on Brooks can found in Shirley Henderson "Our Miss Brooks on Eve of Her 80th Birthday, Poet Offers Some Answers," in the June 6, 1997 issue of the Chicago Tribune and in Heather Lalley "Paying Tribute to Illinois' Poet Laureate as Brooks Turns 80, City Finds Words to Describe Her Power to Inspire," in the June 5, 1997 issue of the Chicago Tribune. Her life and works are also the subject of George E. Kent A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks (1990). □

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Brooks, Gwendolyn

Gwendolyn Brooks

Born: June 7, 1917
Topeka, Kansas
Died: December 3, 2000
Chicago, Illinois

African American poet

Gwendolyn Brooks was the first African American to receive a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and is best known for her poetic descriptions of African American city life.

Early life

Gwendolyn Brooks was born on June 7, 1917, in Topeka, Kansas, the eldest child of Keziah (Wims) Brooks, a schoolteacher, and David Anderson Brooks, a janitor, who, because he lacked the funds to finish school, did not achieve his dream of becoming a doctor. Brooks grew up in Chicago, Illinois. Her parents often read to her and encouraged her to do well in school, but she was a shy girl. According to George Kent, she was "spurned by members of her own race because she lacked social or athletic abilities, a light skin, and good grade hair."

Brooks was deeply hurt by this rejection and spent most of her childhood writing. She became known to her family and friends as "the female Paul Lawrence Dunbar" (1872 1906; a famous African American poet). She received compliments on her poems and encouragement from James Weldon Johnson (18711938) and Langston Hughes (19021967), well-known writers with whom she began correspondence and whose readings she attended in Chicago. By the age of sixteen she had written over seventy-five poems.

Early career

After graduating from Wilson Junior College in 1936, Brooks worked as director of publicity for a youth organization of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She participated in poetry readings and workshops at Chicago's South Side Community Art Center, producing verse that would appear in her first published volume, A Street in Bronzeville, in 1945. In 1939 she married Henry L. Blakeley, another young writer, and together they would raise two children. Brooks continued to write poetry when the children were asleep or later while they were in school. A second collection titled Annie Allen was released in 1949. In 1950 Brooks was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, becoming the first African American to be granted this honor. She also wrote a novel, Maud Martha, in 1953. Other poetry collections included The Bean Eaters (1960) and Selected Poems (1962).

Brooks's work from this period contains descriptions mostly of African American people involved in their day-to-day city activities. In them she used a strict technical form, lofty word choice, and complicated word play. Critics labeled her early work as intellectual and scholarly. Although these poems speak out against the oppression (cruel exercise of power against a particular group) of blacks and women, some of them require close reading to uncover their true meanings. In many of these works she criticized the prejudice that African American people have toward one another by calling attention to their favored treatment of light-skinned African American people. In Annie Allen and Maud Martha she examines the traditional roles of mother and father, and husband and wife, concluding that they can be damaging to those who try to live up to artificial ideals. But these messages tend to be hidden somewhat by her complicated language.

New tone

In 1967 Brooks's work achieved a new tone and vision. She changed to a more simple writing style so that her themes could come across more strongly. This change can be traced to her growing political awareness, previously hinted at in Selected Poems, after witnessing the strong spirit of several young African American authors at the Second Black Writers' Conference held at Fisk University. Among such works are In the Mecca (1968), Riot (1969), Aloneness (1971), Family Pictures (1971), the autobiographical (description of her own life) Report from Part One (1972), The Tiger Who Wore White Gloves: Or, What You Are You Are (1974), Beckonings (1975), and Primer for Blacks (1980). These works are much more direct and are designed to increase the reader's level of racial awareness. No longer using traditional poetic forms, Brooks now favored free verse. She also increased the use of her vernacular (a language spoken by people of a particular group or from a certain area) to make her works more understandable for African Americans, not just for university audiences and the editors of poetry magazines.

During the 1970s Brooks taught poetry at numerous institutions for higher learning, including Northeastern Illinois State College (now Northeastern Illinois University), the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and the City College of the City University of New York. She continued to write. Yet, while her concern for African Americans and hope for racial harmony was the main subject of her verse in the early 1970s, the energy and positive feeling of Riot and Family Pictures was replaced in the late 1970s with a sense of disappointment resulting from the disagreements and lack of unity among members of the civil rights and "Black Power" movements. This mood was reflected in Beckonings (1975) and To Disembark (1980), where she urged African Americans to break free from the controls of white American society and seemed to favor violence and disorder as acceptable ways of achieving that freedom.

Later years

Brooks spent her time encouraging others to write by sponsoring writers' workshops in Chicago and poetry contests at prisons. In short, she took poetry to her people, continuing to test its worth by reading and speaking in taverns, lounges, and other public places as well as in academic circles. In 1985 she was named as the poetry consultant (one who gives advice) for the Library of Congress. In 1990 her works were guaranteed a permanent home when Chicago State University established the Gwendolyn Brooks Center on its campus. In later years Brooks continued to write, with Children Coming Home and Blacks both being published in 1992. She also continued to inspire others to write, focusing on young children by speaking and giving poetry readings at schools around the country.

In 1997, on her eightieth birthday, Gwendolyn Brooks was honored with tributes from Chicago to Washington, D.C. Although she received many words of tribute, perhaps the best description of Brooks's life and career came from her publisher, Haki Madhubuti, when he said, "She is undoubtedly one of the top one hundred writers in the world. She has been a chronicler (record keeper) of black life, specifically black life on the South Side of Chicago. She has become almost a legend in her own time." Gwendolyn Brooks died of cancer at her Chicago home on December 3, 2000.

For More Information

Bloom, Harold, ed. Gwendolyn Brooks. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2000.

Kent, George E. A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990.

Melhem, D. H. Gwendolyn Brooks: Poetry and the Heroic Voice. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1987.

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Brooks, Gwendolyn Elizabeth

Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks, 1917–2000, American poet, b. Topeka, Kans. She grew up in the slums of Chicago and lived in that city until her death. Brooks's poems, technically accomplished and written in a variety of forms including quatrains, free verse, ballads, and sonnets, deal with the experience of being black and often of being female in America. She attracted critical attention with her first volume, A Street in Bronzeville (1945). Brooks went on to win the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for poetry for Annie Allen (1949), becoming the first black woman to win this award. Her verse was collected in The World of Gwendolyn Brooks (1970), which also includes an earlier novelette, Maud Martha (1953). Her work took on a more radical tone beginning with In the Mecca (1968); the subsequent poems in Riot (1970) are written in street dialects. Her other writings include Primer for Blacks (1980) and To Disembark (1981).

See her autobiographies, Report from Part One (1972) and Report from Part Two (1995).

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Brooks, Gwendolyn 1917–2000

Gwendolyn Brooks 19172000

Poet

Began Writing at an Early Age

Published First Book of Poetry

Won Pulitzer Prize

Influenced by Next Generation of Black Writers

Mentored Other Poets

Selected works

Sources

A leading contemporary American poet and the first black writer to be honored with a Pulitzer Prize, Gwendolyn Brooks was acclaimed for her technically accomplished and powerful portraits of black urban life. Throughout a career that spanned six decades and included both poetry and fiction, the prolific Brooks was noted for her carefully wrought and insightful portraits of everyday black life, in which she illuminated racism, poverty, interracial prejudice, and personal alienation. Brooks was also known as one of the most wide-ranging of contemporary black poets; while her earlier work was marked by social realism contained in masterful poetic form, technique, and language, her later efforts displayed a more open, free-verse style and were increasingly direct in exploring themes like social protest, revolution, and black nationalism.

Brooks was praised throughout her career for the complexity and technical skill of her work, which she combined with a compassion for the ordinary that spoke universally to many readers. She commented to Claudia Tate in Black Women Writers at Work that she would prefer not to be known as an intellectual, explaining: I do write from the heart, from personal experience and from the experiences of other people whom I have observed. Very early in life I became fascinated with the wonders language can achieve. And I began playing with words. That word-play is what I have been known for chiefly.

Began Writing at an Early Age

Much of Brookss work is set in her native Chicago, where she lived from her infancy until her death. Her path to becoming a writer started with her parents, who early on encouraged her in reading and writing. Her father, David, regularly told her stories and read aloud from his set of Harvard Classics, while her mother, Keziah, a schoolteacher, composed songs for her children and commissioned Brooks to write plays for the children of a church group she led. When Brookss parents discovered she had promising writing abilities, they relieved her of many household duties and her father set up a working desk for her. As a young girl Brooks read widely and especially admired L. M. Montgomerys Anne of Green Gables books, in addition to the poems of black writer Paul Laurence Dunbar. Fascinated with words, she would spend many hours composing rhymes and poems and record them in a notebook. Confident of her talent, her mother, as Brooks related in her 1972 autobiography, Report

At a Glance

Born Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks on June 7, 1917, in Topeka, KS; died December 3, 2000; daughter of David Anderson (a janitor) and Keziah Corrine (a schoolteacher) Brooks; married Henry Low-ington Blakely, Jr., September 17, 1939 (died 1996); children: Henry Lowington III, Nora. Education: Wilson Junior College, 1936.

Career: Poet and novelist. NAACP Youth Council, publicity director, Chicago, IL, 1937-38; poetry instructor at numerous colleges and universities; City College of the City University of New York, distinguished professor of the arts, 1971; Library of Congress, poetry consultant, 1985-86; Jefferson Lecturer for Distinguished Intellectual Achievement in Humanities, 1994; American Academy of Poets, fellow, 2000.

Awards: Midwestern Writers Conference poetry award, 1943; Society of Midland Authors, Patron Saints Award, 1945; Mademoiselle, named one of ten Women of the Year 1945; National Institute of Arts and Letters grant, 1946; American Academy of Arts and Letters creative writing award, 1946; Guggenheim fellowship, 1946 and 1947; Eunice Tietjens Memorial Prize, Poetry, forAnnie Allen, 1949; Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, forAnnie Allen, 1950; Friends of Literature, Robert F. Ferguson Memorial Award, forSelected Poems 1964; Thormod Monsen Literature Award, 1964; Anisfieid-Wolf Award, forIn the Mecca, 1968; named poet laureate of Illinois, 1968; Black Academy of Arts and Letters Award, 1971; Shelley Memorial Award, 1976;Essence Award, 1988; inductee, National Womens Hall of Fame, 1988; Poetry Society of America, Frost Medal, 1989; National Endowment for the Humanities, Lifetime Achievement award, 1989; National Medal of Arts, 1995; Lincoln Laureate Award, 1997; international Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Decent, 1998; National First Ladies Library, First Women award, 1999; over75 honorary degrees from colleges and universities.

From Part One, assured her that one day she would become the lady Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Brooks published her first poem when she was 13 in a popular childrens magazine called American Childhood. When she was 16 she had the opportunity to meet James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes, two of the most famous poets of the 1920s literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. Brookss mother had prompted her to send samples of her workto Johnson and Hughes; they both assured her that she indeed possessed talent and urged her to continue writing and studying poetry.

Johnson, who encouraged Brooks to study the Modernist poets T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and e. e. cum-mings, served, as Gary Smith noted inMELOS, as Brookss literary mentor, yet Hughes, with whom Brooks would later become great friends, was an even more profound influence. As Brooks described inReport From Part One, The words and deeds of Langston Hughes were rooted in kindness, and in pride. His point of departure was always a clear pride in his race. Mightily did he use the street. He found its multiple heart, its tastes, smells, alarms, formulas, flowers, garbage and convulsions. He brought them all to his table-top. He crushed themto a writing-paste. He himself became the pen. Smith commented that Hughes underscored the value of cultivating the ground upon which [Brooks] stood, and convinced her that a black poet need not travel outside the realm of his own experiences to create a poetic vision and write successful poetry.

While in high school Brooks focused heavily on her writing and study of poetry, and was a regular contributor of poems to theDefender, a black daily newspaper in Chicago. Brooks graduated from Wilson Junior College in 1936 with a degree in English and went on to work for Chicagos NAACP Youth Council, where she met her future husband, himself an aspiring writer. In 1941 her writing received a boost when she enrolled in a workshop led by Inez Cunningham Stark, a wealthy writer and scholar who traveled to Chicagos predominantly black south side to instruct aspiring poets. Brooks drew much from the comments and criticism of her peers in the workshop and was introduced by Stark to a wealth of contemporary poetry. Brooks wrote inReport From Part One that, while Stark guided the group in the principles of poetry, their own voices were allowed to develop: If, in spite of everything that she could tell us, we stubbornly clung to our own ways and words, and we often so clung, she bowed gracefully and let us alone, trusting to time to further instruct us, or trusting to the possibility that she herself might be wrong. Throughout the early 1940s Brooks developed a substantial local reputation for her poetry, and, in 1943, received a poetry award from the Midwestern Writers Conference. Soon thereafter her work gained national attention.

Published First Book of Poetry

Around 1943 Brooks submitted a manuscript of Negro poems to Harper & Row, who published them in 1945 asA Street in Bronzeville. The poems received wide critical acclaim and Brooks was hailed as a major new voice in contemporary poetry. Drawn from scenes and characters in Brookss Chicago neighborhood, AStreet in Bronzeville offers insight into the aspirations and struggles of ordinary black people. The first section of the book depicts life in the Bronzeville neighborhood, while the second sectiona sequence of twelve sonnets entitled Gay Chaps at the Barexplores prejudice against blacks serving in the Armed Forces during World War II. Demonstrating a mastery of the sonnet, quatrain, and ballad, Brooks was praised for her high level of craft, innovative and distinctive use of idiom and imagery, and fresh glimpse into the lives of blacks.

George E. Kent noted inBlack World that Brookss first book revealed obsessions which would characterize all of her poetry. Brooks revealed in her first book considerable technical resources, a manipulation of folk forms, a growing sense of how traditional forms must be dealt with if the power of the Black voice is to come through with integrity. AStreet in Bronzeville committed its author to a restless experimentation with an elaborate range of artistic approaches. William H. Hansell similarly noted inCLA Journal that AStreet in Bronzeville demonstrated Brookss commitment to a concept of art which she has never surrendered: the artist must work with the materials most familiar to him, with his own milieu.

Won Pulitzer Prize

Following the success of AStreet in Bronzeville, Brooks received a Guggenheim fellowship and was named byMademoiselle magazine as one of their Ten Women of the Year. Brooks received even greater honors with her next book of poetry,Annie Allen, which won the 1950 Pulitzer Prize, marking the first time the award had been bestowed upon a black writer. A complex sequence of poems that trace the coming-of-age of a black woman,Annie Allen is, according to Claudia Tate in ALife Distilled: Gwendolyn Brooks, Her Poetry and Fiction, a collection of rigorously technical poems, replete with lofty diction, intricate word play, and complicated concatenations of phrases. George Kent inBlack Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation described the highly crafted poems as an attempt to give artistic structure to tensions arising from the artists experience in moving from the Edenic environment of her parents home into the fallen world of Chicago tenement life in the roles of young wife, mother, and artist. Regarding the centerpiece poem of the collection, The Anniad, Brooks said in an interview reprinted inReport From Part One that she was very interested in the mysteries and magic of technique and that she wanted every phrase to be beautiful, and yet to contribute sanely to the wholeeffect.

Established as a poet, Brooks next ventured to write her first and only novel,Maud Martha, which was published in 1953. LikeAnnie Allen the novel focuses on the life of a young black woman and, as with all of Brookss poetry, scrutinizes the ordinary and everyday to illuminate larger issues and themes. Patricia H. and Vernon E. Lattin inCritique: Studies in Modern Fiction noted that Mauds stage is the home in which she grew up, the schools she attended, the kitchenette where she lives after creative and to be an individual in a gray, oppressive world.

On a different scale than sweepingly dramatic black novels like Richard WrightsNative Son, Maud Martha has been largely overlooked. Lattin and Lattin wrote, With a very loose organization consisting of a series of short vignettes, and with lyrical language never far from poetry, this short novel has a deceptively light and simple exterior which belies the complexity of the interior. David Littlejohn inBlack on White: A Critical Survey of Writing by American Negroes, similarly called Maud Martha accomplished, a striking human experiment, as exquisitely written and as effective as any of Gwendolyn Brookss poetry.

In her 1960 book of poems,The Bean Eaters, Brooks continued to portray the immediate environment and ordinary people and events, noted Hansell. The book also, however, showed Brooks becoming more direct in her concern about black social issues. InThe Bean Eaters Brooks wrote about the integration of the Little Rock, Arkansas, school system, the lynching of blacks in the South, and the misguided efforts of cultured whites to help blacks.

Due to its timing The Bean Eaters appeared just as the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentumand political overtones, the book received mixed reviews. Maria K. Mootry reported in ALife Distilled that some reviewers foundThe Bean Eaters sufficient in content and form, while others found it too tame in its protest mission; still others were upset and put off by what they deemed an unseemly social emphasis. Brookss thematic transition inThe Bean Eaters was also reflected in a further evolution in her poetic style, which Kent described as a bolder movement into a free verse appropriate to the situation.

