Angela Jackson: A Surprised Queenhood in the New Black Sun: The Life and Legacy of Gwendolyn Brooks (Beacon Press, 2017)

I – who have ‘gone the gamut’ from an almost angry rejection of my dark skin by some of my brainwashed brothers and sisters to a surprised queenhood in the new black sun – am qualified to enter at least the kindergarten of new consciousness now … I have hopes for myself.” – Gwendolyn Brooks, from Report from Part One (Broadside Press, 1972)

Called by poet Major Jackson “a celebration of Brooks’ life as a mentor and unwavering light to generations of American writers,” and “a remarkable achievement” by Pulitzer Prize winning poet Gregory Pardlo (Digest, 2014), in A Surprised Queenhood in the New Black Sun: The Life and Legacy of Gwendolyn Brooks – the first African American writer ever to win a Pulitzer – poet and fellow Chicagoan Angela Jackson, using forty-three of Brooks’ poems as a guide, has gathered enough  information about Brooks’ long career, publishing volumes of poetry over almost half a century, to fill a book twice as long as this one, commemorating the centenary of her birth.

Bronzeville and beyond. A bookish and shy child, Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) from around the age of eleven wrote poems in notebooks she kept in a desk her father had bought for her (“Her desk was her headquarters” – Jackson), encouraged by a mother supportive of her efforts.

And by the time Harper & Brothers published her first volume of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville (1945), 28-year old Gwendolyn Brooks had already written poems like the old-marrieds, kitchenette building, the mother (on abortion, illegal then, highly contested even today), a song in the front yard, Sadie and Maud, when you have forgotten Sunday: the love story, and of De Witt Williams on his way to the Lincoln Cemetery – to name some of the poems from the A Street in Bronzeville-section that Angela Jackson ‘reads’ and analyses.

Negro Hero is subtitled to suggest Dorie Miller, the mess attendant and ship’s cook in a segregated Navy not allowing Negroes to carry arms and fight, manning an anti-aircraft gun during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii in 1941: “I had to kick their law into their teeth so save them,” subsequently becoming the first African American to receive the Navy Cross for valour.

Angela Jackson calls The Sundays of Satin Legs Smith, a ‘zoot-suiter’, one of Brooks’ signature pieces, and of the closing sequence of twelve wartime sonnets of young black men in harm’s way, she writes: “Certain parts … are exquisite; all are deeply moving. The sonnet Gay Chaps at the Bar is superb,” using a letter from lieutenant William Couch in the South Pacific as an epigraph for the title poem, indeed the whole sequence: “… and guys I knew in the States, young officers, return from the front crying and trembling. Gay chaps at the bar in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York …

“Pulitzer Prize-winning” poet. Encouraged by her editor at Harper & Brothers to pursue poems more ‘universal’, that is to say less blatantly about the African American experience than A Street in Bronzeville, Gwendolyn Brooks responded with Annie Allen (1949). And in 1950 she became the first African American writer to win a Pulitzer Prize, henceforth referred to as the “Pulitzer Prize-winning” poet, making her something of a celebrity among blacks and whites alike.

According to Jackson, in Annie Allen, especially the middle section, The Anniad, Brooks “chooses language that offers entrance to the classical European tradition – language that proves that a black woman who is a poet can be as difficult as T.S. Eliot … The Anniad requires study to understand it (if one ever really does),” even as she acknowledges the “overwhelming artistry” of the poem.

The fifteen poems of The Womanhood, the concluding section of Annie Allen, divided into twenty-one pieces, offers other fine examples of Gwendolyn Brooks’ art in poems like the children of the poor (“First fight. Then Fiddle”), the rites for Cousin Vit, I love those little booths at Benvenuti’s, and Beverly Hills, Chicago (“and people live till they have white hair” – E.M. Price).  

Maud Martha (1953), Gwendolyn Brooks’ only novel, divided into 34 short chapters covering Maud Martha’s girlhood and family, courtships, work experience and experiences in the world of Black Chicago, married life, colorism (if you’re light and have long hair), pregnancies and motherhood, neighbors (kitchenette folks – the longest vignette), sickness, war, racism and sexism, became a favorite with the next generations of African American women novelists.

Among the poems from The Bean Eaters (1960) that Angela Jackson discusses, are the title poem: “They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair./ Dinner is a casual affair./ …”; Lovers of the Poor, visiting a run-down ‘ghetto’ tenement in search of “the worthy poor” to give money to; and A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi, Meanwhile, A Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon, focused on the white woman Emmett Till allegedly whistle at – leading to the 1955 lynching of the 14 year old Chicagoan –, followed by a companion piece, The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till.            

