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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Becoming Visible Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000)

[7851] Jack Delano, Chicago, Illinois. A Poetry Study Circle at the South Side Community Art Center (1944), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USW3-000701-D].

Born in Topeka, Kansas, Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks grew up in Chicago. As a child she attended both all-white and all-black schools, as well as the integrated Englewood High School. This background helped create for her a rich perspective on race and identity issues in the city that had such an impact on her work. By the time she was thirteen, her first poem, “Even-tide” (1930), was published, and by 1934 she had worked for and was a weekly contributor to the Chicago Defender, in which over one hundred of her poems appeared. Brooks won her first major award, the Midwest Writers Conference Poetry Award, in 1943, and in 1945 her first book, A Street in Bronzeville, was published. With her second book, Annie Allen (1949), she became the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Other books soon followed, such as Maud Martha (1953), Bronzeville Boys and Girls (1956), and In the Mecca (1968).

A pivotal moment in Brooks’s life occurred in 1967 when she attended the Second Black Writers’ Conference at Fisk University, where she encountered young black poets writing “as blacks, about blacks, to blacks.” She began conducting poetry workshops for gang members and inner-city black youth and became associated with more militant political groups. Stylistically, she combined the sermonizing style of black preachers, street talk, and some of the more standard forms of verse, and her later work echoes the rhythms of jazz and the combinations of African chants. Brooks’s work also addresses issues of abortion, violence, abandonment by men, and the struggles of raising children in poverty. Her penetrating insights into and commentary on African American life, ethnicity, and identity are vividly and powerfully articulated in her poetry and prose.

Teaching Tips

  • Brooks’s work changed during the Black Arts movement of the 1960s. Have a group of students research the Black Arts movement (or read the materials on it in Unit 15) as well as the concept of Black Power and present their findings to the class. In an era in which black men were disempowered, disenfranchised, and often incarcerated, images of black men as strong and influential were particularly empowering. Ask students to consider both the “Black Is Beautiful” cultural program and the self-presentation of leaders such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. What strategies do these images share with Brooks’s presentation of black male subjectivity?
  • Have students create a poetry family tree for one of Brooks’s poems that puts an attribute of the poem on each branch and traces it back to an earlier or contemporary poet. They should define each attribute on theirs trees and list the influencing poet’s name and birth/death dates.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Reread “The White Troops Had Their Orders But the Negroes Looked Like Men.” What is the “formula” in the first line? To what might a “box for dark men and a box for other” allude?
  2. Comprehension: “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon” is a long and unusual title for a long poem. In the poem, details from ordinary life, northern and southern, are interspersed with meditations on the perils of growing up black in America. What holds the poem together? What is the effect of the changes in pace and focus? Why do the lines grow briefer at the very end? You might compare the mixture of the ordinary and meditative here with Romare Bearden’s use of magazine and newspaper images in canonical settings.
  3. Comprehension: What is the controlling tone of “We Real Cool”?
  4. Context: What do Brooks’s poems suggest about the special challenges of being an African American poet in a time when many other genres and media compete for attention? What do her poems suggest about the challenges of being a poet who deals with social and moral problems? How does poetry, in Brooks’s hands, become an effective means for observing and teaching?
  5. Exploration: Brooks’s poetry shows the influences of many writers: Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, Marianne Moore, Claude McKay, Elizabeth Bishop, William Carlos Williams, and the Beats, to name a few. Which of her poems particularly recall the work of one or more of these forebears? Within those poems, what stylistic experiments or other strategies make the work uniquely her own?

Selected Archive Items

[3010] Austin Hansen, Woman and Baby Evicted from Their Harlem Apartment, 1950s (c. 1950s),
courtesy of Joyce Hansen and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library.
This photo’s echoes of the traditional iconography of the Madonna and Child comment ironically on life in inner-city New York. Gwendolyn Brooks’s work addresses the struggles of raising children in poverty.

[3013] Austin Hansen, The Apollo Theater in Harlem (c. 1940s),
courtesy of Joyce Hansen and the Schomburg Center. Printed on back of photo: “Exterior view of the Apollo Theatre, with marquee advertising appearances by Jimmie Lunceford and his band and other acts, 1940s.”
Beginning in the 1930s, the Apollo Theater, in the heart of Harlem, played a crucial role in the development of black music. Famous performers like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan got their first break at the Apollo’s Amateur Night. The experience of watching such performers inspired Langston Hughes’s “The Weary Blues” and Gwendolyn Brooks’s “Queen of the Blues.”

[7138] Anonymous, Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka) Leads the Black Arts Parade Down 125th Toward the Black Arts Theater Repertory/School on 130th Street, New York City (1965),
courtesy of The Liberator.

Inspired by civil rights activism and black nationalism, Baraka (Jones) and other African American artists opened the Black Arts Theater in Harlem in 1965.

[7851] Jack Delano, Chicago, Illinois. A Poetry Study Circle at the South Side Community Art Center (1944),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USW3-000701-D].
Gwendolyn Brooks’s engagement with poetry began as early in her life as her strong association with Chicago’s black community. In her early work, Brooks followed in the modernist tradition of Pound and Eliot and in the Harlem Renaissance tradition of poets such as Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. Following the 1967 Second Black Writers Conference, Brooks began writing specifically for black audiences under the auspices of African American publishers.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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