Influenced by Next Generation of Black Writers

In 1967 Brooks attended a writers conference at Fisk University and became acquainted with a group of young writers, including John Killens, Ron Milner, and LeRoi Jones, who were advocating a new perspective for black authors. She commented to Tate on this new breed of black writers: They seemed proud and so committed to their own people.The poets among them felt that black poets should write as blacks, about blacks, and address themselves to blacks. Their message took hold of Brooks and profoundly influenced the direction of her poetry.

Beginning with her 1968 book of poetry,In the Mecca, Brooks displayed what Toni Cade Bambara called in the Neu;York Times Book Review a new movement and energy, intensity, richness, power of statement and a new stripped lean, compressed style. The title poem ofIn the Mecca, set in an inner-city apartment building, traces a mothers search for her missing daughter among the tenants, only to discover in the end that the little girl has been murdered. TheVirginia Quarterly Review called the poem both an impressionistic and naturalistic journey through a huge ghetto apartment house, through the black precincts of despair. R. Baxter Miller inBlack American Poets Between Worlds, 1940-1960 deemedIn the Mecca a most complex and intriguing book; it seeks to balance the sordid realities of urban life with an imaginative process of reconciliation and redemption. Other poems in the book treated contemporary black heroes Medgar Evans and Malcolm X; another was dedicated to the Rangers, a Chicago street gang. Frederick C. Stern inMidAmerica called the latter quite powerful, an appreciation for those outside the system, which comes quite close to being revolutionary.

In a move to support black publishers, Brooks left her longtime publisher Harper & Row, afterIn the Mecca and chose to have her next several books published by Broadside Press, run by Detroit poet Dudley Randall.Riot (1969),Family Pictures (1970), andBeckonings (1975) further displayed Brookss evolution in theme and style. Most noticeably, Brooks began to discuss revolution, black power, and black nationalism and her style became almost totally free verse. Norris B. Clark inA Life Distilled noted a difference from her earlier work in that Brookss emphasis shifted from a private, internal, and exclusive assessment of the identity crises of twentieth-century persons to a communal, external, and inclusive assessment of the black communal experience. Brooks described her change in focus to Tate: What Im fighting for now in my work, [is] for an expression relevant to all manner of blacks, poems I could take into a tavern, into the street, into the halls of a housing project. I dont want to say these poems have to be simple, but I want to clarify my language. I want these poems to be free. I want them to be direct without sacrificing the kinds of music, the picturemaking Ive always been interested in. Critics noted that Brooks was no less masterful in her craft in these later poems, and, as in her earlier work, still focused on the situations of individuals with compassion and understanding.

Kent summarized Brookss overall stature as a poet inBlack World: Brooks shares with Langsten Hughes the achievement of being most responsive to turbulent changes in the Black Communitys vision of itself and to the changing forms of its vibrations during decades of rapid change. The depth of her responsiveness and her range of poetic resources make her one of the most distinguished poets to appear in America during the 20th Century. Throughout her writing career Brooks was noted for maintaining a level of objectivity which, however specific and direct her subject matter, gave her poetry a universal appeal. According to Blyden Jackson inBlack Poetry in America: Two Essays in Historical Interpretation, Brooks offered the close inspection of a limited domain, a view of life in which one may see a microscopic portion of the universe intensely and yet, through that microscopic portion see all truth for the human condition wherever it is.

Mentored Other Poets

In addition to her own writing, Brooks was active in promoting and encouraging the work of other poets. In her native Illinois, where she was named poet laureate in 1968, Brooks organized numerous poetry competitions, and often offered prize money from her own funds. She visited elementary schools, colleges, prisons, and drug rehabilitation centers, bringing people the art of poetry. In 1985, at the age of 68, she was appointed poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, the first black woman to be named to the post. Among the many other honors she has received in her distinguished career, The Gwendolyn Brooks Center for African-American Literature was established at Western Illinois University, and a junior high school in Harvey, Illinois, was named for her.

Brooks continued to write into her seventies and eighties. In 1996 she published a second autobiographical volume,Report From Part Two. The book contained stories as well as poems, in which Brooks reflected on the world around her. During the summer of 2000. Brooks completed work on a new volume of poetry,In Montgomery. However, she would not see the release of this book, slated for publication in 2001, for, in late November of 2000, Brooks was diagnosed with cancer. She died a week later, surrounded by loved ones who took turns reading to her, on December 3rd at the age of 83.

In an interview shortly before her death, Brooks said, as quoted inJet, I believe that we should all know each other, we human carriers of so many pleasurable differences. She governed her life by this philosophy, sharing so much of herself in her poems and reaching out to mentor budding poets of varying backgrounds. Poet Haki Madhubuti toldJet, She mentored literally three generations of poets, Black, White, Hispanic, Native American. She was all over the map sharing her gifts. Madhubuti, whose eulogy for Brooks was excerpted inEssence, observed, She wore her love in her language.

Selected works

Poetry

A Street in Bronzeville, Harper, 1945.

Annie Allen, Harper, 1949.

Bronzeville Boys and Girls (juvenile), Harper, 1956.

The Bean Eaters, Harper, 1960.

Selected Poems, Harper, 1963.

In the Mecca, Harper, 1968.

Riot, Broadside Press, 1969.

Family Pictures, Broadside Press, 1970.

Aloneness, Broadside Press, 1971.

(Editor) A Broadside Treasury, Broadside Press, 1971.

(Editor) Jump Bad: A New Chicago Anthology, Broadside Press, 1971.

Aurora, Broadside Press, 1972.

The Tiger Who Wore White Gloves (juvenile), Third World Press, 1974.

Beckonings, Broadside Press, 1975.

Primer for Blacks, Black Position Press, 1980.

To Disembark, Third World Press, 1981.

Black Love, Brooks Press, 1982.

Mayor Harold Washington [and] Chicago: The I Will City, Brooks Press, 1983.

The Near Johannesburg Boy, and Other Poems, The David Co., 1987.

In Montgomery, 2001.

Other

Maud Martha (novel), Harper, 1953.

The World of Gwendolyn Brooks, Harper, 1971.

Report From Part One: An Autobiography, Broadside Press, 1972.

Report From Part Two, Third World Press, 1996.

Young Poets Primer (writing manual), Brooks Press, 1981.

Very Young Poets (writing manual), Brooks Press, 1983.

Sources

Books

Black Writers: A Selection of Sketches from Contemporary Authors, Gale, 1989.

Bloom, Harry, editor.Contemporary Poets, Chelsea House, 1986.

Brooks, Gwendolyn.Report From Part One: An Autobiography, Broadside Press, 1972.

Concise Dictionary of Literary Biography, 1941-1968, Gale, 1985.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume 1, 1973; Volume 2, 1974; Volume 4, 1975; Volume 5, 1976; Volume 15, 1980; Volume 49, 1989.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 5: American Poets Since World War II, Gale, 1980.

Evans, Mari, editor.Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984.

Jackson, Blyden, and Louis D. Rubin, Jr.Black Poetry in America: Two Essays in Historical Interpretation, Louisiana State University Press, 1974.

Kent, George.Gwendolyn Brooks: A Life, University Press of Kentucky, 1988.

Littlejohn, David.Black on White: A Critical Survey of Writing by American Negroes, Viking, 1966.

Madhubuti, Haki R.Say That the River Turns: The Impact of Gwendolyn Brooks, Third World Press, 1987.

Melhem, D. H.Gwendolyn Brooks: Poetry and the Heroic Voice, University Press of Kentucky, 1987.

Miller, R. Baxter.Black American Poets Between Worlds, 1940-1960, University of Tennessee Press, 1986.

Mootry, Maria K. and Gary Smith, editors. ALife Distilled: Gwendolyn Brooks, Her Poetry and Fiction, University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Shaw, Harry F.Gwendolyn Brooks, Twayne, 1980.

Tate, Claudia.Black Women Writers at Work, Continuum, 1983.

Periodicals

Black Issues in Higher Education, December 21, 2000.

Black World, September 1971.

CLA Journal, March 1987.

Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Summer 1984.

Essence, March 2001.

Jet, April 5, 1999; December 18, 2000.

MELUS, Fall 1983.

MidAmerica, Volume 12, 1985.

New York Times Book Review, January 7, 1973.

Poets & Writers, March-April, 2000.

Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter, 1969.

Michael E. Mueller and Jennifer M. York

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Brooks, Gwendolyn

Brooks, Gwendolyn

June 7, 1917
December 3, 2000


Taken to Topeka, Kansas, to be born among family, poet, novelist, teacher, and reader/lecturer Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks was reared in Chicago, where she continued to reside. In her autobiography, Report from Part One (1972), she describes a happy childhood spent in black neighborhoods with her parents and younger brother, Raymond. "I had always felt that to be black was good," Brooks observes. School awakened her to preferences for light skin among blacks, the "black-and-tan motif" noted in her earlier works by critic Arthur P. Davis.

Brooks's father, David Anderson Brooks, was the son of a runaway slave, a janitor with "rich Artistic Abilities" who had spent a year at Fisk University in Nashville, hoping to become a doctor, and who sang, told stories, and responded compassionately to the poverty and misfortune around him; her mother, Keziah Wims Brooks, had been a fifth-grade teacher in Topeka and harbored a wish to write. They nurtured their daughter's precocious gifts. When the seven-year-old Gwendolyn began to write poetry, her mother predicted, "You are going to be the lady Paul Laurence Dunbar." Years later, Mrs. Brooks took her daughter to meet James Weldon Johnson and then Langston Hughes at church. Hughes became an inspiration, friend, and mentor to the young poet.

Brooks graduated from Wilson Junior College (now Kennedy-King) in 1936. She was employed for a month as a maid in a North Shore home and spent four months as secretary to a spiritual adviser (see the "prophet Williams" section of the poem "In the Mecca"). In 1939 she married Henry Lowington Blakely II, a poet, writer, and fellow member of Inez Cunningham Stark's poetry workshop in the South Side Community Art Center. The marriage lasted fifty-seven years, until Blakely's death in 1996. Motherhood (Henry Jr., 1940; Nora, 1951), early publishing (A Street in Bronzeville, 1945), warm critical reception, careful supervision of her career by her editor at Harper's, and a succession of honors and prizes helped Brooks overcome her reticence about public speaking.

The first African American (or "black," her articulated preference) to win a Pulitzer Prize, for poetry (Annie Allen, 1950), Brooks also received two Guggenheim Fellowships. Upon the death of Carl Sandburg in 1968, she was named the poet laureate of Illinois. She was the first black woman to be elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1976); to become consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress (19851986, just before the title was

changed to poet laureate); to become an honorary fellow of the Modern Language Association; and to receive the Poetry Society of America's Shelley Memorial Award and its Frost Medal. She was elected to the National Women's Hall of Fame and given the National Endowment for the Arts Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989. Named the Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities (1994), she also received the National Medal of Arts (1995). In Illinois, the junior high school at Harvey, the Cultural Center at Western Illinois University, and both the Center for Black Literature and Creative Writing and a chair as Distinguished Professor of English at Chicago State University all bear her name. On June 6, 2003, at a ceremony in Springfield, Illinois, the Gwendolyn Brooks Illinois State Library was dedicated. The number of her honorary doctorates exceeds seventy.

Brooks's work is notable for its impeccable craft and its social dimension. It marks a confluence of a dual stream: the black sermonic tradition and black music, and white antecedents such as the ballad, the sonnet, and conventional and free-verse forms. Influenced early by Hughes, T. S. Eliot, Emily Dickinson, and Robert Frost, she was propelled by the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s into Black Nationalist consciousness. Yet her poetry has always been infused with both humanism and heroism, the latter defined as extending the concept of leadership by both personality and art. In 1969 she moved to Dudley Randall's nascent, historic Broadside Press for the publication of Riot and subsequent works.

Brooks's books span six decades of social and political changes. A Street in Bronzeville addresses the quotidian realities of segregation for black Americans at home and in World War II military service; Annie Allen ironically explores postwar antiromanticism; Maud Martha, her novel (1953), sketches a bildungsroman of black womanhood; Bronzeville Boys and Girls (1956) presents sturdy, homeoriented black children of the 1950s; The Bean Eaters (1960) and new poems in Selected Poems (1963) sound the urgencies of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1967, at the Second Fisk University Writers' Conference at Nashville, Brooks was deeply impressed by the activist climate, personified by Amiri Baraka. Though she had always experimented with conventional forms, her work subsequently opened more distinctly to free verse, a feature of the multiform In the Mecca (1968), which Haki R. Madhubuti calls "her epic of Black humanity" (Report from Part One, p. 22).

Upon returning to Chicago from the conference at Fisk, Brooks conducted a workshop with the Blackstone Rangers, a teenage gang, who were succeeded by young writers such as Carolyn M. Rodgers and Madhubuti (then don l. lee). Broadside published Riot (1969), Family Pictures (1970), Aloneness (1971), and Beckonings (1975). Madhubuti's Third World Press published The Tiger Who Wore White Gloves (1974) and To Disembark (1981). In 1971 Brooks began a literary annual, The Black Position, under her own aegis, and made the first of her two trips to Africa. Beginning with Primer for Blacks (1980), she published with her own company The Near-Johannesburg Boy (1986), the omnibus volume Blacks (1987), Gottschalk and the Grande Tarantelle (1988), and Winnie (1988, a poem honoring Winnie Mandela). Her books are being reissued by Third World Press. The poems of Children Coming Home (1991) express the perspectives of contemporary children and may be contrasted with the benign ambience of the earlier work, Bronzeville Boys and Girls. Report from Part Two (1996) presents the second part of her autobiography. In Montgomery and Other Poems (2003), which the poet meticulously prepared, was published posthumously.

After a brief hospital stay, where she was diagnosed with cancer, Brooks died at home in Chicago on Sunday, December 3, 2000, surrounded by family and friends. Her personal papers are archived at the University of California, Berkeley's Bancroft Library.

Brooks supported and promoted the creativity of other writers. Her annual Poet Laureate Awards distributed considerable sums of her own money, chiefly to the schoolchildren of Illinois. She visited prisons, where her readings inspired poets such as the late Etheridge Knight. Lauded with affectionate respect in two tribute anthologies, recognized and mourned nationally and internationally as a major literary figure, Brooks continues to claim and to vivify U.S. democratic heritage.

See also Baraka, Amiri (Jones, LeRoi); Black Arts Movement; Dunbar, Paul Laurence; Literature of the United States; Madhubuti, Haki R. (Lee, Don L.); Poetry, U.S.

Bibliography

Bloom, Harold, ed. Gwendolyn Brooks. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2000.

Bolden, B. J. Urban Rage in Bronzeville: Social Commentary in the Poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, 19451960. Chicago: Third World Press, 1999.

Bryant, Jacqueline, ed. Gwendolyn Brooks' Maud Martha: A Critical Collection. Chicago: Third World Press, 2002.

Kent, George E. A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990.

Melhem, D. H. Gwendolyn Brooks: Poetry and the Heroic Voice. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1987.

Melhem, D. H. Heroism in the New Black Poetry: Introductions and Interviews. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990.

Mootry, Maria K., ed. A Life Distilled: Gwendolyn Brooks, Her Poetry and Fiction. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Shaw, Harry. Gwendolyn Brooks. New York: Twayne, 1980.

d. h. melhem (1996)
Updated by author 2005

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Brooks, Gwendolyn

BROOKS, Gwendolyn

Born 7 June 1917, Topeka, Kansas

Daughter of David and Keziah Wims Brooks; married HenryBlakely, 1939

Gwendolyn Brooks attended public schools in Chicago and graduated from Wilson Junior College in 1936. A poetry workshop at Chicago's South Side Community Art Center in the early 1940s introduced her to the rigors of poetic technique; her extraordinary talent was soon recognized. In 1945 her first volume, A Street in Bronzeville, appeared. A plethora of prizes quickly followed: grants from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the National Academy of Arts and Letters, two Guggenheim Fellowships, and, in 1950, the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. She was the first black poet so honored. A similar kind of recognition came in 1968 she was named poet laureate of Illinois.

In addition to numerous honorary degrees, Brooks achieved an unusual distinction when in 1971 black poets of all ages contributed to a volume, To Gwen With Love. The presence of so many young writers was, in part, a response to a shift in Brooks' political stance. From a rather apolitical integrationist in the 1940s, she became a strong advocate of black consciousness in the 1960s. This process of change is described in her autobiography, Report from Part One (1972).

In A Street in Bronzeville Brooks penned memorable vignettes of the residents of Bronzeville, the black neighborhood of Chicago. Significantly, although the characters in these poems are poor, the emphasis is not on their material poverty but on their struggle to sustain their spiritual and aesthetic well-being. In "The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith," a narrative poem which is a marvel of technical proficiency, the protagonist draws on his considerable imaginative powers to create a world on Sundays which contrasts sharply to the drudgery of his workdays. The poem celebrates Smith's resourcefulness, his sensuality, and his keen aesthetic sense, yet it reveals the lack of substance underneath the style.