We Real Cool. The Pool Players./ Seven at the Golden Shovel./ is Gwendolyn’s most well-known poem, a poem Angela Jackson calls “a model of compression, economy, and rhythm.” The poem may be well-known, but Jackson’s reading of the poem asks us to go beyond its surface brilliance: “It is an unforgettable portrait of lost young men of color … estranged from their community … These young men die from homicide or neglect, medical or social.”

“I am moving”: From Negro to Black. Gwendolyn Brooks’ relationship to Harper was not always unproblematic. An example: the illustrations to Bronzeville Boys and Girls (1956), her first book of poems for children and young readers, were of white children. Black lives less than white ones?

Gwendolyn Brooks was not pleased with Harper’s decision to ‘universalize’ her happy memories of a joyous childhood in an African American family in Chicago’s Bronzeville. (Illustrated by African American artist Faith Ringgold, the book was finally reissued by HarperCollins in 2007).      

But it was Gwendolyn Brooks’ participation at the historic Second Annual Writers Conference at Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee, in the spring of 1967, attended by leading writers of the Black Power/Black Arts Movement, the “children of Malcolm X” (LeRoi Jones had changed his name to Amiri Baraka), that finally caused Gwendolyn Brooks to leave Harper for Dudley Randall’s Broadside Press and Don L. Lee/Haki R. Madhubuti’s Third World Press.

And, Angela Jackson calling it “Gwendolyn’s most artistically revolutionary work,” In the Mecca (1968) was the last volume of new poems to be published by what was now Harper & Row.      

Following a Mrs. Sallie’s search for her missing child in the huge Mecca Flats Building, where a young Brooks had witnessed “murders, loves, loneliness, hates, jealousies. Hope occurred, and charity, sainthood, glory, shame, despair, fear, altruism,” it describes a spectrum of black humanity.

The long title poem begins: “Sit where the light corrupts your face./ Miës Van der Rohe retires from grace./ And the fair fables fall./…” And parts of poems in the After Mecca section can be no less challenging: Malcom X (for Dudley Randall), The Chicago Picasso, The Wall, the famous South Side mural with its portraits of black heroes, Gwendolyn Brooks among them, The Blackstone Rangers (“There they are./ Thirty at the corner./ Black, raw, ready./ Sores in the city/ that do not want to heal./ …”, The Sermon of The Warpland, and The Second Sermon of The Warpland

There were no major new collections of poetry after In the Mecca, but the more than a dozen poetry pamphlets/chapbooks published by Broadside Press and Third World Press (and her own Brooks Press and The David Company) never the less contain a number of her best known poems: Riot (A riot is the language of the unheard – Martin Luther King), The Third Sermon of the Warpland, The Life of Lincoln West, The Boy Died in My Alley (“The red floor of my alley/ is a special speech to me/.”), To Those of My Sisters Who Kept Their Naturals, and The Near-Johannesburg Boy.

BLACK. Brooks called her 1987 volume of collected works (all the poems and the novel Maud Martha published by Harper, and selections from her later books of poetry) Blacks. And in her last volume, Children Coming Home (The David Company, 1991), the poem I Am A Black explains why she prefers Black (capitalized) to African-American. Kojo, one of the children, speaks:

“According to my Teachers,/ I am now an African-American.// They call me out of my name.// BLACK is an open umbrella./ …// I am one of the Blacks.// We are Here, we are There./ We occur in Brazil, in Nigeria, Ghana,/ in Botswana, Tanzania, in Kenya,/ in Russia, Australia, in Haiti, Soweto,/ in Grenada, in Cuba, in Panama, Libya,/ in England and Italy, France.// We are graces in any places./ I am a Black and A Black/ forever.// I am other than Hyphenation.// …”

Among her many honors, teaching positions and workshops, in 1985 Gwendolyn Brooks was appointed the 29th poetry consultant (today the U.S. poet laureate) to the Library of Congress.

IN A FINAL CHAPTER, Immortality of a Kind, Angela Jackson has gathered tributes from critics and poets Brooks mentored or influenced. Haki R. Madhubuti, her ‘cultural son’, close family friend and publisher at Third World Press of ten of her books, including Blacks and In Montgomery, and Other Poems (2003), writes: “… she was our kindness/ there will be no final words.”

Critic Reginald Gibbons: “She was not only a virtuoso with language and the poetic line, but she was also the kind of poet who can remake herself, in her artistic development over a long life, and create new work that extends her reach.” And there are several other tributes.

Poet Patricia Spears Jones sums it up this way: “Gwendolyn Brooks’ long literary life is a model of moving from Negro to Black. But it seems to me, she was Black always.