Writers who possess god-like qualities with their pens enable readers to make better sense of the world. One of the world’s most celebrated and effective wordsmiths, Gwendolyn Brooks, has done just that with poetry by shedding light on the black experience for most of the 20th century. Born in Topeka, Kansas in 1917, her family moved to Chicago as part of the Great Migration when she was only six weeks old. Imaginative and curious, Brooks began penning scribes as an innocent seven-year-old. From that day forward, the late Brooks wrote a poem every day for the rest of her life, which unfortunately ended on Dec. 3, 2000, as result of cancer.
It was in the bustling Bronzeville, a.k.a. the Black Metropolis section of Southside Chicago that created an energy of inspiration for Brooks’ poetry. In fact, her first anthology of poems, fittingly titled A Street in Bronzeville, gave rise to her status as a who’s who among fellow literary giants like Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, and James Baldwin. After garnering several publications and winning writing fellowships, Brooks became the first African-American to win the desirous Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for her sophomore book, Annie Allen, in 1950.
Award-winning poet and Chicago resident, Angela Jackson, decided to pay homage to Brooks’ bold genius with a brilliant biography of the late writer’s life titled, A Surprised Queenhood in the New Black Sun: The Life and Legacy of Gwendolyn Brooks (Beacon Press). Jackson, who holds degrees from Northwestern University and the University of Chicago, has won a handful of awards for her work, including the TriQuarterly’s Daniel Curley Award and Poetry Society of America’s Shelley Memorial Award, among others. Her publications include Voo Doo/Love Magic, Dark Legs and Silk Kisses: The Beatitudes of the Spinners, Shango Diaspora: An African-American Myth of Womanhood and Love, and several others.
VIBE spoke with Jackson about her new book, Brooks’ childhood as well as her writing habits, and much more.
VIBE: Why tell Gwendolyn Brooks’ story?
Angela Jackson: An editor at Beacon Press, Rakia Clark, called me and asked me to write the story of Gwendolyn Brooks for the 100th anniversary of her birth, June 7, 2017. Rakia Clark got my name from Dr. Jacqueline Goldsby. I emailed Nora Brooks Blakely, Ms. Brooks’ daughter who is also a friend of mine, and asked her if it would be okay if I attempted to tell her mother’s story. I had just lost my own mother and welcomed the loving and intense task. Nora said yes.
Can you discuss some of the extraordinary habits that Brooks developed as a writer during her childhood?
Gwendolyn Brooks wrote every day from around the age of seven. She read all the time when she wasn’t writing or playing with her paper dolls or studying the sky from the back steps. When she was young, her mother relieved her of chores so she could practice her craft. Her mother and father believed in her talent and helped her to nurture it. Her father bought her a second–hand desk. Gwendolyn made her room her literary headquarters, sending out her work, being rejected, then sending out more. She never gave up. She published her first poems in a neighborhood paper. Then she published her first poem in a national magazine when she was thirteen. She published regularly in the Chicago Defender, the famed black newspaper.
Is Brooks responsible for birthing the Chicago Black Renaissance? This generation—myself included—does not know much about the Chicago Black Renaissance.
The Chicago Black Renaissance took place from the 1930s ‘til the 1960s, and Gwendolyn Brooks as she matured in the late 1930s, was very much a part of it. She by no means started it. It was a product of the Great Migration, making Chicago an epicenter of cultural activity. One of the factors that caused the Chicago Black Renaissance was the WPA and its employment of black and other writers to collect stories of the people. At that time, there were writers’ groups that came into being. One group was led by Richard Wright and included Gwendolyn’s age-mate poet and novelist, Margaret Walker. Gwendolyn, her future husband Henry Blakely Jr., Margaret Danner, and Margaret Burroughs were all a part of the YWCA Youth Council. They were recruited by a white socialite-poetry teacher to join in a workshop at the South Side Community Art Center. Gwendolyn was a devoted member of the group sometimes called The Visionaries. The Chicago Black Renaissance was a phenomenon of not just literature but visual arts and theater as well. Langston Hughes worked in theater in Chicago for a time. From 1941-1949, Brooks said that she and her husband attended and gave parties for this vibrant art community. They talked ideas and how to help their people achieve equality, justice, and better lives. They ate and listened to blues and jazz. Cultural critics are just starting to look at the Chicago Black Renaissance. They were fascinated with the Harlem Renaissance. Soon they will explore the Chicago Black Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement. It’s begun.