The dislocations and uncertainties brought about by World War II are strongly conveyed throughout A Street, most profoundly in the sonnet series, "Gay Chaps at the Bar." Even in a volume wherein Brooks handled diverse forms masterfully, these 12 off-rhyme sonnets are notable for their technical innovativeness. Her concern with the alienation, depersonalization, and terror accompanying war and modern life in general aligns her with the mainstream of 20th-century poetry.

Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize for Annie Allen, her most experimental work. Its subject is akin to her earlier poems: a young black girl comes of age, hoping to live out the drama and romance she fantasies. But the poverty and powerlessness which she kept at bay in her girlhood threaten her womanhood. Brooks' only novel, Maud Martha (1953), illumines the life of a young black woman who must ward off continual, often petty, assaults to her human dignity. It was one of the first novels to portray a black girl's coming of age.

Written during the height of the civil-rights war, The Bean Eaters (1960) contained more topical poems than Brooks' earlier books; her subjects include lynching and Emmett Till, school integration and Little Rock, and the violence accompanying the arrival of a black family in an all-white neighborhood. The epic title poem of In the Mecca (1968) brilliantly captures the mood of disillusionment and defiance of urban America in the 1960s. It is Brooks' most richly textured poem. In her typical fashion, she combines formal eloquence and ordinary speech, and they are perfectly fused. Brooks employs various forms, but free verse and blank verse predominate. Visually rich as well, the poem projects razor-sharp images and a gallery of memorable and diverse characters. It is a tour de force.

Riot (1968), Family Pictures (1970), and Beckonings (1975) follow the direction established by 1968's In the Mecca. More overtly political and verbally less complex, these poems are, by Brooks' own testimony, written primarily for a broadly based black audience. She intended they be read by the people whose lives she has celebrated throughout her career.

Brooks was the first black American woman to achieve critical recognition as a poet. Observers have noted influences on her work as diverse as T. S. Eliot and Robert Frost, Langston Hughes and Wallace Stevens. Stylistically, she often remolds traditional verse forms such as the ballad and the sonnet to suit her poetic purposes; she also employs modern forms brilliantly. Philosophically, she is a humanist, particularly concerned with exploring the strengths and travails of black women in her work. By any reckoning, hers is and has remained one of the major voices of 20th-century American poetry.

Brooks's seventieth birthday in 1987 occasioned an outpouring of public affection and gestures of critical respect for this still-vital and productive poet. That year also saw the publication of Blacks, an anthology collecting Brooks' writing of four decades. The volume's succinct title expresses a unity in Brooks's canon to which critics, readers, and perhaps Brooks herself had been blind. Bearing the imprint of the David Company, founded by Brooks, the volume testifies to her commitment to build alternative publishing institutions. Paradoxically, Brooks' principled stance resulted in her work's being less accessible to the reading public at the moment when it might have been in greatest demand. Generated by the burgeoning interest in black women's writing, demand for the book was enhanced by Brooks' enormous success as a lecturer. Visiting scores of colleges and universities annually, she has brought to enthusiastic audiences her message that "poetry was life distilled."

Her later work has distilled the most urgent and fundamental issues of contemporary life. Whether in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa or racism in the U.S., Brooks extracted for her poetry profiles of both heroic action and wary resistance. Among the public figures she has reimagined in verse are freedom fighter Winnie Mandela, poet Haki Madhubuti, social reformer Jane Addams, and child-abuse victim Elizabeth Steinberg. Sensitive as ever to the extraordinary dimensions of ordinary lives, Brooks has written poems narrating experiences of "the near-Johannesburg boy" fighting the "Fist-and-the-Fury" and of Lincoln West, the black American child who is liberated from self-hatred when he learns his African features make him the "real thing." Although she rued the decline of activism in the 1980s—in her coinage, "a giantless time"—she has continued to etch vivid portraits of those who "take today and jerk it out of joint."

In Report from Part One Brooks had promised not to imitate the voices of the young black poets of the 1960s, but to extend and adapt her own voice. Determined to address a black audience that did not normally read poetry, she abandoned the sonnet and rhyme generally for free verse and sparer diction. The results were uneven, as Brooks' repeated revision of several poems seemed to concede, and the output was slender. Yet the best work fused formal eloquence and colloquial speech into a poetic language that was inimitably "Brooksian."

The first monograph analyzing Brooks' writing appeared in 1980; subsequently, in two critical biographies, a collection of essays, and numerous journal articles and chapters in books, critics and scholars began to give Brooks' work its due. She was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1988 and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1989.

Perhaps the critics' most striking discovery was that Brooks' aesthetic had always been "black." Devoted from the start to representing the lives of the black urban poor, Brooks had drawn them as complex, spiritual, and contradictory human beings. Revisiting her early work, feminist critics noted that Brooks had pioneered in portraying multidimensional black female characters. Most important, her words almost always retain the capacity to surprise, delight, and instruct.

Brooks prefers the word "B-L-A-C-K, which comes right out to meet you, eye to eye," she said during a Jefferson Lecture in Washington, D.C. She travels through the states reading her works, much of which is on audio for all to enjoy. Her reading of her works resonates with urban imagery and wry social comment. Her cutting observations have made her one of the most well-known poets of our time. Brooks' daughter, Nora Brooks Blakely, describes her not only as a loving mother, but also as a woman who "opens places for people—new doorways and mindpaths."

Brooks has had an extraordinary career; in addition to being the first black author to win the Pulitzer Prize, she holds over 70 honorary degrees. Among her other honors are Consultant in Poetry from the Library of Congress (1985-86); Jefferson Lecturer, NEH; National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters; and National Medal of Arts presented by President Bill and Mrs. Hilary Clinton. In addition, she has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York, joining another great black women's writer, Maya Angelou. She has been honored by the naming of the Gwendolyn Brooks Cultural Center at Western Illinois University and the Gwendolyn Brooks Junior High School in Harvey, Illinois.

Other Works:

Bronzeville Boys and Girls (1956). Selected Poems (1963). The World of Gwendolyn Brooks (1971). Aloneness (1971). Primer for Blacks (1980). Young Poet's Primer (1980). To Disembark (1981). Mayor Harold Washington and Chicago, the I Will City (1983). Very Young Poets (1983). The Near-Johannesburg Boy (1986). Gottschalk and the Grande Tarantelle (1988). Winnie (1988). Children Coming Home (1991).

Bibliography:

Juhasz, S., "A Sweet Inspiration … of My People: The Poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks and Nikki Giovanni," in Naked and Fiery Forms: Modern American Poetry by Women—A New Tradition (1976). Kent, G., Blackness and the Adventure of Western Culture (1972). Kent, G., A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks (1990). Madhubuti, H., ed., Say That the River Turns: The Impact of Gwendolyn Brooks (1987). Melhem, D. H., Gwendolyn Brooks: Poetry and the Heroic Voice (1987). Miller, R. B., Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks: A Reference Guide (1978). Mootry, M. K. and G. Smith, eds. A Life Distilled: Gwendolyn Brooks, Her Poetry and Fiction, (1987). Shands, A. O., "Gwendolyn Brooks as Novelist," in BlackWomen (June 1973). Shaw, Harry B., Gwendolyn Brooks (1980). Voices From the Gap: Women Writers of Color (1999).

Reference Works:

African American Writers (1991). Black Writers (1991). CANR (1989). CLC (1980, 1988). DLB (1988). FC (1990). Modern American Women Writers (1991). MTCW (1991). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other reference:

Black American Writer (1969). Black Scholar (Summer 1972). CLAJ (Dec. 1962, Dec. 1963, Sept. 1972, Sept. 1973). Jet (30 May 1994). SBL (Autumn 1973). Contemporary Literature (Winter 1970).

—CHERYL A. WALL

UPDATED BY DEVRA M. SLADICS

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Brooks, Gwendolyn

BROOKS, Gwendolyn


Nationality: American. Born: Topeka, Kansas, 7 June 1917. Education: Attended Hyde Park High School, Wendell Phillips High School, and Englewood High School, all Chicago, until 1934; Wilson Junior College, Chicago, graduated 1936. Family: Married Henry L. Blakely in 1938; one son and one daughter. Career: Publicity director, NAACP Youth Council, Chicago, 1930s. Teacher, Northeastern Illinois State College, Chicago, Columbia College, Chicago, and Elmhurst College, Illinois; Rennebohm Professor of English, University of Wisconsin, Madison; Distinguished Professor of the arts, City College, City University of New York, 1971. Editor, Black Position magazine. Consultant in Poetry, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., 1985–86. Awards : Guggenheim fellowship, 1946; American Academy grant, 1946; Pulitzer prize, 1950; Thormod Monsen award, 1964; Ferguson memorial award, 1964; Anisfield-Wolf award, 1968; Black Academy award, 1971; Shelley memorial award, 1976; Frost Medal, 1988; New York Public Library award, 1988; National Endowment for the Arts award, 1989; Society for Literature award, University of Thessaloniki, Athens, Greece, 1990; Aiken-Taylor award, 1992; National Book Foundation medal for lifetime achievement, 1994; National medal of arts, 1995. Has received more than 50 honorary degrees from American universities. Poet Laureate of Illinois, 1968. Member: National Institute of Arts and Letters; American Academy of Arts and Letters. Address : c/o The Contemporary Forum, 2529A Jerome Street, Chicago, Illinois 60645–1507, U.S.A.

Publications

Poetry

A Street in Bronzeville. New York, Harper, 1945.

Annie Allen. New York, Harper, 1949.

Bronzeville Boys and Girls (for children). New York, Harper, 1956; New York, Harper Collins, 1994.

The Bean Eaters. New York, Harper, 1960.

Selected Poems. New York, Harper, 1963; New York, Harper Perennial, 1994.

We Real Cool. Detroit, Broadside Press, 1966.

The Wall. Detroit, Broadside Press, 1967.

In the Mecca. New York, Harper, 1968.

Riot. Detroit, Broadside Press, 1969.

Family Pictures. Detroit, Broadside Press, 1970.

Black Steel: Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali. Detroit, Broadside Press, 1971.

Aloneness. Detroit, Broadside Press, 1971.

Aurora. Detroit, Broadside Press, 1972.

Beckonings. Detroit, Broadside Press, 1975.

To Disembark. Chicago, Third World Press, 1981.

Black Love. Chicago, Brooks Press, 1982.

Mayor Harold Washington; and Chicago, the I Will City. Chicago, Brooks Press, 1983.

The Near-Johannesburg Boy and Other Poems. Chicago, David Company, 1986.

Blacks. Chicago, Third World Press, 1987.

Winnie. Chicago, Third World Press, 1988.

Gottschalk and the Grande Tarantelle. Chicago, David Company, 1988.

Children Coming Home. Chicago, David Co., 1991.

Selected Poems. New York, Harper Collins, and London, Hi Marketing, 1999.

Recordings: The 1987 Consultants' Reunion: Two Evenings of Readings Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Consultantship in Poetry, Gertrude Clarke Whittall Poetry and Literature Fund, 1987; Poets in Person, Modern Poetry Association, 1991.

Novel

Maud Martha. New York, Harper, 1953.

Other

A Portion of That Field, with others. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1967.

The World of Gwendolyn Brooks (miscellany). New York, Harper, 1971.

Report from Part One: An Autobiography. Detroit, Broadside Press, 1972.

The Tiger Who Wore White Gloves; or, What You Are You Are (for children). Chicago, Third World Press, 1974.

A Capsule Course in Black Poetry Writing, with Don L. Lee, Keorapetse Kgositsile, and Dudley Randall. Detroit, Broadside Press, 1975.

Primer for Blacks. N.p., Black Position Press, 1980.

Young Poets' Primer. Chicago, Brooks Press, 1981.

Very Young Poets. Chicago, Brooks Press, 1983.

Report from Part Two. Chicago, Third World Press, 1996.

Editor, A Broadside Treasury. Detroit, Broadside Press, 1971.

Editor, Jump Bad: A New Chicago Anthology. Detroit, Broadside Press, 1971.

*

Bibliography: Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks: A Reference Guide by R. Baxter Miller, Boston, Hall, and London, Prior, 1978.

Critical Studies: Gwendolyn Brooks by Harry B. Shaw, Boston, Twayne, 1980; Gwendolyn Brooks; Poetry and the Heroic Voice by D.H. Melhem, Louisville, University Press of Kentucky, 1987; A Life Distilled: Gwendolyn Brooks, Her Poetry and Fiction edited by Maria K. Mootry and Gary Smith, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1987; A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks by George E. Kent, Louisville, University Press of Kentucky, 1990; Gwendolyn Brooks, Mankato, Minnesota, Creative Education, 1993; "Re-Wrighting Native: Gwendolyn Brooks's Domestic Aesthetic in Maud Martha" by Malin LaVon Walther, in Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature (Tulsa, Oklahoma), 13(1), Spring 1994; Urban Rage in Bronzeville: Social Commentary in the Poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, 1945–1960 (dissertation) by Barbara Bolden, University of Illinois, Urbana, 1994; The Poetics of Enclosure: Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, H.D., and Gwendolyn Brooks (dissertation) by Lesley Wheeler, Princeton University, New Jersey, 1994; 'Not Quite a Lady': Mina Loy, Edna St. Vincent Millay, H.D., Gwendolyn Brooks, and the Poetics of Impersonation (dissertation) by Susan Nadine Gilmore, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 1995; "Whose Canon? Gwendolyn Brooks: Founder at the Center of the 'Margins'" by Kathryne V. Lindberg, in Gendered Modernisms: American Women Poets and Their Readers, edited by Margaret Dickle and Thomas Travisano, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996; "Gwendolyn Brooks at Eighty: A Retrospective" by Philip Greasley, in Midamerica (East Lansing, Michigan), 23, 1996; On Gwendolyn Brooks: Reliant Contemplation edited by Stephen Caldwell Wright, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1996; "Native Daughters in the Promised Land: Gender, Race, and the Question of Separate Spheres" by You-me Park and Gayle Wald, in American Literature (Durham, North Carolina), 70(3), September 1998; The Real Negro: The Question of Authenticity in Twentieth Century African-American Literature (dissertation) by Shelly Jennifer Eversley, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland, 1998.

*  *  *

In what has since become a well-known episode, Gwendolyn Brooks describes an auspicious turning point in her career, a turning point that came in 1967 when she attended the Second Black Writers' Conference at Fisk University in Nashville. The Pulitzer prizewinning poet was stunned and intrigued by the energy and electricity generated by LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) and Ron Milner, among others, on that predominantly black campus. The excitement was at once surprising, stirring, and contagious, and Brooks admits that from that moment she entered a "new consciousness." She had discovered a new audience: young people full of a fresh spirit and ready, as she characterized them, to take on the challenges. The sturdy ideas that she earlier held were no longer valid in this "new world," and several years later she would untendentiously remark, "I am trying to weave the coat that I shall wear."

The older coat that Brooks doffed is made of the material for which she is best known, such vignettes of ghetto people in Chicago as presented in "The Anniad," "The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith," "The Bean Eaters," or "We Real Cool." They are works of a poet who brings a patrician mind to a plebeian language, a poet always searching for the stirring, unusual coloration of words, the poet in whom Addison Gayle, Jr., has noted what he calls "a tendency toward obscurity and abstraction" and "a child-like fascination for words." But like Emily Dickinson, Brooks searched for fresh sounds and imagery produced by word clusters that startle rather than obscure:

   Let it be stairways, and a splintery box
   Where you have thrown me, scraped me with your kiss,
   Have honed me, have released me after this
   Cavern Kindness, smiled away our shocks.

Most of Brooks's poems written before 1967—before the Fisk conference—are her "front yard songs," poems that reflect the self-consciousness of a poet whose audience seeks lessons in a lyric that ostensibly transcends race. They are solid, highly imaginative poems, and if they suggest comparisons with Wallace Stevens, as several critics have noted, they also recall Emily Dickinson's ingenuity with language, including her ironic ambiguities:

   A light and diplomatic bird
   Is lenient in my window tree.
   A quick dilemma of the leaves
   Discloses twist and tact to me.

The poems recall as well the "grotesques" who habituate the fictional world of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio:

   True, there is silver under
   The veils of the darkness,
   But few care to dig in the night
   For the possible treasure of stars.

But above all there is the unmistakable rhythmic shifting—"My hand is stuffed with mode, design, device./But I lack access to my proper stone"—and the haunting incongruity—"Believe that even in my deliberateness I was not deliberate."

The startling Fisk conference may be viewed metaphorically as Brooks's peek at "the back yard" ("Where it's rough and untended and hungry weed grows"), the escape, as George Kent says, from the highly ordered and somewhat devitalized life of her "front yard training." The backyard offers a new vitality, a new consciousness. Brooks, around fifty years old at the time of the conference, strikes up a dialogue in free verse with the subjects of her earlier poetry. The distances narrow, and the angles flatten: "we are each other's/harvest:/we are each other's business:/we are each other's magnitude and bond."

