VI. Gwendolyn Brooks and The Urban Poor
Gwendolyn Brooks is a major figure in American literature whose work is immersed in the feelings and the racial issues of Black people in this country today. She has received more than fifty honorary doctorates from American colleges and universities. She was the first Black woman elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. She won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1950 for
And in 1980, she was invited to read her work at the White House in the company of twenty other distinguished poets, including Robert Hayden. Schools and cultural centers have been named for her, and in 1985 she was named Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.
Gwendolyn was born into a loving and caring family on June 7, 1917. Her father, a janitor, often sang to her and related stories about other families less fortunate than theirs. Her mother, a Sunday school teacher, played the piano and encouraged her daughter to write prolifically, assuring her that one day she would receive the excellence and renown of a “lady Paul Laurence Dunbar”. Whenever poets would come to Chicago, Mrs. Brooks would take her children to listen to them, especially to James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes. Both Johnson and Hughes would influence Brooks’s writing and Hughes was to become her inspiration as well as her friend: he later dedicated “Something in Common” (1963) to Gwendolyn.
From the beginning, humanistic qualities and heroic figures became important topics for Brooks. Her early works —
A Street in Bronzeville, Annie Allen
— are primarily concerned with the pressures of daily existence and the lives of the ghetto poor. Her poetry invokes the need for leadership and “race heroes” in the Black community. Gwendolyn Brooks shares with Langston Hughes the achievement of being responsive to turbulent changes in the black community’s vision of itself and to the changing forms of its ambiance during decades of rapid change.
One of Gwendolyn’s “race heroes” was her close friend Langston Hughes. She was greatly impressed by
The Weary Blues
. She paid the highest tribute to Hughes as “the noble poet, the efficient essayist, the adventurous dramatist who strongly influenced her life and her art.”
Many parallels may be drawn between Brooks and Hughes in their ways of expressing the “Black experience”; these would involve their African heritage and the absorption of blues, jazz and street language into their poetry. Brooks also admired the way in which Hughes befriended younger poets (like herself) and helped to pave the road for their literary successes.
Brooks would later pay special tribute to her close friend in a poem entitled “Langston Hughes”. This poem pleased Hughes very much. The poet describes Hughes as a luminous guide, one who is determined that the American dream should apply to all peoples. He “Has a long reach”, like a hand, and he “grips his right of twisting free”, twisting away from the bonds of slavery, racism and discrimination. He is “helmsman, hatchet, headlight”, heroizing his efforts in leading others to freedom.
Brooks wrote poems for children as well as adults. “Pete at the Zoo”, a ballad, mirrors her sensitivity towards children and their need for security, imagination and freedom. “Naomi” shows the impatience of a young adolescent with the unimaginative adults who nag Annie Allen’s childhood. My own favorite is “We Real Cool”, which has received strong praise for its technique and is probably the most widely known of Brooke’s works. The characters in this poem do not have much of anything going for them except for their stylish behavior as a peer group. The coolness of the players is the center of their personalities and the key to their lives. But beyond the poem, we are left feeling sorrow for these alienated, hopeless kids who have dropped out of society drinking, sinning and dying. It is this waste of human life that the author is mourning. The poem will be especially moving for my classes because some of my students bear striking resemblance’s to these “cool” dudes.
“A Song in the Front Yard” is a poem about a young girl who “wants a peek at the back” to learn about life in the ghetto streets. These streets and alleys are located in “Bronzeville”, a south side area of Chicago of about forty blocks. This young girl apparently lives on the border of segregated black life in Chicago and no matter how often her mother tries to discourage her with “sneers”, reminding her of the dubious futures of Johnie Mae, who will probably become a “bad woman”, and George, who will “be taken to jail sooner or later”, the young girl seems destined to fall prey to the excitements of the street and alleys — streets and alleys not unlike the areas that surround Clemente School. The real beauty of these poems becomes evident, though, as Brooks takes a humanistic and compassionate view of the black life she portrays so unsentimentally.
I have chosen to conclude this portion of my unit with “The Ballad of Rudolph Reed” and “The Ballad of Pearl May Lee”, stories with strong moral or social themes. Rudolph Reed was a man of strength and endurance, both physical and moral. “Rudolph Reed was oaken.” The paradox between Rudolph Reed and “oaken” is obvious. Reed’s wife and children support his desire to purchase a house; but few people but he would have cared to move to “a street of bitter white”. However, move is what they do and the first two nights rocks as big as fists crash through their windows. On the third night his daughter Mabel is cut by flying glass. Reed, no longer restrained in the style of a noble hero, sees the blood running down her forehead, presses the hand of his wife (as if to say good bye) and goes out into the night “with a thirty-four And a beastly butcher knife.” He hurts four white men before he is shot to death. The poem ends with Reed’s daughter Mabel blaming herself for what has happened while her mother changes her “bloody gauze.” Rudolph Reed became a victim of despair.
“The Ballad of Pearl May Lee”, a favorite of Langston Hughes, describes an “intimacy” that has taken place in the back seat of a Buick. Sammy, Pearl’s black lover, has committed the “old, old crime” of being intimate with a Caucasian woman who has seduced him. Having been wrongly accused of raping the white woman, Sammy is hauled off to jail and, subsequently, hung “around a cottonwood tree.” Pearl, her name a symbol of purity, notes bitterly that Sammy grew up thinking “Black” was “for the famished to eat” although he had “me in your black folks bed.” She often wished that he was dead. This poem is filled with intense feelings of rage and grief. As Brooks matured, her poetry reflected the distinctive lifestyle of her people. Her poetry became revolutionary, extolling her Blackness, her rage and her grief.