In Celebration of Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000)
By L. Wesley
Gwendolyn Brook’s first book ‘A Street in Bronzeville’ was published in 1945.
As soon as you mention dates weird time shifts happen. 1945: end of WW11, Hiroshima and all the technology connected with the Manhattan Project. For Black America it moves differently: 1941 the Supreme Court ruled that black people could now travel first class on the railroad.
Gwendolyn Brooks published within the New Criticism orthodoxy of the time. She did not publish as a black person, coming in from that other time scale. Acceptance was immediate. She was writing out of a middle class, suburban background. This, along with an intellectual background in Eliot, Pound, and Wallace Stevens, was what was recognised. Even so, her first contacts were with writers like Langston Hughes,
Her Bronzeville was a southern suburb of Chicago. It became more black with time, and her writing became more entangled in black issues.
Her second book ‘Annie Allen’, won the Pulitzer Prize.
New Criticism focussed on the multiple implications of diction and symbol.
Her first book ranged through many verse forms, and brought in real life things like Coca-Cola, but also:
Abortion will not let you forget,
You remember the children you got that you did not get…
Believe me, I loved them all,
Believe me, I knew you, though faintly, and I loved you, loved you
-orchestrating the emotion to a precise degree From third person to first: identifying, immediate..
She is always direct, engaged, writing from deep within her subject:
We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,
Greyed in, and grey. “Dream” makes a giddy sound, not strong
Like “rent”, “feeding a wife”, “satisfying a woman”.
But could a dream send up through onion fumes
Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes
And yesterdays garbage ripening in the hall…
One of the outstanding sequences of this collection is ‘Gay Chaps in a Bar’ (‘Gay’ in the pre-Stonewall sense). This sequence of twelve sonnets won the Midwestern Writer’s Group prize in 1943.
It’s theme the articulacy of the GI’s response to the War front and home front. It earns its New Crit credentials by juggling soldier’s letters home, home expectations, the horror and alienation of war experience, and the “tight-lipped obligation of masculine self-censorship” (Susan Schweik).
“Straining dialogue…structured around a clear ironic contrast between after and before, front and home” (ibid). The sequence tackles the “strategies of omission” in the image of potential war-injury as physical and communicable loss: the response and counter response of male to female, front to home.
The racial tension is always present.
the white troops had their orders but the…
…………….Negroes looked like men. Besides, it taxed
Time and temper to remember these
Congenital iniquities that cause
Disfavor of the darkness……….
Congenital iniquities. A Yemisi Jimot writes of Brook’s “middle-class notion of transcendent, unified, and fixed social narrative”, but also of a deepening “black group-consciousness”. Fame and university teaching put her in touch with young black writers, like LeRoy James/Amiri Baraka. She published with African American publishers or her own imprints thereon.
After the Pulitzer Prize winning ‘Annie Allen’ she lost favour with her follow-up, ‘The Bean Eaters’. It was seen as too polemical. 1960 was a different world, with black issues and Civil Rights on top agenda.
Gender was always implicit: she was writing out of a black woman’s experience. Her audience was perceived as heterogeneous.
She would have been empathetic with Stuart Hall’s ‘hybridity’ stance, as well as the identifiable and separate-discursive tradition stance of Alice Walker, and by extension, Sonia Sanchez. Her career allowed her to explore many of these positions.
Hall’s ‘hybridity’ (“nowhere to be found in its pure, pristine state” but “already… fused, syncretized, with other alloyed elements”) is there in the earlier books, whilst the later ones illustrate the enforced seperateness, enforced ethnicity.
To allow the writer last word:
from Bronzeville Woman in a Red Hat
hires out to Mrs Mills
They had never had one in the house before,
The strangeness of it all, like unleashing
A lion, really. Poised
To pounce. A puma. A panther. A black
There it stood at the door
Under a red hat that was rash, but refreshing……….
(Mrs Mills’ child:)
“………..kissed by the black maid! Square on the mouth!
World yelled, world writhed, world turned up light and rolled
(but the child)
Kissed back the colored maid
Love had been hard and rapid to respond.