The angles of vision have changed to suit what Brooks describes as "my newish voice": "[It] will not be an imitation of the contemporary young black voice, which I so admire, but an extending adaptation of today's G.B. voice." So there is something of a near elegiac tone in Brooks's "transcendence" of her poetic past, but it is elegy without regrets, for she has moved from a place of "knowledgeable unknowing" to a place of "know-now" preachments:

   I tell you
   I love You
   and I trust You.
   Take my Faith.
   Make of my Faith an engine.
   Make of my Faith a
   Black Star. I am Beckoning.

Still, as Barbara Christian reminds us, there are moments when we need to be admonished to recollect that the "poet has always been a synthesizer and a thermometer, whether she is aware of it or not." By this observation Christian means to suggest that Brooks—attentive poet as she is—intuitively synthesizes her tradition as she goes about taking the measure of the current time.

—Charles L. James

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Brooks, Gwendolyn 1917–2000

Brooks, Gwendolyn 1917–2000

PERSONAL: Born June 7, 1917, in Topeka, KS; died of cancer December 3, 2000, in Chicago, IL; daughter of David Anderson (a janitor) and Keziah Corinne (a teacher; maiden name, Wims) Brooks; married Henry Lowington Blakely, II, September 17, 1939; children: Henry Lowington, III, Nora. Education: Graduate of Wilson Junior College, 1936.

CAREER: Poet and novelist. Publicity director, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Youth Council, Chicago, IL, 1937–38. Taught poetry at numerous colleges and universities, including Columbia College, Elmhurst College, Northeastern Illinois State College (now Northeastern Illinois University), and University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1969; Distinguished Professor of the Arts, City College of the City University of New York, 1971; professor at Chicago State University. Member, Illinois Arts Council.

AWARDS, HONORS: Named one of ten women of the year, Mademoiselle magazine, 1945; National Institute of Arts and Letters grant in literature, 1946; American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for creative writing, 1946; Guggenheim fellowships, 1946 and 1947; Eunice Tietjens Memorial Prize, Poetry magazine, 1949; Pulitzer prize in poetry, 1950, for Annie Allen; Robert F. Ferguson Memorial Award, Friends of Literature, 1964, for Selected Poems; Thormod Monsen Literature Award, 1964; Anisfield-Wolf Award, 1968, for In the Mecca; named Poet Laureate of Illinois, 1968; Black Academy of Arts and Letters Award, 1971, for outstanding achievement in letters; Shelley Memorial Award, 1976; Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress, 1985–86; inducted into National Women's Hall of Fame, 1988; Essence Award, 1988; Frost Medal, Poetry Society of America, 1989; Lifetime Achievement Award, National Endowment for the Arts, 1989; Society for Literature Award, University of Thessaloniki (Thessaloniki, Greece), 1990; Kuumba Liberation Award; Aiken-Taylor award, 1992; Jefferson Lecturer award, 1994; National Book Foundation medal for Lifetime Achievement, 1994; Gwendolyn Brooks Elementary School named in her honor, Aurora, IL, 1995; approximately fifty honorary degrees from universities and colleges, including Columbia College, 1964, Lake Forest College, 1965, and Brown University, 1974.

WRITINGS:

POETRY

A Street in Bronzeville (also see below), Harper (New York, NY), 1945.

Annie Allen (also see below), Harper (New York, NY), 1949.

The Bean Eaters (also see below), Harper (New York, NY), 1960.

In the Time of Detachment, In the Time of Cold, Civil War Centennial Commission of Illinois (Springfield, IL), 1965.

In the Mecca (also see below), Harper (New York, NY), 1968.

For Illinois 1968: A Sesquicentennial Poem, Harper (New York, NY), 1968.

Riot (also see below), Broadside Press (Highland Park, MI), 1969.

Family Pictures (also see below), Broadside Press (Highland Park, MI), 1970.

Aloneness, Broadside Press (Highland Park, MI), 1971.

Aurora, Broadside Press (Highland Park, MI), 1972.

Beckonings, Broadside Press (Highland Park, MI), 1975.

Primer for Blacks, Black Position Press (Chicago, IL), 1980.

To Disembark, Third World Press (Chicago, IL), 1981.

Black Love, Brooks Press (Chicago, IL), 1982.

Mayor Harold Washington and Chicago, The I Wil City, Brooks Press, 1983.

The Near-Johannesburg Boy, and Other Poems, David Co. (Chicago, IL), 1987.

Gottschalk and the Grande Tarantelle, David Co. (Chicago, IL), 1988.

Winnie, Third World Press (Chicago, IL), 1988.

Children Coming Home, David Co. (Chicago, IL), 1991.

In Montgomery, and Other Poems, Third World Press (Chicago, IL), 2003.

COLLECTED WORKS

Selected Poems, Harper (New York, NY), 1963.

(With others) A Portion of That Field: The Centennial of the Burial of Lincoln, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 1967.

The World of Gwendolyn Brooks (contains A Street in Bronzeville, Annie Allen, Maud Martha, The Bean Eaters, and In the Mecca; also see below), Harper (New York, NY), 1971.

(Editor) A Broadside Treasury (poems), Broadside Press (Highland Park, MI), 1971.

(Editor) Jump Bad: A New Chicago Anthology, Broadside Press (Highland Park, MI), 1971.

(With Keorapetse Kgositsile, Haki R. Madhubuti, and Dudley Randall) A Capsule Course in Black Poetry Writing, Broadside Press (Highland Park, MI), 1975.

Young Poet's Primer (writing manual), Brooks Press (Chicago, IL), 1981.

Very Young Poets (writing manual), Brooks Press (Chicago, IL), 1983.

The Day of the Gwendolyn: A Lecture (sound recording), Library of Congress (Washington, DC), 1986.

Blacks (includes A Street in Bronzeville, Annie Allen, The Bean Eaters, Maud Martha, A Catch of Shy Fish, Riot, In the Mecca, and most of Family Pictures), David Co. (Chicago, IL), 1987.

The Gwendolyn Brooks Library, Moonbeam Publications, 1991.

OTHER

Maud Martha (novel; also see below), Harper (New York, NY), 1953.

Bronzeville Boys and Girls (poems; for juveniles), Harper (New York, NY), 1956.

Report from Part One: An Autobiography, Broadside Press (Highland Park, MI), 1972.

The Tiger Who Wore White Gloves: Or You Are What You Are (for juveniles), Third World Press (Chicago, IL), 1974, reissued, 1987.

Report from Part Two (autobiography), Third World Press (Chicago, IL), 1996.

Stories included in books, including Soon One Morning: New Writing by American Negroes, 1940–1962 (includes "The Life of Lincoln West"), edited by Herbert Hill, Knopf (New York, NY), 1963, published as Black Voices, Elek (London, England), 1964; and The Best Short Stories by Negro Writers: An Anthology from 1899 to the Present, edited by Langston Hughes, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1967. Contributor to poetry anthologies, including New Negro Poets USA, edited by Langston Hughes, Indiana University Press, 1964; The Poetry of Black America: Anthology of the Twentieth Century, edited by Arnold Doff, Harper, 1973; and Celebrate the Midwest! Poems and Stories for David D. Anderson, edited by Marcia Noe, Lake Shore, 1991. Author of broadsides The Wall and We Real Cool, for Broadside Press, and I See Chicago, 1964. Contributor of poems and articles to Ebony, McCall's, Nation, Poetry, and other periodicals. Contributor of reviews to Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Daily News, New York Herald Tribune, and New York Times Book Review.

SIDELIGHTS: Gwendolyn Brooks was a highly regarded, much-honored poet, with the distinction of being the first black author to win the Pulitzer Prize. She also was poetry consultant to the Library of Congress—the first black woman to hold that position—and poet laureate of the State of Illinois. Many of Brooks' works display a political consciousness, especially those from the 1960s and later, with several of her poems reflecting the civil rights activism of that period. Her body of work gave her, according to Dictionary of Literary Bi-ography contributor George E. Kent, "a unique position in American letters. Not only has she combined a strong commitment to racial identity and equality with a mastery of poetic techniques, but she has also managed to bridge the gap between the academic poets of her generation in the 1940s and the young black militant writers of the 1960s."

Brooks was born in Topeka, Kansas, but her family moved to Chicago when she was young. Her father was a janitor who had hoped to become a doctor; her mother was a schoolteacher and classically trained pianist. They were supportive of their daughter's passion for reading and writing. Brooks was thirteen when her first published poem, "Eventide," appeared in American Childhood; by the time she was seventeen she was publishing poems frequently in the Chicago Defender, a newspaper serving Chicago's black population. After such formative experiences as attending junior college and working for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, she developing her craft in poetry workshops and began writing the poems, focusing on urban blacks, that would be published in her first collection, A Street in Bronzeville.

Her poems in A Street in Bronzeville and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Annie Allen were "devoted to small, carefully cerebrated, terse portraits of the Black urban poor," commented Richard K. Barksdale in Modern Black Poets: A Collection of Critical Essays. Brooks once described her style as "folksy narrative," but she varied her forms, using free verse, sonnets, and other models. Several critics welcomed Brooks as a new voice in poetry; fellow poet Rolfe Humphries wrote in the New York Times Book Review that "we have, in A Street in Bronzeville, a good book and a real poet," while Saturday Review of Literature contributor Starr Nelson called that volume "a work of art and a poignant social document." In Annie Allen, which follows the experiences of a black girl as she grows into adulthood, Brooks deals further with social issues, especially the role of women, and experimented with her poetry, with one section of the book being an epic poem, "The Anniad"—a play on The Aeneid. Langston Hughes, in a review of Annie Allen for Voices, remarked that "the people and poems in Gwendolyn Brooks' book are alive, reaching, and very much of today."

In the 1950s Brooks published her first and only novel, Maud Martha, which details a black woman's life in short vignettes. It is "a story of a woman with doubts about herself and where and how she fits into the world. Maud's concern is not so much that she is inferior but that she is perceived as being ugly," related Harry B. Shaw in Gwendolyn Brooks. Maud suffers prejudice not only from whites but also from blacks who have lighter skin than hers, something that mirrors Brooks's experience. Eventually, Maud takes a stand for her own dignity by turning her back on a patronizing, racist store clerk. "The book is … about the triumph of the lowly," commented Shaw. "Brooks shows what they go through and exposes the shallowness of the popular, beautiful white people with 'good' hair. One way of looking at the book, then, is as a war with … people's concepts of beauty." Its other themes, Shaw added, include "the importance of spiritual and physical death," disillusionment with a marriage that amounts to "a step down" in living conditions, and the discovery "that even through disillusionment and spiritual death life will prevail."

David Littlejohn, writing in Black on White: A Critical Survey of Writing by American Negroes, found Martha Maud "a striking human experiment, as exquisitely written … as any of Gwendolyn Brooks's poetry in verse…. It is a powerful, beautiful dagger of a book, as generous as it can possibly be. It teaches more, more quickly, more lastingly, than a thousand pages of protest." In a Black World review, Annette Oliver Shands noted the way in which Maud Martha differs from the works of some black writers: "Brooks does not specify traits, niceties or assets for members of the Black community to acquire in order to attain their just rights…. So, this is not a novel to inspire social advancement on the part of fellow Blacks. Nor does it say be poor, Black and happy. The message is to accept the challenge of being human and to assert humanness with urgency."

Brooks's later work took a far more political stance. Just as her first poems reflected the mood of their era, her later works mirrored their age by displaying what National Observer contributor Bruce Cook termed "an intense awareness of the problems of color and justice." Toni Cade Bambara reported in the New York Times Book Review that at the age of fifty "something happened to Brooks, a something most certainly in evidence in 'In the Mecca' and subsequent works—a new movement and energy, intensity, richness, power of statement and a new stripped lean, compressed style. A change of style prompted by a change of mind." "Though some of her work in the early 1960s had a terse, abbreviated style, her conversion to direct political expression happened rapidly after a gathering of black writers at Fisk University in 1967," Jacqueline Trescott reported in the Washington Post. Brooks herself noted that the poets there were committed to writing as blacks, about blacks, and for a black audience. If many of her earlier poems had fulfilled this aim, it was not due to conscious intent, she said; but from this time forward, Brooks thought of herself as an African determined not to compromise social comment for the sake of technical proficiency.

Although In the Mecca and Brooks's subsequent works have been characterized as tougher and possessing what a Virginia Quarterly Review critic called "raw power and roughness," several commentators emphasized that these poems are neither bitter nor vengeful. Instead, according to Cook, they are more "about bitterness" than bitter in themselves. Dictionary of Literary Biography essayist Charles Israel suggested that In the Mecca's title poem, for example, shows "a deepening of Brooks's concern with social problems." A mother has lost a small daughter in the block-long ghetto tenement, the Mecca; the long poem traces her steps through the building, revealing her neighbors to be indifferent or insulated by their own personal obsessions. The mother finds her little girl, who "never learned that black is not beloved," who "was royalty when poised, / sly, at the A and P's fly-open door," under a Jamaican resident's cot, murdered. A Virginia Quarterly Review contributor compared the poem's impact to that of Richard Wright's fiction. R. Baxter Miller, writing in Black American Poets between Worlds, 1940–1960, observed, "In the Mecca is a most complex and intriguing book; it seeks to balance the sordid realities of urban life with an imaginative process of reconciliation and redemption." Other poems in the book, occasioned by the death of Malcolm X or the dedication of a mural of black heroes painted on a Chicago slum building, express the poet's commitment to her people's awareness of themselves as a political as well as a cultural entity.

Brooks's activism and her interest in nurturing black literature led her to leave major publisher Harper & Row in favor of fledgling black publishing companies. In the seventies, she chose Dudley Randall's Broadside Press to publish her poetry (Riot, Family Pictures, Aloneness, Aurora, and Beckonings) and Report from Part One, the first volume of her autobiography. She edited two collections of poetry—A Broadside Treasury and Jump Bad: A New Chicago Anthology—for the Detroit-area press. The Chicago-based Third World Press, run by Haki R. Madhubuti—formerly Don L. Lee, one of the young poets she had met during the sixties—also brought some Brooks titles into print. She did not regret having supported small publishers dedicated to the needs of the black community. Brooks was the first writer to read in Broadside's original Poet's Theatre series and was also the first poet to read in the second opening of the series when the press was revived under new ownership in 1988.

Brooks, however, felt that Riot, Family Pictures, Beckonings, and other books brought out by black publishers were given only brief notice by critics of the literary establishment because they "did not wish to encourage Black publishers." Key poems from these books, later collected in To Disembark, call blacks to "work together toward their own REAL emancipation," Brooks once indicated. Even so, "the strength here is not in declamation but in the poet's genius for psychological insight," commented J.A. Lipari in Library Journal.

Later Brooks poems continue to deal with political subjects and figures, such as South African activist Winnie Mandela, the onetime wife of anti-apartheid leader—and later president of the country—Nelson Mandela. Brooks once told Contemporary Literature interviewer George Stavros: "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." Still, Brooks's work was objective about human nature, several reviewers observed. Janet Overmeyer noted in the Christian Science Monitor that Brooks's "particular, outstanding, genius is her unsentimental regard and respect for all human beings…. She neither foolishly pities nor condemns—she creates." Overmeyer continued, "From her poet's craft bursts a whole gallery of wholly alive persons, preening, squabbling, loving, weeping; many a novelist cannot do so well in ten times the space." Littlejohn maintained that Brooks achieves this effect through a high "degree of artistic control," further relating, "The words, lines, and arrangements have been worked and worked and worked again into poised exactness: the unexpected apt metaphor, the mock-colloquial asides amid jewelled phrases, the half-ironic repetitions—she knows it all." More important, Brooks's objective treatment of issues such as poverty and racism "produces genuine emotional tension," the critic wrote.

Among Brooks's major prose works are her two volumes of autobiography. When the first, Report from Part One, was published in 1972, some reviewers expressed disappointment that it did not provide the level of personal detail or the insight into black literature that they had expected. "They wanted a list of domestic spats," remarked Brooks. Bambara noted that it "is not a sustained dramatic narrative for the nosey, being neither the confessions of a private woman poet or the usual sort of mahogany-desk memoir public personages inflict upon the populace at the first sign of a cardiac…. It documents the growth of Gwen Brooks." Other critics praised the book for explaining the poet's new orientation toward her racial heritage and her role as a poet. In a passage she presented again in later books as a definitive statement, 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…. I know now that I am essentially an essential African, in occupancy here because of an indeed 'peculiar' institution…. I know that Black fellow-feeling must be the Black man's encyclopedic Primer. I know that the Black-and-white integration concept, which in the mind of some beaming early saint was a dainty spinning dream, has wound down to farce…. I know that the Black emphasis must be not against white but FOR Black…. In the Conference-That-Counts, whose date may be 1980 or 2080 (woe betide the Fabric of Man if it is 2080), there will be no looking up nor looking down." In the future, she envisioned "the profound and frequent shaking of hands, which in Africa is so important. The shaking of hands in warmth and strength and union."