Richard Wright and James Baldwin were instrumental to Brooks’ career. What was it about her or her writing that Wright and Baldwin liked so much?
Richard Wright was asked to serve as a reader of Gwendolyn Brooks’ first book “A Street in Bronzevile” by Harper and Brothers. Harper and Brothers was also his publisher. Wright was highly enthusiastic about Ms. Brooks’ work. He found it raw and “real.” He didn’t think the work was false in any way or appealed to a white audience with stereotypes of black people. He believed she genuinely captured black life. I am not sure what Baldwin said about Miss Brooks’ work. I know he approved of her enough to attend a party at the Blakely home. Young Nora was a witness.
She wrote about abortion? How was that perceived during those days?
When Richard Wright read her first book for Harper and Brothers, he supported all but one poem. That poem was “the mother.” He did not think that abortion was a fit topic for poetry. Wright urged that the poem be taken out of the volume. Ms. Brooks insisted that “the mother” be included. She was adamant. “The mother” is a powerful poem that does not speak for or against abortions. It eloquently captures the emotions of a woman—regret, sorrow, loss, guilt. It is unforgettable. It speaks hauntingly to women even now. It was revolutionary in 1945. At that time abortions were illegal and only whispered about. They were often done under unsanitary conditions. Ms. Brooks shed light on the subject. She was courageous.
Can you share with us one, or two intriguing sonnets from Brooks, and explain their meaning?
Just about all of Gwendolyn Brooks’ sonnets are intriguing. She was and is a master of the form. Her sonnets are some of the world’s greatest.
First fight. Then fiddle.
Win war. Rise bloody, maybe not too late
Wherein to play your violin with grace.
I read this as a poem about the effort we as black folk must make to achieve justice. After justice, then peace.
Did she recognize the moment[s] when she knew that she grew as a writer?
Gwendolyn Brooks grew as a poet when she attended the Visionaries Workshop and deepened her thinking and technique. With each volume, she grew. From A Street in Bronzeville’s blues and jazz rhythms to the elevated diction of Pulitzer Prize-winning Annie Allen to the ascending social consciousness of The Bean Eaters to the tour de force, and black addressed, In the Mecca, she grew. In the Mecca followed her most transforming growth from Negro to Black. This change happened after she attended the Fisk Writers Conference in 1967. After that, she became friends with revolutionary-minded black poets like Don L. Lee (now Haki Madhubuti), Carolyn Rodgers, Walter Bradford, Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez. She began to develop a lean, stripped poetry to speak to a wider black audience. She switched to black publishers— Broadside and Third World Press. Let’s not forget that she had written one excellent novel, “Maud Martha.” She wrote two autobiographies: “Report from Part One” and [“Report from Part] Two.”
Would you describe Brooks as a civil rights activist?
Gwendolyn Brooks was a serious poet and writer whose work was always on the frontlines of black activist thought. She was an activist. When lynching was the question, she wrote “The Ballad of Pearl May Lee.” When black housing and white riots were the question, she wrote “The Ballad of Rudolph Reed.” She wrote about Emmett Till, Little Rock, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Harold Washington, Winnie and Nelson Mandela, the near Johannesburg boy, and the boy who died in her alley, killed by another.
How does her story and imagination connect with today’s generation?
Like today’s young rappers and poets, Ms. Brooks early on kept notebooks of her rhymes. She practiced her craft every day and she wrote about what she saw around her and she wrote about her feelings. She was in tune with her time like rappers today. She always envisioned herself as a poet, just as young poets and rappers do now. They see themselves working in words. They see the limitless potential of working in words. She was devoted to black people and all of humanity and I believe the best of today’s generation are as well.
What’s your favorite poem by Brooks and why?
My favorite poem by Ms. Brooks changes with my mood. Right now, “The Sermon on the Warpland” is a subtle, magnificent sermon to black people on how we must be steadfast, ethical, united and empathetic in our liberation movement as a community. I also love “Truth” and “To Be in Love.”
What’s the most important lesson that you’ve learned from Brooks?
As a poet, I learned from Gwendolyn Brooks that I am a student before each poem. She never considered herself a master. She was humble. In a certain sense, we are all students of this great black woman poet-activist.
A Surprised Queenhood in the New Black Sun: The Life and Legacy of Gwendolyn Brooks is available for purchase here.