Angela Jackson, A Surprised Queenhood in the New Black Sun: The Life and Legacy of Gwendolyn Brooks.
A few days after the 2017 presidential inauguration, hundreds of defeated Chicagoans packed into an Art Institute auditorium. There, each of the five African American poets who have won a Pulitzer Prize since 1950-the year in which Gwendolyn Brooks shattered that ceiling--gathered for the first of many centenaries honoring Brooks's birth. The readings moved the crowd, but the setting felt slightly off, in that Brooks did not locate the Art Institute at the center of Chicago's cultural life. Her poem "The Lovers of the Poor" chides "The Ladies from the Ladies' Betterment League" who took interest after she won the Pulitzer. They "attend, / When suitable, the nice Art Institute," but never truly widen their sphere of obligations. When Gregory Pardlo recited these well-chosen lines, I thought I detected seat-squirming and jaunty laughter in equal measure.
Perhaps that double reaction was a fitting tribute to "Miss Brooks." In 1967, observing the unveiling of Daley Center Plaza's "Chicago Picasso," she wrote: "Does man love art? Man visits Art, but squirms. / Art hurts." In more than thirty books between 1945 and 2000, Brooks wove together high praise for Chicago's Black cultural life and searing observations about the city's logics of exclusion. By the 1960s, her lyric virtuosity, her skill at dignifying what Richard Wright called "the pathos of petty destinies," and her embrace of the "new black consciousness" had earned her an inarguable reputation as the greatest poet of Chicago, a reputation confirmed by her lifetime appointment as Illinois Poet Laureate from 1968-2000 and as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1985.
Keen to serve as a literary citizen, Brooks shared these ever-larger platforms with the young poets she shepherded through workshops. Southsider Angela Jackson first attended Brooks's 1967 writing workshop through the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC), at a moment when Brooks assumed a matriarchal role in the Chicago wing of the Black Arts Movement (BAM). Gladly, we now have Jackson's slender biography of her friend and mentor: A Surprised Queenhood in the New Black Sun: The Life and Legacy of Gwendolyn Brooks. A broad-mindedly appealing and well-researched account, it interprets the achievements of Brooks's poetry for new readers, and contextualizes them in the city's history. Though some episodes hew closely to George E. Kent's 1990 biography, it is among the strongest reassertions, since Brooks's 2000 death, of her importance to civic life, cultural politics, and literary expression in the city she called her "headquarters" and in the lines that she traced beyond it.
Brooks was born in July 1917, two months after the US entered World War I and two years before the Red Summer of 1919. Her family supported her literary talents--her mother Keziah dubbed her "the lady Paul Laurence Dunbar"--even when they became Depression-era "bean eaters" or when Brooks came to know both racism and "the sting of colorism" at school and work. In the 1930s, the Black-owned newspaper the Chicago Defender published seventy-five poems from her juvenilia, but in 1937, publisher Robert Abbott rejected her application as a journalist, showing a bias against dark-skinned "Negroes." Resiliently, the young Brooks briefly published her own mimeograph newspaper and years later invented a new genre of "verse journalism."
Despite such sources of alienation, Jackson argues that Brooks's writing emerged from a progressive matrix of Chicago community activism and African American institution building. She joined the liberal NAACP Youth Council in 1937, serving as its publicist, and the Marxists in the South Side Writers' Group influenced her as well. In the 1940s, librarian Vivian Harsh's reading forum amplified her voice, and the "Visionaries" writing workshop, led by rebellious Gold Coast socialite Inez Stark, nourished her talents. In Stark's circle, Brooks explored modernist techniques, an education that sharpened the elbows of the poems in her first book.
The ballads, obituaries, persona poems, and sonnets of A Street in Bronzeville (1945) paid humane attentions to the plaints and petitions of lives in Black Belt Chicago. These taut and tonally diverse poems record the wartime heroism of Negro conscripts, Bronzeville nightlife and the pretensions of its zoot suiters, and romantic love as a seed of experience. They honor the social experiences of those cramped into the kitchenette apartment buildings caused by urban housing shortages and segregation, those who dream "through onion fumes" and "think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it." Others represented the kitchenettes (one thinks of Charles White's stunning WPA-era paintings), but Jackson emphasizes Brooks's talent for expressing "drylongso," a hard-bitten idiom of African American ordinariness.
Acclaim for A Street in Bronzeville came with some demurrals. Richard Wright wrote a glowing endorsement for their shared publisher, but he felt that Brooks should not publish "The Mother," a complex portrait of a woman who has aborted a child. Langston Hughes insinuated that the impressive debut was undercut by the resentment expressed in "The Ballad of Pearl May Lee," in which a Black woman recounts her colored lover's death after his affair with a white woman goes bad. Disagreeing with Wright and Hughes, Jackson regards Brooks as the "revolutionary black feminist" of her time for addressing these themes.
If A Street in Bronzeville married technical skill to social commitment, Annie Allen (1949) intensified Brooks's concern with technique. The central poem, a mock epic entitled "The Anniad" (after Virgil's Aeneid), links the volume to that anxious mid-century corridor when many American poets wrote modernist statement poems valuing their own difficulty. High seriousness partly earned Brooks her Pulitzer. As the poet Vievee Francis has recently remarked, the white judges seemed relieved to praise her technical dexterity above her concern for Black life. Jackson points out that Iowa poet Paul Engle offered backhanded praise of A Street in Bronzeville for transcending the racial specificity of African American poetry, and that he may have first established this too-frequent pattern of response to Brooks.