Brooks put some of the finishing touches on the second volume of her autobiography while serving as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. Brooks was sixty-eight years of age when she became the first black woman to be appointed to the post. Of her many duties there, the most important, in her view, were visits to local schools. Similar visits to colleges, universities, prisons, hospitals, and drug rehabilitation centers characterize her tenure as poet laureate of Illinois. In that role, she sponsored and hosted annual literary awards ceremonies at which she presented prizes funded "out of her own pocket, which, despite her modest means, is of legendary depth," Reginald Gibbons related in Chicago Tribune Books. She honored and encouraged many poets in her state through the Illinois Poets Laureate Awards and Significant Illinois Poets Awards programs.

Proving the breadth of Brooks's appeal, poets representing a wide variety of "races and … poetic camps" gathered at the University of Chicago to celebrate the poet's seventieth birthday in 1987, Gibbons reported. Brooks brought them together, he said, "in … a moment of good will and cheer." In recognition of her service and achievements, a junior high school in Harvey, Illinois, was named for her, and she was similarly honored by Western Illinois University's Gwendolyn Brooks Center for African-American Literature.

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

BOOKS

Berry, S. L., Gwendolyn Brooks, Creative Education (Mankato, MN), 1993.

Bigsby, C.W. E., The Second Black Renaissance: Essays in Black Literature, Greenwood Press (West-port, CT), 1980.

Black Literature Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.

Children's Literature Review, Volume 27, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.

Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography: The New Consciousness, 1941–1968, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1985.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 1, 1973, Volume 2, 1974, Volume 4, 1975, Volume 5, 1976, Volume 15, 1980, Volume 49, 1988.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 5: American Poets since World War II, 1980, Volume 76: Afro-American Writers, 1940–1955, 1988, Volume 165: American Poets since World War II, Fourth Series, 1996.

Evans, Mari, editor, Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation, Anchor/Doubleday (New York, NY), 1984.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., editor, Black Literature and Literary Theory, Methuen (New York, NY), 1984.

Gayles, Gloria Wade, editor, Conversations with Gwendolyn Brooks, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 2003.

Gibson, Donald B., editor, Modern Black Poets: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall (Englewood Cliffs, NJ), 1973.

Gould, Jean, Modern American Women Poets, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1985.

Kent, George, Gwendolyn Brooks: A Life, University Press of Kentucky (Lexington, KY), 1990.

Kufrin, Joan, Uncommon Women, New Century Publications, 1981.

Littlejohn, David, Black on White: A Critical Survey of Writing by American Negroes, Grossman (New York, NY), 1966.

Madhubuti, Haki R., Say that the River Turns: The Impact of Gwendolyn Brooks, Third World Press (Chicago, IL), 1987.

Melhem, D. H., Gwendolyn Brooks: Poetry and the Heroic Voice, University Press of Kentucky (Lexington, KY), 1987.

Melhem, D. H., Heroism in the New Black Poetry: Introductions and Interviews, University Press of Kentucky (Lexington, KY), 1990.

Miller, R. Baxter, Black American Poets between Worlds, 1940–1960, University of Tennessee Press (Knoxville, TN), 1986.

Mootry, Maria K., and Gary Smith, editors, A Life Distilled: Gwendolyn Brooks, Her Poetry and Fiction, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 1987.

Poetry Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 7, 1994.

Shaw, Harry B., Gwendolyn Brooks, Twayne (New York, NY), 1980.

World Literature Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.

Wright, Stephen Caldwell, editor, On Gwendolyn Brooks: Reliant Contemplation, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 1996.

PERIODICALS

African American Review, summer, 1992, pp. 197-211.

American Literature, December, 1990, pp. 606-16.

Atlantic Monthly, September, 1960.

Best Sellers, April 1, 1973.

Black American Literature Forum, spring, 1977; winter, 1984; fall, 1990, p. 567.

Black Enterprise, June, 1985.

Black Scholar, March, 1981; November, 1984.

Black World, August, 1970; January, 1971; July, 1971; September, 1971; October, 1971; January, 1972; March, 1973; June, 1973; December, 1975.

Book Week, October 27, 1963.

Book World, November 3, 1968.

Chicago Tribune, January 14, 1986; June 7, 1987; June 12, 1989.

Christian Science Monitor, September 19, 1968.

CLA Journal, December, 1962; December, 1963; December, 1969; September, 1972; September, 1973; September, 1977; December, 1982.

Contemporary Literature, March 28, 1969; winter, 1970.

Critique, summer, 1984.

Discourse, spring, 1967.

Ebony, July, 1968; June, 1987, p. 154.

English Journal, November, 1990, pp. 84-8.

Essence, April, 1971; September, 1984.

Explicator, April, 1976; Volume 36, number 4, 1978.

Houston Post, February 11, 1974.

Jet, May 30, 1994, p. 37.

Journal of Negro Education, winter, 1970.

Kenyon Review, winter, 1995, p. 136.

Library Journal, September 15, 1970.

Los Angeles Times, November 6, 1987; September 14, 1993, p. F3; April 21, 1997.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 2, 1984.

Modern Fiction Studies, winter, 1985.

Nation, September, 1962; July 7, 1969; September 26, 1987, p. 308.

National Observer, November 9, 1968.

Negro American Literature Forum, fall, 1967; summer, 1974.

Negro Digest, December, 1961; January, 1962; August, 1962; July, 1963; June, 1964; January, 1968. New Statesman, May 3, 1985.

New Yorker, September 22, 1945; December 17, 1949; October 10, 1953; December 3, 1979.

New York Times, October 5, 1953; December 9, 1956; October 6, 1963; March 2, 1969; April 30, 1990, p. C11.

New York Times Book Review, November 4, 1945; October 23, 1960; October 6, 1963; March 2, 1969; January 2, 1972; June 4, 1972; December 3, 1972; January 7, 1973; June 10, 1973; December 2, 1973; September 23, 1984; July 5, 1987; March 18, 1990, p. 21.

Phylon, summer, 1961; March, 1976.

Poetry, December, 1945; Volume 126, 1950; March, 1964.

Publishers Weekly, June 6, 1970.

Ramparts, December, 1968.

Saturday Review, February 1, 1964.

Saturday Review of Literature, January 19, 1946; September 17, 1949; May 20, 1950.

Southern Review, spring, 1965.

Southwest Review, winter, 1989, pp. 25-35.

Studies in Black Literature, autumn, 1973; spring, 1974; summer, 1974; spring, 1977.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), July 12, 1987.

Virginia Quarterly Review, winter, 1969; winter, 1971. Voices, winter, 1950, pp. 54-56.

Washington Post, May 19, 1971; April 19, 1973; March 31, 1987.

Washington Post Book World, November 11, 1973; May 4, 1994, p. C1.

Women's Review of Books, December, 1984.

World Literature Today, winter, 1985.

OBITUARIES:

PERIODICALS

Chicago Tribune, December 10, 2000, sec. 4, p. 10.

Los Angeles Times, December 4, 2000, p. B4.

New York Times, December 5, 2000, p. C22.

Times (London), December 21, 2000.

Washington Post, December 5, 2000, p. B7.

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Brooks, Gwendolyn 1917–2000

Gwendolyn Brooks 1917-2000

(Full name Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks) American poet, novelist, editor, autobiographer, and author of children's books.

For additional information on Brooks's career, see Black Literature Criticism, Ed. 1.

INTRODUCTION

Brooks was a highly regarded, much-honored poet, with the distinction of being the first black American writer to win the Pulitzer Prize. She also was poetry consultant to the Library of Congress—the first black woman to hold that position—and poet laureate of the State of Illinois. Noted for her mastery of traditional forms and poignant evocation of urban black experience, Brooks emerged as a leading black literary figure during the 1950s and 1960s. In her early work, she avoided overt statements about the plight of blacks in America, prompting critics to define her poetry as "universal." During the late 1960s, however, her writing underwent a radical change in style and subject matter. Embracing the Black Power and Black Arts movements, Brooks began to explore black pride and African cultural nationalism, emphasizing the marginality of black life through vivid imagery and forceful language, and to recognize the rage and despair among black people as her own.

BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION

Brooks was born in 1917 to David Anderson Brooks and Keziah Corine Brooks. Within weeks of her birth in Topeka, Kansas, Brooks's family moved to Chicago, Illinois. Both her father, a janitor who had hoped to become a doctor but lacked the funds, and her mother, a teacher and classically trained pianist, were supportive of their daughter's passion for reading and writing. These avocations eased the pain Brooks suffered from the racial prejudice she encountered in grade school, where other black students ridiculed her for her dark skin and lack of social or athletic abilities. She was thirteen when her first poem was published, and in 1934, the year she graduated from an integrated high school, she became a regular poetry contributor to the Chicago Defender, a newspaper that served Chicago's black population. With a growing portfolio of published poetry, she received compliments and encouragement from James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes through correspondence and visits to their readings in Chicago. Following her graduation in 1936 from Wilson Junior College in Chicago, she worked briefly as a maid and then as a secretary for a spiritual charlatan who managed a massive slum tenement known as the Mecca. Brooks found both experiences humiliating and painful. In 1937 she joined the NAACP Youth Council, where she met her husband, poet and writer Henry Lowington Blakeley II, whom she married in 1939. She honed her technical skills in poetry workshops at Chicago's South Side Community Art Center in the early 1940s, focusing on urban blacks in verse that would appear in her first volume of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville (1945). Her second collection, the experimental Annie Allen (1949), won the Pulitzer Prize in 1950. Brooks drew on her experience as a maid for her only novel, Maud Martha, published in 1953.

Her next two major collections of poetry, The Bean Eaters (1960) and Selected Poems (1963), herald Brooks's growing social and racial consciousness at the height of the civil rights movement. In 1967 Brooks attended the Second Black Writers' Conference at Fisk University, where she was captivated by younger black writers such as LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) and Don L. Jones (Haki Madhubuti), whose message of black solidarity Brooks embraced as her own, marking a decisive turning point in her career. Brooks hosted poetry workshops for members of the Chicago gang the Blackstone Rangers, traveled twice to Africa to see her ancestral land firsthand, and supported black-run publishing ventures by having her subsequent work published by black-run operations. In 1968 she received a National Book Award nomination for In the Mecca (1968) and was named poet laureate of Illinois. During the 1970s and 1980s Brooks published additional small volumes of poetry; the first part of her autobiography, Report from Part One (1972); children's verse in The Tiger Who Wore White Gloves (1974); and several writing guides. A noted teacher and mentor for young poets, Brooks sponsored numerous poetry contests and workshops, often financed at her own expense, and taught at many colleges and universities beginning in the early 1960s. In 1985, at the age of sixty-eight, she was appointed poetry consultant for the Library of Congress. More than a decade later she published the second part of her autobiography, Report from Part Two (1996). In addition to numerous additional honors—including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1989 and a National Book Foundation medal for lifetime achievement in 1994—a junior high school in Illinois was named after her, and she was similarly honored by Western Illinois University's Gwendolyn Brooks Center for African American Literature. She died of cancer in 2000, in Chicago. She had just finished her last collection, In Montgomery, and Other Poems (2003).

MAJOR WORKS

Brooks's poetry in A Street in Bronzeville reveals the formal accomplishment, colloquial rhythms, and social concerns that characterize most of her work. The poems chronicle the aspirations and disappointments of citizens living in Bronzeville, the poor Chicago neighborhood of Brooks's childhood and early marriage. Drawing upon a variety of poetic styles, including the sonnet, ballad, blank verse, and blues, Brooks relates the frustrated hopes, economic deprivation, violence, and racial prejudice experienced by Bronzeville men, women, and children. These themes of family life, war, the quest for contentment and honor, and the hardships caused by racism and poverty continue in Annie Allen, which follows the experiences of a black girl as she grows into adulthood. Divided into several sections, the volume chronicles Annie's home life, youthful innocence, growing self-awareness, and romantic relationships amid the same grim, poverty-stricken setting of A Street in Bronzeville. The centerpiece of the volume is "The Anniad," a long poem whose title alludes to Homer's epic Illiad. This complex poem juxtaposes Annie's idealism with the stark reality of her limited circumstances as a black woman, wife, and mother. Brooks's first and only novel, Maud Martha, chronicles the childhood and emotional development of an unhappy, self-conscious black woman who suffers prejudice not only from whites but also from blacks who have lighter skin than hers, something that mirrored Brooks's experience. Addressing the mounting alienation and despair of African Americans during the late 1950s, The Bean Eaters relates the failed efforts of those in the black community to escape hopelessness through materialism, religion, racial integration, and reckless living. The volume includes Brooks's much anthologized poem "We Real Cool," which mimics the self-defeating defiance of pool hall dropouts. In the Mecca is considered Brooks's transitional volume, with the poet abandoning traditional poetic forms in favor of free verse and increased use of vernacular. The verses also turn away from the humor and irony of earlier volumes toward the overt political tone and subjects of Brooks's subsequent work. In the title poem, set in the dilapidated Mecca apartment complex, a block-long ghetto tenement where Brooks once worked, a mother has lost her young daughter in the. During her frantic search, the mother encounters other residents of the Mecca, most of whom are too preoccupied with their own obsessions to offer assistance or compassion. The girl is eventually found murdered. Other poems in the book, occasioned by the death of Malcolm X or the dedication of a mural of black heroes painted on a Chicago slum building, express the poet's commitment to her people's awareness of themselves as a political as well as a cultural entity. Brooks switched to a black publisher with Riot (1969) and Family Pictures (1970), in which she evoked the revolutionary legacy of slain black activists such as Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and examined the social upheavals of the late 1960s with a mixture of objectivity and compassion. While her concern for the black nationalist movement and racial solidarity continued to dominate her verse in the early 1970s, the energy and optimism of Riot and Family Pictures were replaced with disenchantment resulting from the divisiveness of the civil rights and black power movements. In Beckonings (1975) and To Disembark (1981), Brooks urged blacks to break free from the repression of white American society and advocated violence and anarchy if necessary. Later Brooks poems continue to deal with political subjects and figures, such as South African activist Winnie Mandela, the former wife of anti-apartheid leader—and later South Africa's first black president—Nelson Mandela.

CRITICAL RECEPTION

Brooks is highly regarded as a major contemporary American poet and preeminent African American literary figure. Consistently praised for her technical skill and intimate portraits of black personalities and urban life, she has won both critical and popular admiration. As many critics have noted, Brooks possessed an uncanny ability to transmute commonplace subjects into the extraordinary, especially those seemingly insignificant events in the lives of the poor and dispossessed in her native Chicago. Critical analyses of Brooks's work have focused primarily upon her poetry in A Street in Bronzeville, Annie Allen, The Bean Eaters, In the Mecca, and on her novel Maud Martha, together considered her most accomplished works. Brooks's poetry after her 1967 racial and ideological awakening has received mixed reactions. Some scholars conclude that she sacrificed formal complexity and subtlety for political polemic. Brooks herself declared that from the late 1960s onward, she thought of herself as an African determined not to compromise social comment for the sake of technical proficiency. Studying her new orientation, scholars have considered how Brooks used the term "Afrika" in this later poetry to signify a linguistic connection between her English-written poetry and the African languages of her ancestry, which were stolen from her by slavery. "Afrika" also connects her readers with the physical continent of their ancestry, a place for black solidarity and unity, and evokes feelings of resistance and strength, as it suggests the black heroes and martyrs of past racial struggles. Other critical discussions have revolved around Brooks's relationship to the Black Arts movement and in particular on her relationship to the patriarchal hierarchy of the Black Power movement. Reviewers note that Brooks contributed a powerful voice of feminine consciousness to the Black Aesthetic movement, recording in her poetry the divisions within the black community in order to derive meaning from these many pluralities. While some critics have disapproved of the ideology and polemical tone of her poetry from In the Mecca forward, others have continued to appreciate the impressive force, complexity, ambitious themes, and universal appeal of Brooks's work.

PRINCIPAL WORKS

A Street in Bronzeville (poetry) 1945

Annie Allen (poetry) 1949

Maud Martha (novel) 1953

Bronzeville Boys and Girls (poetry) 1956

The Bean Eaters (poetry) 1960

Selected Poems (poetry) 1963

For Illinois, 1968; A Sesquicentennial Poem (poetry) 1968

In the Mecca (poetry) 1968

Riot (poetry) 1969

Family Pictures (poetry) 1970

Aloneness (poetry) 1971

A Broadside Treasury [editor] (poetry) 1971

The World of Gwendolyn Brooks (poetry and novel) 1971

Report from Part One (autobiography) 1972

The Tiger Who Wore White Gloves; or, What You Are You Are (children's poetry) 1974

Beckonings (poetry) 1975

A Capsule Course in Black Poetry Writing [with Keorapetse Kgositsile, Haki R. Madhubuti, and Dudley Randall] (prose) 1975

Primer for Blacks (poetry) 1980

Young Poets Primer (prose) 1980

To Disembark (poetry) 1981

Major Harold Washington and Chicago, the I Will City (poetry) 1983

Very Young Poets (prose) 1983

The Near-Johannesburg Boy, and Other Poems (poetry) 1986

Blacks (poetry and novel) 1987

Gottschalk and the Grande Tarantelle (poetry) 1988

Winnie (poetry) 1988

Report from Part Two (autobiography) 1996

In Montgomery, and Other Poems (poetry) 2003

CRITICISM

Maria K. Mootry (lecture date May 1996)

SOURCE: Mootry, Maria K. "Gwendolyn Brooks's Maud Martha: Jivin' as Modernist Aesthetic in a Black Midwest Novel." In Gwendolyn Brooks' Maud Martha: A Critical Collection, edited by Jacqueline Bryant, pp. 33-40. Chicago: Third World Press, 2002.

