Chicago has many nicknames, some storied–The Windy City, the Second City, the City of Big Shoulders–and some new–Chi-raq, Chiberia. It is simultaneously one of the most culturally rich and racially segregated cities in the US, hometown to both our first black President and cops who torture and shoot black children on the street. You know this. We all know this. It’s in the national news nearly every day.
What I want you to do next time you read one of those news stories–after you’ve done whatever it is you do with your outrage and admiration for that city–is carve out a piece of your day to read the work of Chicago’s greatest poet, Gwendolyn Brooks.
Gwendolyn Brooks wrote one of the first poems I ever loved.
I first encountered that poem as a kid, flipping through an anthology, and it stopped me in my tracks. I didn’t know what any of it meant (except, maybe, what pool players were), but it stuck in my head like a song.
We real cool. We
You weren’t supposed to leave school, I knew that much, but it was hard to deny the sheer bravado of that first sentence: whoever was talking was, well, real cool. Mysterious, doomed, reckless, but also deeply alive. My white middle-class Rust Belt life was about as far from the “Seven at the Golden Shovel” as could be, but something about the relentless syncopation pulled me far, far into their world every time I read it.
Brooks was a remarkable poet in countless ways, but this ability to create a world on the page is perhaps the most singular. If she wrote fiction, we’d say she was brilliant at world-building–but the world she builds is the real one, the part that didn’t used to make it into the pages of literary magazines. Not just Chicago: Bronzeville. Not just glamorous light-skinned “maple banshees,” but “chocolate Mabbie.” Not just The Selected Poems of Gwendolyn Brooks, elegantly compiled by Harper & Row, but a collected volume simply titled Blacks, published by Third World Press.
I was lucky enough to meet Gwendolyn Brooks once, just a few months before she died. Maybe this is just because my grandparents were also from Chicago, but she struck me as the most grandmotherly person I’d ever met. Later, when she read her poems on stage, “We Real Cool” came alive in the mouth of the woman who wrote it, and I saw the fierce intellect surface in that sweet old lady. In my own tiny, humbling way, I saw Brooks live out the contradictions that defined her career: the genius wrestling with the cultural politics into which she was born.
According to the standard literary history narratives about Brooks’s career, there is a distinct Before and After. The key event, in this story, is the 1967 Fisk University Black Writers’ Conference, one of the founding moments of the Black Arts movement. This was definitely a radicalizing experience for Brooks–it’s when she started publishing with black-owned small presses, for instance (a bold political move for someone as established as she was). Many people see a new kind of directness about race and poverty in Brooks’s post-1967 work, as she allied herself more explicitly with other black writers. But this version of Brooks’s poetic career has always troubled me, because it seems to suggest that Brooks was pandering to the white literary establishment before 1967. It also implies that she needed the urging of black men (Amiri Baraka, Haki R. Madhubuti, and others) to fully invest in writing about black life, which is simply untrue. In fact, Brooks wrote about not just black oppression but also intraracial colorism from her very first book. Personally, I read Brooks as always already radical; everyone else had to catch up with her.
Brooks was honored by the literary establishment from early on; she became the first African American author to win the Pulitzer (1950, for Annie Allen). She wrote fearlessly about poverty, abortion, discrimination, war, and desire. She had an incredible gift for empathy even for the most damaged people; I never stop being astonished by her poem “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon.,” which imagines the home life of the white woman whom Emmett Till supposedly whistled at–the alleged act that served as a “justification” for white men to lynch a black child. The title suggests a strong contrast between this white woman and Till’s mother, but the poem depicts a world in which both women are hostage to violent white masculinity.
…But there was a something about the matter of the Dark Villain.
He should have been older, perhaps.
The hacking down of a villain was more fun to think about
When his menace possessed undisputed breadth, undisputed height,
And a harsh kind of vice.
And best of all, when his history was cluttered
With the bones of many eaten knights and princesses.
