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The Radical Poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, the First Black Author to Win a Pulitzer Prize

Posted on June 6, 2017 at 8:50 AM

Her poetry portrayed African American life in a complex and vulnerable way.

Photo Credit: Jim Kuhn/Flickr

The following is an excerpt from the new book A Surprised Queenhood in the New Black Sun: The Life & Legacy of Gwendolyn Brooks by Angela Jackson (Beacon Press, May 2017):

“We are each other’s harvest,” Gwendolyn Brooks would write years later. But the years from 1945 to 1949 were a time of laboring and significant harvest with the publication of two volumes of her work A Street in Bronzeville and Annie Allen. With these slim, eloquent books, Gwendolyn would establish herself as a writer of renown, a literary force to be regarded seriously. They would lead her to a place no other African American poet or writer held.

A Street in Bronzeville was published in August 1945. It hit Afro- America with the force of an atomic bomb. But it was by no means destructive. It was life-affirming for black people, who often felt a strong need to prove they were equal to whites because many whites were so blatantly disproving of this essential fact. Gwendolyn was important because she surpassed not only the expectations of whites about black people but whites themselves.


The first poem in the collection is “the old-marrieds.”


But in the crowding darkness not a word did they say

Though the pretty-coated bird had piped so lightly all the day.

And he had seen the lovers in the little side-streets,

And she had heard the morning stories clogged with sweets.

It was quite a time for loving. It was midnight. It was May.

But in the crowding darkness not a word did they say.


The speaker of the poem is omniscient, observing the absence of intimacy in an intimate setting. The eye of the poet is penetrating, as in a newsreel; the language pristine, almost mocking as the poem begins.


Whether Gwendolyn’s intention was to create a newsreel effect or not, she begins her most public announcement of herself as a poet by breaking with the past. This is neither a dialect nor sentimental poem; it is neither blues-infused, as Hughes’s work was, nor exotic. The characters in the bed are not the stereotypically hypersexual Negroes of the white imagination. They are sedate, mature, and sexually repressed. No one had imagined Negroes in poetry in this way before. They were surprisingly, refreshingly human. Indeed, Gwendolyn began with a surprising imaginative and empathetic leap. She was a young poet, twenty-eight, writing about middle-aged or elderly people. She was a relatively young wife writing about a couple who had been married for decades.


The poem opens with the conjunction “but” as if to indicate that the reader might be caught in a sentence that began a while ago. We are engaged not only in that poem but in a volume of poems. Gwendolyn suggests a street in Bronzeville with the phrase “crowding darkness”; she also suggests a claustrophobic darkness so close that it is intimate. But the couple in the poem does not speak, and they are not intimate in word or gesture. This disconnect is in spite of the romantic events of the day that should have brought them closer together. Even though it was the time for lovemaking, they do not make love. They crowd like strangers in a crowd of darkness, as each of the residents of Bronzeville may be a stranger in a dark crowd. with nineteen more portraits in verse exploring characters and landmarks of the community. After “the old-marrieds” come two popular masterpieces: “kitchenette building” and the aforementioned “the mother.” Wright had argued that “the mother” should not be published in the book, and the poem is still controversial today because the subject is so controversial. Gwendolyn could not have been a more revolutionary black feminist in the writing of and steadfast inclusion of this poem in her inaugural volume.


These two poems have a great impact—the former in its understanding of the day-to-day stresses of “drylongso”—or every day, ordinary black people—living in cut-up apartments with bathrooms separate from each unit, one bathroom per floor, five units sharing one bathroom; the latter in its understanding of the mother who has had an abortion (possibly more than one). There was no reliable birth control then beyond abstinence. Prophylactics were widespread, but unreliable. Abortion remains a hot-button topic today, even though it is legal. At the time the poem was written, though, abortions were illegal and dangerous, often performed in less than sterile conditions.




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.


The poem is a dramatic monologue. The speaker is a woman seized by guilt, anguish, and regret. The poem goes on in hypnotic effect offering a description of lives and people who might have been but will not. The poem is a plea for understanding of the mother’s action, a plea from her to her children who she says she has deprived of many detailed aspects of life. Her only defense is this:


Believe me, I loved you all.

Believe me, I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you


Categories: Poetry, Cultural News

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