[In the following essay originally presented as a lecture in May 1996, Mootry suggests that Brooks used a "‘jive’ jitterbugging" literary style in Maud Martha, making use of "Black traditions in ‘the sister arts,’ like music and visual arts, to infuse a modernist element into traditional fiction narrative and style."]

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

Mark Johnson (essay date summer 2003)

SOURCE: Johnson, Mark. "Brooks's ‘Gang Girls’." Explicator 61, no. 4 (summer 2003): 229-31.

[In this essay, Johnson explores possible meanings of the ambiguous last lines of "Gang Girls," the final section in Brooks's poem "The Blackstone Rangers."]

At thirty-six lines, "Gang Girls," the third section of "The Blackstone Rangers," constitutes just over half of the poem. With precision characteristic of Gwendolyn Brooks's writing, all three sections etch their subjects in painful as well as painstaking clarity. That clarity dissolves, however, in the provocative ambiguity of the poem's final lines.

Composed shortly after her radicalization at the Second Black Writers' Conference at Fisk in 1967, "The Blackstone Rangers" delineates various aspects of one of the toughest street gangs in Chicago at that time, a group Brooks reached out to with her sympathetic solidarity. Although these street toughs certainly dismayed not only the "Disciplines" (their and her term for the police) but also many of their own black neighbors, Brooks presents their situation with understanding. "While black Chicago was being terrorized by Blackstone P. Nation," Kenny J. Williams notes, "Gwendolyn Brooks and others were attempting to work with some of the members of the gang on the supposition that they had artistic statements that needed to be heard" (62).

In a curt five lines, part one of "The Blackstone Rangers," "As Seen by Disciplines," sums up the police attitude of the gangsters as "Sores in the city / that do not want to heal." In contrast the twenty-four-line second section, "The Leaders," sees each as a named individual—" Jeff. Gene. Geronimo. And Bop." They are "[h]ardly the dupes of the downtown thing," but they are also, she clear-sightedly sees, "[h]ardly Belafonte, King, / Black Jesus, Stokely, Malcolm X or Rap. / Bungled trophies." In a willed empathy, she looks past their thuggish behavior (they "fuse / unfashionable damnations and descent") to appreciate the way they "construct, strangely, a monstrous pearl or grace."

"Gang Girls" then focuses on one "Rangerette," Mary Ann, one of the "sweet exotics." Circumscribed by the ironically named Cottage Grove, her life is truly bleak yet passing quickly in a blur of Februaries, Aprils, Summer, and October. Mary Ann seems to think her only escape is through love, but this too is portrayed as "bugle-love," with a "bleat of not-obese devotion" (47). Stolen diamonds and straight whiskey precede pathetically clumsy sex (she "peers at her laboring lover" 48).

So far, the poem paints its bleak picture clearly, with deft imagery ("a rose in a whiskey glass" 47) and bitter ironies. But the final two stanzas close the poem with provocative ambiguity. First, love is dismissed as just another bus-station departure, with questionable arrivals or confirmations. But "Will there be gleaning?" (48). Will any information be gathered? Will any understanding be had? "Gleaning" is such an odd word in this context that it emphasizes its rhyme with the poem's final word. The poem's speaker frantically tries to save Mary Ann in the poem's enigmatic final lines: she should abandon diamonds and dreams for realities like sandwiches and stocking caps. The ambiguous passage clarifies when we see that the preposition "for" suddenly becomes a conjunction: sudden blood will abort this ironic carnival. Even the punctuation is ambiguous, as only a dash links "the props and niceties of non-loneliness" to the final—and trickiest—line of the poem.

"The rhymes of Leaning" clearly wants us to reconsider gleaning, but teases us with multiple possibilities. A gleaning of what? And what does that have to do with leaning? The imagery seems to depict Mary Ann leaning on her Ranger lover. If the rhyme alone answers, then other possibilities include meaning, weaning, queening, cleaning, careening, preening, screening, and keening. The proliferation of possibilities itself contributes to the poem's provocative ambiguity. Where does this stop?

Of these rhymes, the most promising would include "weaning," because she may soon have a baby as a prop of non-loneliness; "keening," because there will presumably be plenty of deaths to mourn; or "meaning," because her life lacks meaning and the reader struggles with the poem's meaning as well.

However, a word not found in the dictionary may be the best rhyme of all for this poem. "Feening" was suggested by a student, who told me it meant "wanting something really badly." Certainly that fits the context of the poem, reminding one that "Mary Ann" is another term for marijuana, but I was dissatisfied with such a coinage. Only later did I realize that "feening" should be spelled "fiending," and the drug context made it the rhyme of choice. The Random House Historical Dictionary of Slang identifies the word as a verb meaning "to crave; to yearn desperately," and associates it with rap music (741). Citations begin with Eric B. & Rakim's "Follow the Leader" (1988), "Still I fiend." Also in 1988, Public Enemy's "Don't Believe the Hype" rapped, "I'm not an addict, fiendin' for static." The first print citation is Elliott Currie's 1990 Dope and Trouble: Portraits of Delinquent Youth in which a young meth dealer announced, "Dope […] I have people coming to me every day, fiendin' for it, because my stuff is pure.[…] They're fiendin' bad," and a young thief told Currie, "I fiend for rock and roll!" Although these citations follow Brooks's poem by two decades, the slang term would have been current long before the rise of hip hop. "Fiending" may be only one of several effective rhymes, but it certainly adds an appropriate dimension to a cagily thought-provoking poem. Like the Rangers' "monstrous pearl or grace," "the rhymes of Leaning" force us to work for greater levels of understanding.

Works Cited

Brooks, Gwendolyn. "Gang Girls." In the Mecca. New York: Harper, 1968. 44-48.

Lighter, J. E., ed. Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang. Vol. 1. New York: Random, 1994.

Williams, Kenny J. "The World of Satin-Legs, Mrs. Sallie, and the Blackstone Rangers: The Restricted Chicago of Gwendolyn Brooks." A Life Distilled: Gwendolyn

Brooks, Her Poetry and Fiction. Ed. Maria K. Mootry and Gary Smith. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1987. 47-70.

Raymond Malewitz (essay date spring 2006)

SOURCE: Malewitz, Raymond. "‘My Newish Voice’: Rethinking Black Power in Gwendolyn Brooks's Whirlwind." Callaloo 29, no. 2 (spring 2006): 531-44.

[In the essay below, Malewitz focuses on Brooks's relationship to the Black Arts movement, proposing that Brooks was not "a passive agent" of the movement but instead opposed its "simplistic" idea of racial solidarity in favor of a more ambivalent response, allowing "previously irreconcilable social divisions [to] be negotiated and redefined."]

In his influential essay "Nationalism and Social Division in Black Arts Poetry of the 1960s," Phillip Brian Harper defines late sixties' black epistemology through opposing structures of unity and discord. Using Amiri Baraka's "SOS" and "Black Art" as models, he argues that the latter, divisive poem trumps its predecessor's general call for racial solidarity, and that this act of superseding necessitates a reexamination of the common conceptions of Black Nationalism within the Black Aesthetic. "[S]ocial division within the black community," he contends, "is fundamentally constitutive of Black Arts nationalism"; Baraka's work, serving as a synecdoche for all subsequent Black Arts poetry, performs these divisions with manifold ferocity (248).

Harper modifies this claim with an eye towards sexual and epistemological concerns in his revision of the essay within the collection Are We Not Men? Following a long line of previous critics,1 Harper defines Black Nationalism as an essentially male project, and writes that "insofar as black identity […] depends upon identification specifically as man […] blackness will partake of the very uncertainty, tentativeness, and burden of proof that […] characterize conventional masculinity" (40). Within this patriarchal orientation, Harper establishes two female archetypes: older poets such as Gwendolyn Brooks who make "Baraka's [initial unifying] enterprise [their] own," and younger counterparts such as Sonia Sanchez and Nikki Giovanni who "[wrote] beyond the ‘call’ manifested in […] ‘SOS,’" and espoused the later, polemical Barakan ideals (46). Thus, he divides the movement along sexually encoded ideological lines, with those who simply repeat Baraka's "call" and therefore "succumb to the rhetoric" on one side, and those who incorporate a "phallic standard of political engagement" to actively challenge such rhetoric on the other (43, 52). Harper's comments leave little doubt as to where his aesthetic interests lie, and he dismisses Brooks from the remainder of the essay after providing an oft-quoted passage from her 1972 autobiography, Report from Part One :

My aim, in my next future, is to write poems that will somehow successfully "call" (see Imamu Baraka's "SOS") all black people, black people in taverns, black people in alleys, black people in gutters, schools, offices, factories, prisons, the consulate; I wish to reach black people in pulpits, black people in mines, on farms, on thrones[.]2

Curiously, Harper's quotation omits the final sentence of Brooks's statement: "My newish voice will not be an imitation of the contemporary young black voice, which I so admire, but an extending adaptation of today's G.B. voice" (RPO [Report from Part One ] 183). This omission and other comparable lacunae are problems endemic to the scholarship concerning both Brooks's relationship to the Black Arts movement and, more generally, the position of black women within the patriarchal organizations of Black Power. Houston Baker, for example, uses the same elided quotation to argue that Brooks "cast[s] her lot with the new generation" (108), while Arthur Davis insists that "like many young and middle-aged writers, she [came] under the influence of the Black Aesthetics Movement" (100). In each of these cases, Brooks is figured as a passive agent with respect to Black Arts; she "submits" to its rhetoric, where alternative figures such as Baraka and Giovanni construct and reconstruct its epistemology.

The purpose of this essay is to interrogate (and finally to challenge) such suppositions and to recover what "newish voice" Brooks brings to her poetry upon exposure to the younger poets. Examining her three "Sermons on the Warpland," I argue that Brooks actively resists both the simplistic unitary rhetoric of Black Nationalism and the ideologically polemical stance that Harper describes. Shifting her poetry away from the performative (and ultimately coercive) aspects of both positions, Brooks instead employs a rhetoric of ambivalence in her representation of the nascent Black Aesthetic. In so doing, she situates the Black Nationalist movement, and, concomitantly, the black community from which it sprung, as highly contested hermeneutical spaces of inquiry, locations where previously irreconcilable social divisions can be negotiated and redefined. By examining this alternative response to the question of Black Nationalism, we can begin to see Brooks not only as a figure influenced by the Black Arts movement, but, more importantly, as a poet whose work challenges and reconsiders the grounds upon which the movement rests. This study therefore offers a critical alternative to the previous ideological understanding of the Black Arts movement by uncovering a feminine (if not feminist) counterpart to Baraka's masculine aesthetic program.

"Define and / Medicate the Whirlwind"

Critics such as Angela Jackson and Norris B. Clark consider the events of 1967 to be the transformative impetus behind Brooks's interest in the new Black Aesthetic. During the spring of 1967, Brooks attended the Second Writers' Conference at Fisk University, where she met the fiery Baraka and witnessed his galvanizing effect upon the primarily black audience. Shortly thereafter, Brooks befriended Walter Bradford, the man who would introduce her to the Blackstone Rangers and to whom the "Second Sermon" would be dedicated. Late in the year, Brooks facilitated the Rangers' poetry workshops in Chicago, while contemplating the transfer of her own publications from the white-owned Harper and Row to Dudley Randall's new Broadside Press. These decisions illustrate the changes that were taking place in her catholic mind, and, as Brooks's autobiography makes clear, the decisions resulted in a radical shift in her poetic program. Writing just three years later, she would categorize 1967 as the fulcrum about which her poetry turned: "Until 1967 I had sturdy ideas about writing and about writers which I enunciated sturdily. […] Until 1967 my own blackness did not confront me with a shrill spelling of itself" (RPO 73, 84).

Published the following year, In the Mecca marks Brooks's first poetic engagement with the "shrill spelling" of blackness.3 In a shrewd analysis of the work, Norris Clark describes the ways in which Brooks's political transformations reproduce themselves in her poetic explorations, offering a sense of the changes in Brooks's epistemological landscape:

Her emphasis has shifted from a private, internal, and exclusive assessment of the identity crises of twentieth-century persons to a communal, external, and inclusive assessment of the black cultural experience. That change not only corresponds to the fluctuating social, political, and ideological positions of the national black American communities during the sixties and seventies, but it also correlates with the evolution of aesthetic humanism's fundamental concerns about the nature of reality, our relationship to it and its vast variety.

          (84)

Although Clark separates the socio-political / black and aesthetic / humanist components of Brooks project, when examining the two poems that close the collection—" The Sermon on the Warpland" and the "Second Sermon" —I find the two projects to be inextricably linked. In both poems, Brooks casts "the nature of reality" and "our relationship to it" as necessarily political questions that pertain directly to the diverse meanings ascribed to Black Nationalism. As her epigram to "The Sermon on the Warpland" makes clear, "The fact that we are black / is our ultimate reality," and it is from this reality and its manifold implications that Brooks tests her "newish voice." It is upon this reality that Brooks builds her own conception of the Black Aesthetic.

Brooks begins "The Sermon on the Warpland" with a series of structural paradoxes: "And several strengths from drowsiness campaigned / but spoke in Single Ser- mon on the warpland. / And went about the warpland saying No" (451). Beginning in medias res, Brooks jars the reader into the lyric present of her poem while alluding to a preceding, though absent, structure. This hypotactic entry and its repetition in the third line join with the explicit binaries in the stanza—"strengths" / "drowsiness," "saying" (proclaiming) / "no" (negating), and "several" / "Single"—to destabilize causation and offer a hermeneutical key to the poem. To understand the "warpland," the reader must confront the elaborate ways in which accumulation of meaning, with paradox and juxtaposition, is a necessary component of the black "reality."

What is the warpland? Leslie Wheeler maps the polyvalency of the term to the Sermon on the Mount, the "warped land" of an America torn by racial strife, the "‘war planned’ by black nationalists against white America, and even a ‘warplane,’ a carrier for this militant message" (231). Embedded within these possibilities lie both paradox and consonance. Just as Brooks claims to speak a "Single Sermon" from "several strengths" (note the genderless designation here), her polysemous subject—"warpland"—challenges her readers through a language of what could be called motivated ambiguity or, more polemically, a feminine semiotics of black empowerment.

This language contrasts greatly with that of Baraka, whose thematically analogous "Sermon for Our Maturity" illuminates the divide between the masculine and feminine lexicons of Black Power. In the poem, he outlines his Black Nationalist project in terms both singular and direct:

We want to see you again as ruler of your own space
Big Negro
Big ol Negro
             growin
             wind storm flyin thru
             your huge blue lung
        Lung filled with hurricanes
        of transparent fingerpops
        and need to be changed to moans
Stretch out negro
             Grow "Gro
             Gwan "Gro Grow
Stretch out Expand …
 
          (15)

While his language can stray from the literal ("transparent fingerpops"), the bulk of Baraka's message is a clear appropriation of Manifest Destiny rhetoric: the male Negro must rule his own space. Indeed, as Harper suggests, "Ambivalence can have no place […] in the prosecution of such a revolutionary political program as the Black Aesthetic was supposed to represent" (52). Sandra Hollin Flowers takes this sentiment one step further, claiming, "When the masses become confused about ideology, the entire philosophy loses credibility" (12).4 But whereas Baraka's plain style presents little room for political ambivalence, Brooks's poem embraces and indeed requires a reader who actively interrogates the precepts upon which Black Power rests. As such, when Brooks finally employs imperatives in her "Second Sermon," she couches them in opacity:

Salve salvage in the spin,
Endorse the splendor splashes;
Stylize the flawed utility;
Prop a malign or failing light …
 
          (454)

Through the elaborate, sonic word play of "salve salvage" and "splendor splashes," Brooks casts poetic language as a genderless, abstract, and therefore unstable political mechanism that must be negotiated and transformed by the reader.