Despite her newfound stature, Brooks struggled through the early 1950s. Married to Henry Blakely Sr. since 1939, in 1951 she gave birth to her second child, Nora, and the family sought to advance out of their kitchenette. Balancing the twin labors of motherhood and literature, Brooks churned out reviews, the experimental novel Maud Martha (1953), and searching essays explaining racism to her children. Finally, she and Henry put together the down payment on a house. Some of Brooks's great poems belong to the subsequent decade of civil rights organizing, when she held an integrationist outlook even while protest reigned in her striking poem for Emmett Till or in the anticipatory elegy for the seven anonymous billiard boys in her signature poem "We Real Cool."
Jackson's biography comes alive after the key year of 1967, when Brooks discovered her "surprised queenhood in the new black sun," as she put it in her 1972 autobiography. Jackson, like many before her, describes Brooks's attendance at the 1967 Fisk Writers' Conference as an "epiphany." Confronted by a fearless generation of young Black artists such as Amiri Baraka, who favored Black unity over the politics of respectability, the fifty-year-old Brooks devoted herself afresh to "Black Familyhood, Black Community, and Black World." The same month that Brooks satirized the Chicago Picasso, her poem "The Wall" instead held aloft OBAC and Jeff Donaldson's Wall of Respect, a public mural painted on an exterior at 43rd St. and Langley. Simultaneously, Brooks began to withdraw from her longtime New York publisher Harper in order to embrace the BAM's radical Midwest publishing ecology, especially Dudley Randall's Broadside Press in Detroit, and later Haki R. Madhubuti's Third World Press in Chicago.
Madhubuti, known in the 1960s as Don L. Lee, was another young writer who joined Brooks in the OBAC workshop. There, Brooks encouraged writing from even the young men of the Blackstone Rangers gang in Woodlawn. Later, she complexly regarded the Rangers as "Sores in the city / that do not want to heal" but also as "a monstrous pearl or grace." Over the next decades, Brooks's literary reputation often seemed susceptible to high cultural pluralism, but Jackson shows how she remained focused on promoting creative expression in public primary schools, community arts organizations, prisons, and working-class public universities. She later taught alongside Madhubuti at schools hardest hit by recent austerity, such as Chicago State University.
Her greatest literary achievement from the "surprised queenhood" era Is In the Mecca (1968), her last book with Harper. The youthful Brooks had worked in 1934 as the assistant to E. N. French, a predatory "spiritual adviser" at the Mecca Flats Building. A grand hotel built for the 1893 Columbian Exhibition, the Mecca had subsequently depreciated as a Black tenement. As George Kent once noted, she felt complicit as she delivered the minister's "Holy Thunderbolts" of spiritual fakery to the residents. After she quit, it took her decades to organize these reflections into poetry. Jackson is uncharacteristically spotty on this important detail, but by then the Mecca had long been demolished, making way for Mies van der Rohe's Illinois Institute of Technology campus. Brooks opens In the Mecca by inviting readers to "Sit where the light corrupts your face, / Mies van der Rohe retires from grace. / And the fair fables fall." As in her "Two Dedications" to the Chicago Picasso and the Wall of Respect, Brooks sought a vision that refused to dichotomize the "fair fables" of ordinary African American life from Chicago's clean slates of modern architectural and artistic experiment.
I wrote above that Brooks traced lines beyond Chicago. These included the Great Migration's complex lines back to the South, and lines of white flight to the suburbs. As early as 1949, "Beverly Hills, Chicago" mused on a wealthy neighborhood as viewed by Black passersby: "We do not want them to have less. / But it is only natural that we should think we have not enough." Lines of international solidarity also forged Brooks's community vision. Jackson recounts Brooks's travels to Kenya and Tanzania in the Pan-African mood of the 1970s, her strong support of South African poets such as Keorapetse "Willie" Kgositsile, and her poetic contributions to the anti-Apartheid movement. Jackson further details a Cold War cultural diplomacy mission to Kiev and Moscow in 1982, in the odd company of Studs Terkel, Erica Jong, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and Susan Sontag. Brooks fearlessly advocated for worldwide Blackness, and amusingly got the better of a sanctimonious Sontag when Sontag interrupted her to answer a journalist's question about the meaning of being Black.
A stray line from Annie Allen reads: "How pinchy is my room! how can I breathe!" For Jackson, "eerily, these words call to mind the 'I can't breathe!' cry of Eric Garner," and she frequently suggests that Brooks is a "foremother" of the contemporary movement for Black Lives. Jackson also hears these politics whisper in the softly-pronounced we of "We Real Cool"; she hears them weep in "The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till"; and she hears them roar by 1969, when Brooks published "Riot," a poem imagining the Black anger following the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination as it destroys a wealthy North Shore white man:
Because the Poor were sweaty and unpretty (not like Two Dainty Negroes in Winnetka) and they were coming toward him in rough ranks. In seas. In windsweep. They were black and loud. And not detainable. And not discreet.
Extraordinary lines like these rang out for many during the Ferguson and Baltimore uprisings of recent years. But the strength of Jackson's biography, in reclaiming Brooks as a literary-political "foremother," is to attune us to the whispering, weeping, and breathing in every Brooks poem. For Brooks, the cultural center of Chicago was forever in the ordinary insistences of Black lives.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2019|
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