Gwendolyn Brooks: History maker, history explainer

| March 4, 2014

Frost Illustrated Staff Report

Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks

If the historian is regarded as the guardian of the facts of a people’s physical existence, the poet must be the guardian of the reality of the people’s soul. While we tend to focus on the “what happened” when searching the annals of history, it is often the “how people felt about it inside” that provides the lessons we should learn from posterity.

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks epitomized that idea of a true understanding of history. As she wrote in 1972:

“There is indeed a new black today. He is different from any the world has known. He’s a tall-walker. Almost firm. By many of his own brothers he is not understood. And he is understood by no white. Not the wise white; not the schooled white; not the kind white. Your least pre-requisite toward an understanding of the new black is an exceptional Doctorate which can be conferred only upon those with the proper properties of bitter birth and intrinsic sorrow. I know this is infuriating, especially to those professional Negro-understanders, some of them very kind, with special portfolio, special savvy. But I cannot say anything other, because nothing other is the truth.”

The above quote was published in “Honoring Genius: Gwendolyn Brooks—The Narrative of Craft, Art, Kindness and Justice,” a collection of poems by renowned author and founder of Third World Press, Haki R. Madhubuti. As Madhubuti explains in the opening essay on Brooks, her poetry changed over the years. While her early works, though showing a distinct “self-awareness,” still fought through a European-inspired style Madhubuti describes as strained. But, he explains, as years go by, particularly post 1967, Brooks’ work takes on a unique voice—a personal voice and the voice of a “new black,” forged on the foundation of the past, by honed on the whetstone a growing collective mindset of black resistance and rebellion. As the above quote explains, Brooks’ work was centered on chronicling and giving living breath to the history of the consciousness of a people in struggle.

According to quote by Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor George E. Kent, Brooks held:

“…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.”

Born Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks on June 7, 1917 in Topeka, Kan.,  to David Anderson Brooks and Keziah Wims, Brooks was exposed to concepts that would figure heavily in her later life—literacy and racism.  Her mother was a schoolteacher who, no doubt, helped to introduce the young Gwendolyn to the joys and importance of reading and writing. But, it was the Chicago public school system of the early 20th century that would teach Brooks her early lessons about the horrors and injustice of racism. The family moved to that city when Brooks was only six weeks old. According to biographers, as a child, she was suspended from school a number of time for the crime of being black in a system that resisted educating black children. Still,  she attended the reportedly “leading” white high school, Hyde Park High School, before transferring to the all-black Wendell Phillips High School and later to the integrated Englewood High School.

In 1936, she graduated from Wilson Junior College.

Her career as a writer began early with the publication of a poem, “Eventide,” in American Childhood at age 13, eventually have about 75 poems by age 16. At 17, she regularly was submitting works to the poetry column to the famed black newspaper, the Chicago Defender. Ironically, she reportedly was unable to secure employment at the paper.

As writer and one of her future publisher Haki Madhubuti points out in the opening of his collection of poems dedicated to her explains, her work at the time often included traditional European forms such as sonnets and ballads, her work also focused daily life in the black community and utilized forms that were more akin to the blues and the cadences unique to the black experience of the time.

In 1945, Harper and Roy published her collection of poems entitled “A Street in Bronzeville.” She subsequently was awarded her first Guggenheim Fellowship. Her second book of poetry, “Annie Allen,” published in 1950, earned her the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, making her the first African American to win the prize. Twelve years later, President John F. Kennedy invited her to read at a Library of Congress poetry festival. The novel includes a telling incident in which Maud, in conscious move to retain her dignity, turns her back on a racist store clerk.

She also published her only novel, “Maud Martha,” a series of vignettes about a black woman’s life, in the 1950s.

David Littlejohn’s review of “Maud Martha” in Black on White: A Critical Survey of Writing by American Negroes, called the book “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.”

Annette Oliver Shands pointed out that Brooks’ writing already was tapping into a new truth as part of her review in Black World. Shands wrote:

“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.”

Parlaying her acclaim into a teaching career, Brooks taught in a number of colleges and universities, including Columbia College Chicago, Northeastern Illinois University along with Columbia University and Clay College of New York, and the University of Wisconsin–Madison, to name a few.

But, it was visit to a writer’s conference to Fisk University in 1967 that Brooks said caused her to rediscover her “blackness.” The resulting transformation resulted in the landmark work “In the Mecca.” An essay on Books at Poetry Foundation ( had this to say about “In the Mecca:”

“Brooks’ 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.”

While some look at the change as merely a personal awakening for Brooks, like the true poet, she was tapping into a change of collective consciousness in much of the black community. With her poetic skills, she was able to write the history that matters—the history of the spirit, preserved not only to explain what had changed but how it had changed the community and the world. Like the true poet, her works keep that spirit alive an accessible to those who want to make that same ascension.

In addition to raising a family with her husband Henry Lowington Blakely Jr., who she married in 1939, Brooks continued to write not only poetry but a two-volume autobiography. Along the way, she garnered numerous other accolades while serving as the historian of a collective consciousness.

She died of cancer at her home in Chicago on Dec. 3, 2000 at the age of 83. Her work still lives.

Poems by Gwendolyn Brooks:

The Mother

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

You will never neglect or beat
Them, or silence or buy with a sweet.
You will never wind up the
sucking-thumb Or scuttle off ghosts
that come.

You will never leave them,
controlling your luscious sigh,
Return for a snack of them,
with gobbling mother-eye.

I have heard in the voices of the
wind the voices of my dim killed children.
I have contracted.

I have eased My dim dears at
the breasts they could never suck.
I have said, Sweets, if I sinned, if
I seized Your luck And your lives
from your unfinished reach,

If I stole your births and your names,
Your straight baby tears and
your games,
Your stilted or lovely loves,
your tumults, your marriages, aches,
and your deaths,

If I poisoned the beginnings of your
breaths, Believe that even in my
deliberateness I was not deliberate.

Though why should I whine,
Whine that the crime was other than
Since anyhow you are dead.
Or rather, or instead, You were
never made.

But that too, I am afraid, Is faulty:
oh, what shall I say, how is the
truth to be said?

You were born, you had body,
you died.
It is just that you never giggled or
planned or cried.

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



Being you, you cut your poetry from wood.
The boiling of an egg is heavy art.
You come upon it as an artist should,
With rich-eyed passion, and with straining heart.
We fools, we cut our poems out of air.
Night color, wind soprano, and such stuff.
And sometimes weightlessness is much to bear.
You mock it, though, you name it Not Enough.
The egg, spooned gently to the avid pan,
And left the strick three minute, or the four,
Is your Enough and art for any man.
We fools give courteous ear—-then cut some more,
Shaping a gorgeous Nothingness from cloud.
You watch us, eat your egg, and laugh aloud.

Malcolm X ——— for Dudley Randall
Hence ragged-round,
Hence rich-robust.

He had the hawk-man’s eyes.
We gasped. We saw the maleness.
The maleness raking out and making guttural the air
And pushing us to walls.

And in a soft and fundamental hour
A sorcery devout and vertical
Beguiled the world.

He opened us –
Who was a key.

Who was a man.


“Honoring Genius: Gwendolyng Brooks—the Narrative of Craft, Art, Kindness and Justice,” by Haki Madhubuti, Third World Press

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