The fun was disturbed, then all but nullified
When the Dark Villain was a blackish child
Of fourteen, with eyes still too young to be dirty,
And a mouth too young to have lost every reminder
Of its infant softness.
In Brooks’s voice, this woman realizes that her husband is a child-murderer, despite the stories her people tell themselves about the threats to fragile white womanhood. If the man she lives with can kill one child, what would stop him from killing another?
Suddenly she felt his hands upon her. He had followed her
To the window. The children were whimpering now.
Such bits of tots. And she, their mother,
Could not protect them. She looked at her shoulders, still
Gripped in the claim of his hands. She tried, but could not resist the idea
That a red ooze was seeping, spreading darkly, thickly, slowly,
Over her white shoulders, her own shoulders,
And over all of Earth and Mars.
To complement (and complicate) this terrifying poem, Brooks has a followup, “The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till,” reminding us that the story of these two women can never be separated. She kisses her killed boy. / And she is sorry.
I could go on; Brooks’s career spanned five decades, including some of the most profound social changes the US has ever seen. You can see this in some of her lovely, spare tributes to writers and other public figures:
In the breath
Of the holocaust, he
Is helmsman, hatchet, headlight.
(from “Langston Hughes”)
Brooks was one of the great chroniclers of black American life in the twentieth century–which means she was one of the great chroniclers of America, period. For example, in her famous long poem, “In the Mecca,” she incorporates vernacular speech and modernist documentary poetics to depict the abduction and murder of a little girl in the projects. It’s daring, harrowing work, a more starkly political analysis of the many ways in which poverty and racism lead black Americans to “die soon.”
One of Brooks’s signature poetic moves is to reverse the pseudo-anthropological gaze of many well-meaning white Americans during the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras. The most important word in the title “In the Mecca” is, I think, in. In the hands of a less brilliant writer, such a poem could easily turn into poverty porn, but Brooks’s work is never exploitative. In fact, she sometimes writes of the desire white Americans have to go “slumming” in Bronzeville (and, by extension, in her work, as her debut was titled A Street in Bronzeville):
They get to Benvenuti’s. There are booths
To hide in while observing tropical truths
About this–dusky folk, so clamorous!
So colorfully incorrect,
So flatly brave!
Boothed-in, one can detect,
One knows and scarcely knows what to expect.
(from “I love those little booths at Benvenuti’s”)
In the volume Annie Allen, that poem is followed by one that reverses this pilgrimage. While the white Chicagoans venture to the South Side to see the “dusky folk,” the speaker and her friends drive through what Brooks calls “Beverly Hills, Chicago,” and try to maintain compassion in the face of the appalling wealth gap:
…Not that anybody is saying that these people have no trouble.
Merely that it is trouble with a gold-flecked beautiful banner.
Nobody is saying that these people do not ultimately cease to be. And
Sometimes their passings are even more painful than ours.
It is just that so often they live till their hair is white.
They make excellent corpses, among the expensive flowers…
Nobody is furious. Nobody hates these people.
At least, nobody driving by in this car.
It is only natural, however, that it should occur to us
How much more fortunate they are than we are.
(from “Beverly Hills, Chicago”)
I think of Brooks’s work as a direct ancestor of Claudia Rankine’s incredible poetry and prose about mourning as “the condition of black life.” The end of the above poem beautifully embodies this constant, submerged bereavement:
We do not want them to have less.
But it is only natural that we should think we have not enough.
We drive on, we drive on.
When we speak to each other our voices are a little gruff.
In other words: Black Lives Matter. Black writing matters. Go read Gwendolyn Brooks; she’s been waiting for you.
Laura Passin is a writer, professor, and feminist at large. She holds a PhD from Northwestern and an MFA from the University of Oregon. Her writing has recently appeared in Prairie Schooner, Bellevue Literary Review, Adrienne: A Poetry Journal of Queer Women, The Archipelago, and Best New Poets 2013. She also writes a quasi-regular newsletter about feminism, poetry, and pop culture called Postcards from a One-Woman Army. Laura lives in Portland with too many cats.