In so doing, Brooks's poem challenges the implicitly hierarchical relationship between speaker and reader of the Black Aesthetic. As Harper argues, poets such as Baraka engender divisions within the black community through a binary system of "I" (or "we") / "you" wherein the poet achieves a position of cultural authority. Conversely, "any ‘you’ that these Black Arts poets invoke can function as a negative foil against which the implicit I who speaks the poem can be distinguished as a politically aware, racially conscious, black nationalist subject" (48). In the "Sermon for Our Maturity," this binary arises in Baraka's assumption of "we" and subsequent diminution of the reader to "you" or "Negro." Brooks's poetry makes no such claims—in fact, she announces the opposite by assuming a voice of "several strengths." Her voice thereby enacts a process of the black community speaking to itself and explores the diverse implications of its "ultimate reality" from a position within, rather than external to, its audience. Lesley Wheeler disparages such a move, writing that in so doing, the poem "minimiz[es] Brooks's literary authority" (231). But this seems to be exactly Brooks's point; by minimizing her own authority, she maximizes her black audience's political efficacy: a perfect inversion of the Barakan program.

Thus, Brooks's poetry moves away from prescriptive imperatives towards a program comparable to the consciousness-raising efforts of the women's liberation movement of the late sixties. Both manifestations of the broader "Movement" redefine their audience demographics, speaking directly to their oppressed compatriots rather than white patriarchal figures of power. Moreover, the efforts foreground the incomplete applicability of any holistic ideology and champion the complexity of any social or cultural epistemology. As Alice Echols writes,

[F]or some women's liberationists consciousness-raising was a way to avoid the tendency of some mem- bers of the movement to try to fit women within existing […] paradigms. By circumventing the "experts" on women and going to women themselves, they would be able to not only construct a theory of women's oppression but formulate strategy as well

          (166).

Lisa Maria Hogeland classifies these strategies as "fundamentally heteroglossic process[es]" individual personal narratives are brought into dialogue with "public and political discourses [in ways that] […] yield new feminist meanings" (33-34). In an analogous manner, Brooks critiques those who would advance simplistically optimistic conceptions of the future black nation state, arguing that the seed of Black Nationalism contains the possibility of triumph and failure: "Say that our Something in doublepod contains / seeds for the coming hell and health together" (451). The phonic echo of "hell" and "health" within the "doublepod" emphasize the ineluctable paradoxes at the very core of the movement's push towards collectivity. These paradoxes grow stronger as Brooks speculates on the future of the movement, moving from its manifest pains to its ambiguous pleasures:

Prepare to meet
(sisters, brothers) the brash and terrible weather;
the pains;
the bruising; the collapse of bestials, idols,
But then oh then!—the stuffing of the hulls!
the seasoning of the perilously sweet!
the health! the heralding of the clear obscure!
 
          (451)

Harper would classify the "heralding of the clear obscure" as the necessary result of "writing beyond Baraka's ‘SOS,’" a fumbling towards what a unified black nation state would resemble.5 But within this oxymoron and the equally vague "seasoning of the perilously sweet," Brooks (rather playfully) dramatizes the inevitable problems that surface when taking up the mantle of an oracular sermonizer. Instead of focusing upon the end of Black Nationalism, and instead of describing what this end will be, she foregrounds the process that will ultimately make the obscure future clear and lays bare the limits of her own ideological position.

To this end, Brooks couches her one prescription, her great prophetic power, in a tautology, calling for the black community to "Build now your Church […] / with lithe love":

With love like black, our black—
luminously indiscreet;
complete; continuous
 
          (452).

Like the punning of "warpland" / war-planned, Brooks's "indiscreet" love is also in-discrete, blending social and ideological positions with one another until all are "complete; continuous." If her poem has a message, it invests this message in its readers rather than upon the page. Only they can decide how to love "like black" or determine what "our black" means. Her recapitulation of the call for unity is therefore not a repetition. Whereas Carmichael would situate Black Power as a "clos[ing] of ranks" or a call for "group solidarity [for] social and political viability," (44) for Brooks it is the development of a broad spectrum from which her people, "black and black," can embrace their differences while uniting under the general principle of black love.6

To loosely appropriate Roland Barthes's famous distinction, what Brooks has done in "The Sermon on the Warpland" is to create a "writerly" text rather than the "readerly" texts of her younger, radical Black Arts contemporaries. Barthes's definition of the former seems quite applicable to both Brooks's poem and her political program:

The writerly text is a perpetual present, upon which no consequent language (which would inevitably make it past) can be superimposed; the writerly text is ourselves writing, before the infinite play of the world […] is traversed, intersected stopped, plasticized by some singular system (Ideology, Genus, Criticism) which reduces the plurality of entrances, the opening of networks, the infinity of languages.

          (5)

Brooks writes her Black Arts poetry in a mode that firmly resists calcification, and even when she is programmatic, her work radiates with interpretive possibilities. For example, "The Second Sermon" contains a series of imperatives that offer a "plurality of entrances" into the Black aesthetic. Beginning with the proclamation "This is the urgency: Live! / and have your blooming in the noise of the whirlwind," Brooks certainly seems to incite the black community to action, but does so in such a way as to shroud her objective in ambiguity (453). What, after all, does it mean to "[bloom] […] in the noise of the whirlwind?" Later, when describing the landscape of the "whirlwind," she uses an equally ambiguous lexicon:

All about are the cold places,
all about are the pushmen and jeopardy, theft—
all about are the stormers and scramblers, but
what must our Season be, which starts from Fear?
 
          (455)

These are far from rhetorical questions for Brooks's audience, whom she insists must "Define and / medicate the whirlwind," for "the whirlwind is our commonwealth" (455, 454). Suggesting both the commonwealth of a racially divided America and the commonwealth-to-be of a black nation state, Brooks's whirlwind contains and combines both possibilities and then delivers them through her sermonic prosody. As R. Baxter Miller writes, this puzzle intuits an "Imaginative Mind that resolves disparities," but one who is defined by negation:

Not the easy man, who rides above them all,
not the jumbo brigand,
not the pet bird of poets, that sweetest sonnet,
shall straddle the whirlwind.
Nevertheless, live.
 
          (454)

Whereas Miller interprets these lines as a clear indication of "a speaker possessed [of] some intuitive truth which neither the characters in the poem nor the readers outside fully understand," I contend that this negative definition actually projects outside of the text to Brooks's imagined conception of a black readership (157). The semantic disjunction between the imperative sentence "Nevertheless, live" and its preceding, descriptive list seems to invest the reader with at least the hope of understanding, and therefore "medicating" the whirlwind through an intense encounter with the "writerly" text. That Brooks calls attention to the limitations of poetic form ("not the pet bird of poets") only emphasizes the semantic shift she requires. Like the first Sermon's call for black love, her adjuration to "live" relocates the site of meaning from the written page to the projected, material space of the unified black community.

As a political statement, this projection necessarily occurs in time as well as space, for as Brooks makes clear, the polysemy that her poems strive to maintain cannot, and indeed should not, persist through time. Projecting her program of "living" into an apocalyptic future, she hypothesizes a moment when "time / cracks into furious flower," when "A garbageman is dignified / as any diplomat," when "Big Bessie […] stands in the / wild weed," and implicitly, when her poem's goal has been completed (456). In this "moment of highest quality," when the hierarchical stratification of society collapses, her poem shifts from the collective considerations of "several strengths" to become a celebration of the independent black individual, as evinced by "Big Bessie." "She is a citizen," Brooks writes, signifying her ascent to a position of empowered efficacy. This is the ultimate transference that Brooks asks her readers to imagine: to look upon her poetry as a signifier of the yet-to-be, and as a path from which to reach the halcyon future of a "medicated" whirlwind or the "wild weed"—and not as a statement unto itself. As Brooks's repetitive final line suggests, this future draws near: "Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind" (456). Calling upon both the black community and time itself ("recall "time / cracks into furious flower"), her conclusion points dramatically towards the interpretive possibilities for and of the future.

"Watermirrors and Things to be Reflected"

Historical events that followed Brooks's publication of In the Mecca severely tested the optimistic resolve of Brooks's first two Sermons. The violent summer of 1968, which saw devastating race riots sweep through urban America and the assassination of Martin Luther King, heralded a new militancy in Brooks's prosody, evinced by her subsequent collection Riot (1970). An inescapable trace of aesthetic nihilism pervades the polyvalency of the first two Sermons, as if Brooks's political program had inadvertently led the "writerly text" to its logical extremes—the death of the author and the birth of a new, rewriting reader. In the midst of conflict, she alters her method of representation. Whereas her first two Sermons adopt an aesthetic of motivated ambiguity to project interpretive possibility out of the text, in her "Third Sermon," she inscribes these possibilities within her very prosody. Taking the Chicago riots following Martin Luther King's assassination as the dominant leitmotif of the collection, Brooks willingly records the divisions of racial conflict between whites and blacks, proponents of violent and nonviolent direct action, and men and women.

Brooks arranges Riot such that "The Third Sermon on the Warpland" occupies a central position in the collection—in the very midst of both a metaphorical and a real race riot. The poem's cacophony of voices, perspectives, genres, and ideologies reproduce the chaotic and often contradictory contexts of this violent age. Because of their singular perspectives, these combating structural principles cannot capture the complexity of racial conflict. Through their juxtaposition, however, a dialogic superstructure begins to materialize, which offers new interpretive possibilities through the reflection or inversion of individual positions with respect to one another. This heteroglossic superstructure is the culmination of Brooks's evasive ideological perspective, for within the poem, Brooks modifies her program of semantic transfer and offers her own, reserved definition of the "warpland."

Brooks establishes both the dominant theme of her poem and its complications within the first stanza: "The earth is a beautiful place. / Watermirrors and things to be reflected. / Goldenrod across the little lagoon" (472). Borrowing the common mimetic trope—art being a mirror held up to the world7—Brooks foregrounds the issue of representation and consequently prepares the reader for an unmediated glimpse into "Warpland." Her choice of subjects immediately subverts this expectation, however, as "watermirrors" suggests that there will be many reflective media within her poem, each serving to illuminate certain elements of the landscape. Through an incredible shift between this stolid, emo- tionally evacuated stanza and the remaining, hyperkinetic passages, Brooks builds this dialogic tension into the very form of her poem. The idea of earth as a "beautiful place" contrasts with the subsequent stanza's theme of residual slave oppression, forcing the reader to reinterpret the former passage with ironic skepticism. Brooks therefore casts her "watermirrors" as distortions as much as reflections, and in so doing, suggests that any accurate depiction of the "Warpland" must be a collage of alternative velocities and ideologies, a concept that flickers into being only through the rapid juxtaposition of its component parts.

Even before this first stanza, Brooks's epigraph introduces the first of the poem's many paradigmatic voices that vie for the reader's confidence:

Phoenix:
"In Egyptian mythology,
a bird which lived for five hundred
years and then consumed itself in fire,
rising renewed from the ashes."

 
          —Webster (472)

Set apart from the poem by italics and its position on the page, the definition seems to serve its common function as an objective perspective upon the poem's subject; it establishes the metaphoric parallels between the Phoenix, rising out of Africa, and the black community, who will also be "consumed" and "renewed" by the "fire[s]" of violence. This epigraphic mirror thereby offers a positive interpretation of the violence, suggesting, as many have argued, that black culture and society will somehow be regenerated through conflict.8

Such an interpretation leads Arthur Davis to describe her collection as a "journey into blackness," where "blackness" is equated with violent resistance. Comparable to Baraka's celebration of "the military aspects of national liberation" in a poem published that same year, Brooks's third Sermon positions the poet on the more militant side of black resistance (10). Two problems complicate this reading, however. Firstly, Brooks attributes the definition to Webster himself, the acclaimed American patriarch, rather than to his dictionary. This curious choice subverts the supposed objectiveness of the dictionary definition, raising the troubling question of ideological subjectivity: what currency can a dead white American claim in the representation of contemporary black revolution, let alone that of African myth? Brooks's use of Webster, a man who founded his dictionary to separate the American language from the oppressiveness of the Queen's English, only emphasizes the black community's need for a language of its own to defend itself from white, patriarchal oversimplification. Leading theoretician of the Black Arts movement Larry Neal argues that cultural aphasia is the very basis the movement: "The cultural values inherent in Western history must either be radicalized or destroyed, and we will probably find that even radicalization is impossible" (63). Thus Webster's "found poetry" proves difficult to simply appropriate without its residual, Western encoding. Secondly, and as an illustration of this process of linguistic transformation, Brooks transcribes Webster's definition in poetic form (a loose tetrameter), blurring the visual and auditory distinctions between its external position above the poem and the poem's first line (also a tetrameter).9 This hybridization of form and content further destabilizes the ostensibly objective and external value of the epigraph and calls into question its efficacy as an appropriate, conceptually unifying principle for the riot.

The poem's closing remarks enforce this destabilization through a juxtaposition of voices. Just as the poem's speaker intones "Lies are told and legends made. / Phoenix rises unafraid," both the metaphor and its concomitant metrical scheme break down as another voice interrupts:

The Black Philosopher will remember:
"There they came to life and exulted,
the hurt mute.
Then it was over.
The dust, as they say, settled."
 
          (478)

This cryptic conclusion inverts the trope of the Phoenix rising, with the final lines moving from life to death, rather than a rebirth from the ashes. Like its historical counterpart, Martin Luther King, "the hurt mute" passes away, leaving chaos in its wake. While the lines do not necessitate a pessimistic reading of the riot, they do reinforce the incomplete applicability of such overarching myths to Brooks's subject. Caught within an uncertain historical moment, Brooks finds it literally impossible to determine whether the Phoenix is a "lie" or a "legend," and as such, within her poem, it functions as both.

The balancing of opposites within "Warpland" is not always so reconcilable, nor are the opposites always so clearly defined. For example, in a later passage Brooks introduces a white counterpart to the Black Philosopher, setting up an implicit binary, but immediately reconstitutes this opposition by locally displacing the Black Philosopher with the poem's speaker:

Fire.
That is their way of lighting candles in the darkness.
A White Philosopher said
"It is better to light one candle than curse the dark-
  ness."
           These candles curse—
Inverting the deeps of the darkness.
 
          (475)

By surrounding the White Philosopher's thoughts with those of the speaker instead of the Black Philosopher, Brooks shifts the focus of her critique. Opposing the former's aphoristic rhetoric (a rhetoric that the Black Philosopher also employs), the speaker establishes a different binary on her own terms, this time between white / light / philosophy and black / darkness / narration. The speaker inverts the power relations within this binary both semantically and syntactically ("candles curse"), and in so doing transforms a conceptual metaphor of Enlightenment thinking into a partial explanation for the horrors of the riot. Casting fire not as illumination or a promise of renewal, but rather as an eradicator of darkness, she implies that white culture's arrogant theorizing poorly masks its insidious but tangible role in the violence.

Darkness serves a secondary function as not only a symbol of the black community, but also that of an unrealizable absence, "the deeps of darkness." Brooks often incorporates absence into her juxtaposed structures, setting one idea against its underdeveloped opposite, only to champion this latter nonentity. Just as the people "went about the warpland saying No" in the first Sermon, Brooks frequently incorporates "do not" and "will not" constructions into her third Sermon's prosody. The aforementioned Black Philosopher maintains that his projected white audience "do[es] not hear" the rattle of slavery's chains, and as such, they "do not hear the remarkable music" of the "blackblues" (472). Later, the poem's speaker insists that

A clean riot is not one in which little rioters
long-stomped, long-straddled, BEANLESS
but knowing no Why
go steal in hell
a radio …
 
          (474)

In both cases, the speaker clearly champions the alternative to the "not" clauses, whether that be the "blackblues" or a "clean riot," but does so in ways that refuse to define such alternatives. In the latter case, another speaker (or another train of thought) interrupts the original voice just as she begins to suggest what a "clean riot" would look like, leaving the concept veiled in darkness.

It may be tempting to cast such sudden interruptions and ephemeral alternatives as examples of the influence of jazz upon Brooks's form. "Mingus, Young-Holt, Coleman [and] John," certainly appear both explicitly and implicitly within the work, and the sudden shifts between speakers suggest the interplay of various instrumental voices within modern jazz compositions (474). But to attribute these absences wholly to structural considerations would be to miss a crucial point. Brooks's reluctance to define alternatives reflects her own difficulties with her chosen task of depicting the violence. Brooks cannot define a "clean riot," because her people are "long-stomped, long-straddled, BEANLESS," and also because the term itself defines an irreconcilable paradox. A "clean riot," like "the heralding of the clear obscure," suggests a level of logical causation that Brooks resolutely refuses to impart upon her depiction of the events. As her speaker baldly states, "what / is going on / is going on," independent of causal analysis or interpretation (474). All attempts to theorize what should or could have happened, she suggests, are irrelevant in the face of what has happened.

Just as Brooks finds it difficult to define what a riot should look like, she also resists assuming the unitary voice of the first two Sermons, for such a perspective would belie the ideological and cultural divisions within the late sixties' black community. She foregrounds these divisions by introducing many different black characters within her poem, each with his or her own characteristic speech patterns and viewpoints. When the Black Philosopher ominously blares, "I tell you, exhaustive black integrity / would assure a blackless America," the poem shifts to Richard "Peanut" Washington, a young Blackstone Ranger whom Brooks had befriended in her poetry workshops, and his compatriots:

"Coooooooll" purrs Peanut. Peanut is
Richard—a Ranger and a gentleman.
A Signature. A Herald. And a Span.
This Peanut will not let his men explode.
And Rico will not.
Neither will Sengali.
Nor Bop nor Jeff, Geronimo nor Lover.
These merely peer and purr,
And pass the Passion over.
 
