June 7, 2017, marks the centennial of the birth of Gwendolyn Brooks (d. December 2000), who in 1950 became the first African American--and at the time the youngest American--to win a Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Her literary career spanned the latter part of the Harlem Renaissance during 1940s, the Chicago Renaissance of 1935-1950, and remained strong throughout the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, 1970s, and beyond.
Passionately dedicated to painting intimate word-portraits of life in Chicago, where she grew up, Brooks served as the state of Illinois' Poet Laureate from 1968-2000. She was also, from 1985-1986, Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress.
Objective Observations and Engaged Compassion
In his 1961 radio interview with Brooks, the late journalist and social critic Studs Terkel noted: "I suppose there can be no true poetry without compassion..." There are many (surprising though it may be) who would disagree with Terkel's statement.
Dissenters might define compassion as nothing more than useless sentimentality rather than as mindful active commitment to resolving humanity's most urgent problems. With such a limited definition, they could then point to certain works by seemingly non-sentimental poets to support their claim. However, almost every aspect of Brooks’ life, in addition to her writings, gives greater support to Terkel's observation. They also reflect dynamics of creative maladjustment which allowed her to transform the oppressive racial injustice and gender inequities of her time into compelling literature.
As an example of her talent for capturing realistic challenges of everyday urban human life with an uncanny balance of objective observations and engaged compassion, Terkel went on to talk about Brooks’ poem, "hunchback girl: she thinks of heaven." In it, the character imagines a place where she will be able to discard the physical and mental braces that allow her to function effectively in the world. After which:
"...I shall walk straightly through most proper halls
Proper myself, princess of properness."
(from The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks, ed. by Elizabeth Alexander, American Poets Project, 2005, p. 3)
The subject here might seem an obvious one for discussing compassion but Brooks achieved similar effects from a dazzling array of perspectives and within a wide range of literary forms. Just as the hunchback girl wisely exercised compassion for herself, the minister in the poem titled "the preacher: ruminates behind the sermon" wonders if humans ever consider that God, for all the woes and concerns endlessly laid at His feet, might be deserving of compassion as well. At the poem's conclusion, he imagines:
"...Perhaps--who knows?--He tires of looking down.
Those eyes are never lifted. Never straight.
Perhaps sometimes He tires of being great
In solitude. Without a hand to hold."
(Essential GB, p. 6)
As a black woman who became a major figure in both New York's Harlem Renaissance and the Chicago Renaissance, Brooks belonged to a generation of creative artists who used their talents to stimulate positive social change in alignment with the tenets of American democracy. During those periods, demonstrating world-class literary excellence was one strategic tool progressive African-Americans utilized to affirm their humanity and advocate for equal civil rights. It was a responsibility Brooks’ mother impressed upon her as a child and one she never neglected as an adult.
Greater Rewards of a Profoundly Higher Nature
Although lauded primarily as a poet, the author wrote nearly two dozen books which included: the novel Maude Martha, short stories, children's literature, essays, and history. Within her explorations of racism's impact upon people's lives, she not only chronicled how it devastated the dreamed aspirations and physical living conditions of African Americans. She also illustrated how it twisted and corroded racist individuals' natural instincts to express love rather than cultivate hatred based on skin color.
Poet Gwendolyn Brooks at her typewriter in 1957. (photo by Bettman/Corbis)
As shown in the poem "Negro Hero, to suggest Dorie Miller,"she successfully, admirably, tempered militant rage with heartfelt compassion: "I had to kick their law into their teeth in order to save them..." (Essential GB, p. 16)
Compassion seemed to yield the greater rewards of a profoundly higher nature. The excerpt below is from the poem, "The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock (Fall, 1957)." In it, Brooks describes a reporter in Arkansas, on assignment for the Black Press, at the time of the historic controversy over school integration and the African-American students who became known as the Little Rock (Arkansas) Nine. The identity of "the loveliest lynchee" revealed at the poem's end represents the ultimate tragic irony:
I scratch my head, massage the hate-I-had.
I blink across my prim and pencilled pad.
The saga I was sent for is not down.
Because there is a puzzle in this town.
The biggest News I do not dare
Telegraph to the Editor's chair:
"They are like people everywhere."
The angry Editor would reply
In hundred harryings of why.
And true, they are hurling spittle, rock,
Garbage and fruit in Little Rock.
And I saw coiling storm-a-writhe
On bright madonnas. And a scythe
Of men harassing brownish girls.
(The bows and barrettes in the curls
And braids declined away from joy.)
I saw a bleeding brownish boy....
The lariat lynch-wish I deplored.
The loveliest lynchee was our Lord.
(Essential GB, p. 70)
The unprecedented acclaim Brooks won from the time she was only 33 years old could have made it possible for her to rest on her proverbial laurels and enjoy a career of teaching and publishing in somewhat relative comfort. She, however, chose a different route.
Acting out of an extraordinary sense of empathy and solidarity with, as well as mindfulness towards, her principal subjects, she stopped releasing books through mainstream publisher Harper and Row. Instead, she opted to publish through small black presses like that of the legendary author-publisher Haki R. Madhubuti.
The poet's hometown of Chicago in this second half of the twenty-first century has made more national headlines for the gun violence that has marred its reputation than for its renown as one of America's great centers of culture and industry. Celebrations of Gwendolyn Brooks’ centennial provide opportunities to help change that with reflections on the powerful positions that creative maladjustment and consciously-applied compassion occupied in her work.
co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
and author of The American Poet Who Went Home Again
National Poetry Month 2017