Gwendolyn Brooks On June 7, 1917, Keziah Corine Wims and David Anderson Brooks gave birth to one of the most gifted African-American poets of the 20th century. They named her Gwendolyn Brooks. Although she was born in Topeka, Kansas, Brooks grew up in Chicago where her mother worked as a schoolteacher and her father worked as a janitor. He quit going to school for financial reasons and while quitting went away his dream of becoming a doctor. David Brooks was still a proud man. Being a janitor wasnt, and still isnt considered a highly skilled job, but Brooks was still proud of her fathers self-sacrifice. Brooks wrote a poem directly titled In Honor of David Anderson Brooks, My Father.
In this poem she writes of how much she misses him and the things he did for his family. Lines such as “A dryness is upon the house/ My father loved and tended/ Beyond his firm and sculptured door/ His light and lease have ended” show how much she cared for her father. Growing up in the south side of Chicago gave Brooks an insight to the social poverty that existed in this world. The people around her may have been poor, but they still had pride in their existence. The poem The Bean Eaters is a reflection of her surroundings. The first two stanzas open the poem with: “They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair/ Dinner is a casual affair/ Plain chipware on a plain and creaking wood/ Tin flatware/ Two who are Mostly Good/ Two who have lived their day/ But keep putting on their clothes/ And putting things away.” Although they dont have much other than “tin flatware,” the couple still faces each day as if it is a brand new beginning.
As she was growing up, members of her own race spurned her because she lacked social and athletic abilities, and to add to these factors, she was also light skinned. This rejection effected her deeply and she retreated with poetry. In the poem, Still Do I Keep My Look, My Identity..” Brooks writes lines such as, “Each body has an art, its precious prescribed/ Pose, that even in passions droll contortions, waltzes/ Or push of a pain- or when grief has stabbed/ Or hatred hacked- is its, and nothing elses.” These lines are talking about how everybody has beauty within them, and it seems as if other people dont see Gwendolyns beauty. Also, these lines talk about how everyone is beautiful, and no matter how beautiful the body is, it will still feel pain and hatred. Being an African-American in the 30s and 40s also didnt help Brooks social and economic situation. People of color during that time were often treated with ignorance and bigotry.
Gwendolyns counterattack to these beliefs is shown in the poem Of De Witt Williams on his way to Lincoln Cemetery. She writes, “He was born in Alabama/ He was bred in Illinois/ He was nothing but a/ Plain black boy/ Swing low swing low sweet sweet chariot/ Nothing but a plain black boy.” Her poem is saying although this man has traveled and has seen the country, he is still considered by many to be just a “plain black boy.” They dont know anything about him, nor do they care to know anything about him, simply because he is a “plain black boy.” During the 40s to the 50s, women across America were torn between choosing a simple domestic life or having a career. Brooks take on this controversial topic is apparent in the poem Sadie and Maud. With lines such as: “Maud went to college/ Sadie stayed at home/ Sadie scraped life/ With a fine-tooth comb/ .. Sadie bore two babies/ Under her maiden name/ Maud and Ma and Papa/ Nearly died of shame/ .. Maud, who went to college/ Is a thin brown mouse/ She is living all alone/ In this old house.” Sadie is possibly symbolizing Brooks, for Brooks did bear two children and after she had children, she became a housewife and mother.
Her take on the family vs. career choice is shown in this poem. She appears to be saying: although you may be staying home, it doesnt mean you wont have a fulfilling life. On the other hand, just because you have a career wont necessarily make you a happy person. Gwendolyn married in 1939 to Henry L. Blakeley.
She had two children with him named Henry Jr. and Nora. She became a housewife and a mother but instead of directing all her energy toward domestic needs, she wrote her poetry while her children slept or while they were in school.1939 was also the start of World War II. Brooks wrote a poem entitled Memorial to Ed Bland and the poem begins with an opening that reads, “.. killed in Germany March 20, 1945; volunteered for special dangerous mission.. wanted to see action.” The poem is about a young man who wants to see the world, and believes that he is invincible, which was probably the attitude that many young American males had pre-World War II. They believed they were invincible, but that was not the reality for many young men.
The post World War II era was prosperous for many Americans, especially returning soldiers. The attitude sweeping through America was one of “If you can survive the war, you can survive anything.” It was almost as if Americans felt immortal. Brooks attacked this notion with her poem We Real Cool. In this poem, she writes, “The Pool Players/ Seven at the Golden Shovel/ We real cool. We/ Left school. We/ Strike straight.
We/ Sing sin. We/ Thin gin. We/ Jazz June. We/ Die Soon.” The “Pool Players” symbolizes the average man, but with the “Golden Shovel” is foreshadowing death. The “Jazz June” symbolizes the carefree demeanor that was flowing through the country, but the last line “Die soon” show the same conclusion that everybody will encounter, whether you were rich or poor, black or white, old or young.
She won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1950, being the first African-American to do so. The 50s and 60s was full of civil turmoil for America. The Civil Rights movement was gaining momentum and Brooks poetry also reflected that. The poem Corners on the Curving Sky, she writes lines such as, “Our earth is round, and, among other things/ That means that you and I can hold/ completely different/ Points of view and both be right.” The violence and the lack of change that was happening in America frustrated Brooks and she couldnt understand what was taking so long for things to change. Also during the 50s, countries in Africa were beginning to gain their independence, but in the process started many bloody civil wars.
These political events are shown in the poem Old Laughter. It begins with, “The men and women long ago/ In Africa, in Africa/ Knew all there was of joy to know,” and the poem ends with, “But richness is long dead/ Old laughter chilled, old music done/ In bright, bewildered Africa/ The bamboo and the cinnamon/ Are sad in Africa.” What made Africa so beautiful has now turned it into nothing but a bloody battlefield. Growing older, Brooks children soon eventually grew up and moved on. Brooks had been married for so long that they have become utterly comfortable with one another. It seems as if marriage has become nothing but repetition for her. A Sunset of the City shows all that Brooks was feeling at this period in her life.
She writes, “Already I am no longer looked at with lechery or love/ My daughters and sons have put me away with marbles and dolls/ Are gone from the house/ My husbands and lovers are pleasant or somewhat polite/ And night is night.” The title itself is symbolic of Brooks. The city symbolizes Brooks, and the sunset is as if there is an ending to a chapter in her life. Her job as a mother has been done and fulfilled. She compares herself to her childrens toys, things that they eventually grow out of. The optimism of the civil rights movement soon changed in the 1970s for Brooks.
She urged African-Americans to break free from the repression of the white American society and advocated anarchy and violence by acceptable means. Her newfound attitude is shown in the books Beckonings (1975) and To Disembark (1980). The poetry in these books shows an attitude of disgust with the lack of racial equality. Gwendolyn Brooks turned 80 in 1997. 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.” Bibliography Bibliography Brooks, Gwendolyn. Annie Allen. New York.
Harper & Brothers: 1945. Brooks, Gwendolyn. Selected Poems. New York. Harper & Row Publishers: 1944.
Miller, James. “Brooks, Gwendolyn.” Encarta: 1998. Microsoft.