          (427)

Using the same technique of negation that she employs earlier, Brooks describes the Rangers refusal to passively accept or submit to ("explode") the tenets of the "Warpland": "Yeah!—/ this AIN'T all upinheah!" (427). While these voices send contradictory messages in contradictory lexicons, Brooks's presentation of the opposition makes it impossible to determine an external position with respect to either. Written at a time when black political organizations were increasingly divided between the late Martin Luther King's nonviolent program and Black Power groups' calls for self-defense, the poem seems to identify with and celebrate both. In fact, Brooks's presentation suggests that the poem must set the two ideologies of black empowerment in a dialogue that makes no hierarchical distinction.

This is not to say that Brooks abandons all attempts to interpret the riot. She certainly divides her sympathy along racial lines, mocking the white-encoded "Law," and the reductive arguments of the white liberal: "‘But WHY do These People offend themselves?’ say they / who say also ‘It's time. / It's time to help / These People.’" Elsewhere, in a moment comparable to her appropriation of Webster, another speaker recasts Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon to champion the bull over the (white) bullfighter: "We'll do an us!" yells Yancey, a twittering twelve. / "Instead of your deathintheafternoon, / kill 'em bull! / kill 'em bull!" (476).10

Nonetheless, to cast her poem simply as racially oppositional—a blind adherent to Baraka's vehemently anti-white program—is also to miss the point. Through her ambitious project, she strives to capture the diversity and complexity of her race's relationship to the "Warpland." At times, her poem displays an audaciously playful humor, as in her description of young men's taste in stolen records: "They will not steal Bing Crosby but will steal / Melvin Van Peebles." At other moments, her prosody reflects the poignancy and horror of the violence: "A woman is dead. / Motherwoman. / She lies among the boxes." For Brooks, any accurate portrayal of the riot must include all of these stories. She considers the riot, in other words, not only an historical event, but also a mosaic of black life. Her poetic negotiations of the community's diverse "watermirrors" therefore offer a more complete means by which to capture the late sixties' black experience.

Conclusions

What Brooks has done in all three poems, then, is to collapse Harper's masculine binary of unity and division. Her first and second "Sermons on the Warpland" present hermeneutical challenges to her newly defined audience, challenges that empower her readers to interrogate Black Nationalism on their own terms. The third Sermon inscribes the polyvalency of black response through dialogic juxtaposition of one ideology upon another. Brooks positions herself in both cases as an interpretive medium through which the internal divisions within the black community can be reconciled or at least negotiated.

Brooks therefore offers an implicit alternative to our current conception of the Black Arts poet as a speaker of singular cultural authority. Although each poem employs the rhetorical devices of a sermon—exhortation, prophecy, and apocalypse—her approach is far from coercive or divisive. Brooks perceives a heteroglossic world that is filled with both uncertainty and possibility; instead of offering easy (and in hindsight inadequate) prescriptions for a black future, she carefully documents the black community's pluralities to outline what meanings can be gleaned through their confrontations.

Through this program, Brooks's poetry presents a challenge to those critics who would see the Black Arts movement as a calcified artifact of history. For the poet, her movement was always defined by the uncertainty of the historical present, and she was not alone in this judgment. In a letter to Brooks in late 1970, Larry Neal writes:

Sister, Please, Please, Please, don't let some of us so-called ‘young’ writers intimidate you. […] Try to understand that we are searching ourselves. We don't really know all there is to know, and you will have to help us. Therefore, don't be easy on us. We need the strictness of a mature hand to guide us.11

Neal's ambivalent evaluation of Brooks's abilities proves a useful starting point for new investigations of Black Arts epistemology. Just as Neal describes the "young" poets "searching for themselves," he identifies Brooks as an influential figure who likewise explores the regions of a plastic, inchoate black identity. That Neal (to my mind) misinterprets Brooks's approach as an expression of timidity, however, only emphasizes our need as critics to take up her "mature hand" and form new conceptualizations of her uncertain sociocultural moment. When we reimagine her poetry apart from the patriarchal standards of singularity, we will discover a "newish" and empowered female consciousness within the ideologies of Black Power.

Notes

1. See, for example, Komozi Woodard's A Nation within a Nation: Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones) and Black Power Politics (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1999).

2. Quoted in Harper's essay, p. 224.

3. As B. J. Bolden writes in his study, Urban Rage in Bronzeville, this claim can be overstated. "Brooks is indeed ‘awake’ during [the] years prior to her formal ‘awakening’ at the 1967 Fisk Black Writer's Conference" (162). Nonetheless, what concerns me most is not what her early poetry performs, so much as what changes she thinks her later work enacts.

4. In keeping with much other general scholarship on the movement, Flower's study makes no mention of Gwendolyn Brooks.

5. Alternatively, Wheeler interprets the phrase as a declaration of "the difficult, or even irrational, in any poetry, including the poetry of the pulpit."

6. Quoted in Rod Bush's We Are Not What We Seem: Black Nationalism and Class Struggle in the American Century (New York: New York UP, 1999) 10.

7. See, for example, M. H. Abrams's extensive study The Mirror and the Lamp (New York: Oxford UP, 1953).

8. See, for example, Gertrude Reif Hughes, "Making it Really New: Hilda Doolittle, Gwendolyn Brooks, and the Feminist Potential of Modern Poetry," On Gwendolyn Brooks: Reliant Contemplation, ed. Stephen Wright (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2001) 206.

9. Adrienne Rich chooses this same device in her poem, "Integrity," beginning the piece with a definition by Webster that she sets in an ironically broken form. The parallels between Brooks's and Rich's projects suggest a richer relationship between the Black Arts movement and the second-wave feminist projects.

10. D. H. Melhem makes a comparable point in his Gwendolyn Brooks: Poetry and the Heroic Voice (Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1989) 198.

11. Quoted in George Kent's A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks (Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1990) 227.

Works Cited

Baker, Houston A. Jr. The Journey Back: Issues in Black Literature and Criticism. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1980.

Baraka, Imamu Amiri. It's Nation Time. Chicago: Third World Press, 1970.

Barthes, Roland. S / Z. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1974.

Brooks, Gwendolyn. Blacks. Chicago: Third World Press, 1992.

———. Report from Part One: An Autobiography. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1972.

Bush, Rod. We Are Not What We Seem: Black Nationalism and Class Struggle in the American Century. New York: New York UP, 1999.

Carmichael, Stokely, and Charles V. Hamilton. Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America. New York: Random House, 1992.

Clark, Norris B. "Gwendolyn Brooks and a Black Aesthetic." A Life Distilled: Gwendolyn Brooks, her Poetry and Fiction. Ed. Maria K. Mootry and Gary Smith. Chicago: U of Illinois Press, 1987: 81-99.

Davis, Arthur P. "Gwendolyn Brooks." On Gwendolyn Brooks: Reliant Contemplation. Ed. Stephen C. Wright. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan Press, 2001: 97-105.

Echols, Alice. "Nothing Distant about it: Women's Liberation and Sixties Radicalism." The Sixties: From Memory to History. Ed. David Farber. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina Press, 1994: 149-174.

Flowers, Sandra Hollin. African American Nationalist Literature of the 1960s: Pens of Fire. New York: Garland, 1996.

Harper, Phillip Brian. "Nationalism and Social Division in Black Arts Poetry of the 1960s." Identities. Ed by Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1995: 220-241.

———. "Nationalism and Social Division in Black Arts Poetry of the 1960s." Are We Not Men?: Masculine Anxiety and the Problem of African-American Identity. New York: Oxford UP, 1996: 39-53.

Hogeland, Lisa Maria. Feminism and its Fictions: The Consciousness-Raising Novel and the Women's Liberation Movement. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.

Hughes, Gertrude Reif. "Making it Really New: Hilda Doolittle, Gwendolyn Brooks, and the Feminist Potential of Modern Poetry." On Gwendolyn Brooks: Reliant Contemplation. Ed. Stephen C. Wright. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan Press, 2001: 186-212.

Jackson, Angela. "In Memoriam: Gwendolyn Brooks." On Gwendolyn Brooks: Reliant Contemplation. Ed. Stephen C. Wright. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan Press, 2001: 277-284.

Kent, George E. A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1990.

Melhem. D.H. Gwendolyn Brooks: Poetry and the Heroic Voice. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1987.

Miller, R. Baxter. "‘Define … the Whirlwind’: Gwendolyn Brooks' EpicSign for a Generation." On Gwendolyn Brooks: Reliant Contemplation. Ed. Stephen Wright. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan Press, 2001: 146-160.

Neal, Larry. "The Black Arts Movement." Visions of a Liberated Future: Black Arts Movement Writings. Ed. Michael Schwartz. New York: Thunder's Mouth, 1989: 62-78.

Wheeler, Lesley. "Heralding the Clear Obscure: Gwendolyn Brooks and Apostrophe." Callaloo. 24 (2001): 227-235.

Woodard, Komozi. A Nation within a Nation: Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Black Power Politics. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina Press, 1999.

FURTHER READING

Criticism

Debo, Annette. "Signifying Afrika: Gwendolyn Brooks's Later Poetry." Callaloo 29, no. 1 (winter 2006): 168-81.

Analyzes the various ways Brooks used the term "Afrika" in her poems of the 1970s and 1980s to signify the essential meaning of being African.

Gayles, Gloria Wade. Conversations with Gwendolyn Brooks. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003, 167 p.

Collects a variety of interviews and discussions, including some with Haki Madhubuti, Claudia Tate, Gloria T. Hull, and Posey Gallagher.

Sullivan, James D. "Killing John Cabot and Publishing Black: Gwendolyn Brooks's Riot." African American Review 36, no. 4 (2002): 557-69.

Considers how the fact that Riot was published by a black publisher affected the collection's reception by literary critics and the general reading public.

Additional coverage of Brooks's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: African American Writers, Eds. 1, 2; American Writers Supplement, Vol. 3; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 20; Authors in the News, 1; Black Literature Criticism, Ed. 1:1; Black Writers, Eds. 2, 3; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 27; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, Vol. 1941-1968; Concise Major 21st-Century Writers, Ed. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 1-4R; Contemporary Authors—Obituary, Vol. 190; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 1, 27, 52, 75, 132; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 2, 4, 5, 15, 49, 125; Contemporary Poets, Eds. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7; Contemporary Women Poets; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 5, 76, 165; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules, Eds. MST, MULT, POET; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Poetry; Feminism in Literature: A Gale Critical Companion, Ed. 1:5; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Major 21st-Century Writers (eBook), Ed. 2005; Modern American Literature, Ed. 5; Modern American Women Writers; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 7; Poetry for Students, Vols. 1, 2, 4, 6; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Something about the Author, Vol. 6; Something about the Author— Obituary, Vol. 123; Twayne's United States Authors; World Literature Criticism, Vol. 1; and World Poets.

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Brooks, Gwendolyn Elizabeth

BROOKS, Gwendolyn Elizabeth

(b. 7 June 1917 in Topeka, Kansas; d. 3 December 2000 in Chicago, Illinois), poet, writer, and the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize (1950), who in the 1960s committed herself to the theme of black pride.

Daughter of David Anderson Brooks and Keziah Corinne Wims, Brooks grew up in Chicago. Her mother was a former schoolteacher, her father a mechanic and insurance broker and the son of a runaway slave. When Brooks was thirteen, her poem "Eventide" was published in American Childhood. After attending two high schools, she graduated in 1934 from a third, integrated Englewood High, and went on to Woodrow Wilson Junior College, from which she graduated in 1936. By then she was a regular contributor to a weekly column in the Chicago Defender, an African-American newspaper. Brooks did publicity for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Youth Council and worked as a typist and for a spiritualist at the Mecca, an apartment complex and the site of one of her major poems.

On 1 September 1939 Brooks married Henry Blakely II, a writer and insurance adjustor. The couple, who had two children, separated in 1969 but reunited in 1974.

As a young wife and mother, Brooks took a poetry course at Chicago's South Side Community Arts Center. In 1943 she won the Midwestern Writers' Poetry Award and in 1945 published A Street in Bronzeville, whose title referred to Chicago's south side ghetto. Brooks's second poetry collection, Annie Allen, won the Eunice Tietjens Prize from Poetry Magazine (1949) and the 1950 Pulitzer Prize, making her the first African-American writer to be so honored. Maud Martha, her only novel, appeared in 1953.

Poems in The Bean Eaters (1960) range from the eponymous one about a couple subsisting on beans to "We Real Cool," about younger pool-hall habitués, and from "The Lovers of the Poor," about the white Ladies Betterment League, to "The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till," about a murdered black man. Writing realistic and unsentimental poetry about poor African Americans, Brooks was veering from domestic concerns to political issues.

However, "the real turning point" in Brooks's radicalization came in 1967 with her participation in the Second Black Writers' Conference at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. In the presence of such spirited young black students and writers as LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka), Brooks was awakened to a new consciousness of black self-hood, womanhood, and the arts. Thereafter she changed her hairstyle, loosened her writing, and employed less elevated language in her work. She later wrote in Primer for Blacks, "Blackness / is a title, / is a preoccupation / is a commitment Blacks / are to comprehend," and in A Capsule Course in Black Writing, she expressed her allegiance to "the new black ideal of black identity and solidarity."

In the Mecca (1968) is dedicated "to the memory of Langston Hughes, and to James Baldwin, LeRoi Jones, and Mike Alexandroff, educators extraordinaire." First conceived as a novel, these 807 lines of free verse with shifting narrators follow Mrs. Sallie Smith, mother of nine, as she searches for her missing daughter, Pepita, through the Mecca, a vast architectural showpiece turned slum (1891– 1952) filled with myriad personalities. The section "After Mecca" includes poems on the assassinated civil rights leaders Medgar Evers and Malcolm X. Except for the compilation The World of Gwendolyn Brooks, this was Brooks's last book published by Harper and Row (her publisher since 1945), as she switched her allegiance to small black publishing houses, an adherence to principle that cost her financial gain and reviews. For example, Riot, Brooks's reaction to the disturbances following the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., was published by Broadside Press in 1969.

In poetry that celebrated both Chicago's Wall of Respect (for the Artists Workshop of the Organization of Black American Culture) and a Picasso statue in the city's Daley Plaza, Brooks promoted black pride rather than white hatred. She protested injustice by refocusing her writing, increasing her community participation, supporting the Black Arts movement, and encouraging young black artists. She became involved with the Blackstone Rangers, teaching poetry to this Chicago gang and editing their anthology Jump Bad. Named Poet Laureate of Illinois (1969) after the death of Carl Sandburg, she used that office to promote poetry, establishing the Annual Poet Laureate Award, a monetary reward for elementary and high school students. She also designated "Significant Illinois Poets"; conducted poetry workshops; visited prisons, drug centers, and hospitals; created mentoring programs; and attended poetry "slams" (readings). Previously afraid of flying, Brooks traveled to East Africa in 1971 to rediscover her black heritage.

Brooks read her poetry at the Library of Congress (1962) and taught at various institutions, including Columbia College in Chicago; the University of Chicago Leadership Program; the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she served as Rennebohm Professor of English; and City College of New York, where she served as distinguished professor of the arts. After a mild heart attack in 1971, she gave up most teaching.

In addition to receiving honorary degrees from dozens of American universities, Brooks's many honors included two Guggenheim Fellowships (1946, 1947). She was the first African-American woman appointed to the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1976) and became National Endowment for the Humanities Jefferson Lecturer for Distinguished Intellectual Achievement in the Humanities (1994). "Eighty Gifts," a public reading in Chicago, celebrated her eightieth birthday. Brooks died of cancer in her home. Following a funeral service on 10 December 2000 at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel of the University of Chicago, Brooks was interred at Lincoln Cemetery.

While writing poetry about the lives of poor blacks in Chicago, Brooks addressed the universal themes of life and death. The first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize, this author of more than twenty books committed herself in the 1960s to being a model for black identity and solidarity. Poet, humanist, and honored American, a shy girl who transformed herself into a literate voice for poetry and African Americans, Brooks became "poet laureate of the black spirit" in America's post–Harlem Renaissance and civil rights eras.

Brooks's papers are collected at Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. Her Report from Part One (1972) includes childhood reminiscences, interviews, photos, and poetry explication, while Report from Part Two (1996) continues her memoir. George E. Kent, A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks (1989), is a biography (up to 1978) based on personal association, interviews, records, and analysis of Brooks's poetry. D. H. Melhem, Gwendolyn Brooks: Poetry and the Heroic Voice (1987), is a discussion of her life built around her major works. The eighteen essays in Maria K. Mootry and Gary Smith, eds., A Life Distilled: Gwendolyn Brooks, Her Poetry and Fiction (1987), assess her work. An obituary is in the New York Times (3 Dec. 2000).

Rachel Shor

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