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The Fight for Civil Rights in the Poems of Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks


by Chloe Butler


    Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks was the first black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for her poetry. Not only a poet, but an author and teacher as well, Gwendolyn brooks strived to make her voice heard. She was born on June 17, 1917 in Topeka, Kansas, but moved to Chicago during the great migration when she was six weeks old. She published her first poem in a children's magazine at the age of thirteen. In 1939, she married her husband, Henry Lowington Blakely Jr. She and him had two children. Throughout her lifetime, Gwendolyn brooks fought hard for civil rights during the 1960’s, earned several awards such as the Robert Frost Medal and the Eunice Tietjens Prize, held the positions of Poet Laureate of Illinois and Poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, and died on December 3, 2000.

    Gwendolyn Brooks focused mostly on the black urban poor who deserved to hold more rights than they were given. She is a modern and postmodern poet, writing in the period of 1930- 2000. Her characters in many works took pride in who they were and what they believed in. Notable works of Brooks’ include poems such as: “We Real Cool,” “RIOT,” “A Sunset of the City,’ and “truth.” She also published collections of her poetry such as Annie Allen and A Street In Bronzeville, as well as a novel titled Maud Martha. With a variety of literary achievements, Brooks took a specific approach to her work. She mainly focused on holding a political consciousness, especially from the 1960’s and the civil rights activism displayed in this period, as well as the fear that came with it.. Her voice rang loud and strong in the ears of the young black Americans who were struggling, and the hope they all collectively shared between one another. Other themes of hers include fear, morality, and early deaths because of wars and the fights for civil rights.

    Fear is a significant topic throughout Gwendolyn Brooks’ works. For example, her poem “truth” is about the fear we hold of impending truth. It’s something we cannot avoid, and yet it’s still looming over heads. She used the pronouns of he/him when describing the negativity of truth, which refers to the patriarchal times of the time period.

“And if sun comes
How shall we greet him?
Shall we not dread him,
Shall we not fear him
After so lengthy a
Session with shade? /
Though we have wept for him,
Though we have prayed
All through the night-years—
What if we wake one shimmering morning to
Hear the fierce hammering
Of his firm knuckles
Hard on the door?” (Brooks 1-13)
The multiple used of male pronouns strengthen the unease the reader and speaker feels when faced with truth. The speaker understands that truth is coming no matter what. The fear exhibited from truth is justified by the first two stanzas, especially from the line stating, “Shall we not fear him,” explicitly referring to the state of fear. Even though the truth is harsh, people still come back to it because it's better than lies. But, in the poem, the speaker says that it's better to not know the truth by lines 20-22.
“Sweet is it, sweet is it
To sleep in the coolness
Of snug unawareness.” (20-22)
This stanza is basically saying that ignorance is bliss, an example of irony that is expressed in many works of literature. Being contrary to what is normally believed, to be unaware of the truth is less fearful than truth itself. Usually knowing the truth is better than being happy, but in this case, Brooks explains that it’s better to “sleep in the coolness of snug unawareness.”

    As for black aesthetic of the civil rights period, Gwendolyn exudes a loud and proud voice to let the black youth of this time period be heard. With her poem “We Real Cool,” published in her book The Bean Eaters, Brooks talks about seven young teens who go out at night to have fun and enjoy life. The political consciousness of this poem is where civil rights is alluded to. The last line of the poem, after speaking of fun times, says, “we die soon,” (8).

“We real cool. We
Left school. We /
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We /
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We /
Jazz June. We
Die soon.” (1-8)

    The youth being young held a different meaning in 1960 when the peak of the civil rights movement occurred. The last line is very significant because young black people were killed for having fun. Killed for “lurking late,” killed for “singing sin,” killed for being themselves, the black youth lived in perpetual fear. Perhaps this was the truth spoken of in her other poem, “truth.”

    Perhaps her poem, “RIOT,” also mentions fear. But, the fear isn’t from the perspective of black America. This poem shows the fear of rich, privileged white people. Essentially, the subject John Cabot forgets all of his materialistic goods and is immediately shocked when face to face with blacks walking toward him on the street. He screams, “Don’t let It touch me! the blackness! Lord!” (19). The free blacks who crowd the streets tie together in unity and display their prideful voice, too loud to care about racist John Cabot.

“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.” (11-15)
In this poem, Brooks discusses the double standard of what’s left said in private or not said at all. Norris B. Clark, in his literary criticism titled “Gwendolyn Brooks and a Black Aesthetic,” comments on how she develops a voice for her people. He mentions, “her voice is one that recreates the feelings and thoughts of the unheard, as riots do.” The riot mentioned in the title of the poem is the fight for rights exhibited every day by the unification of the black population. Clark’s understanding of Brooks’ black excellence dives deeper into the poem, calling  “for a black dignity and a black pride.” The fear in Brooks’ poetry unifies the black youth fighting for their rights in this time period.

    Gwendolyn Brooks didn’t only write poetry, but she also wrote a novel, Maud Martha. This novel is about a teenage black girl growing up in the 1930’s and 40’s in Chicago with her mother. They both experience heavy amounts of discrimination, including insults to their appearances (race and “ugliness”), economic status, and social exclusion. Mary Helen Washington, in her literary criticism, Taming All That Anger Down': Rage and Silence in Gwendolyn Brooks' Maud Martha, describes the autobiographical heroine’s suppressed rage and anger, self-loathing, and silence. When Maud Martha was published, it received all the backlash a female novel would. It wasn't taken seriously, and “the young black woman heroine was called a ‘spunky Negro girl’ as though the novel were a piece of juvenile fiction.” this point strengthens the arguments made in the book about suppressed rage and silence. Of course Brooks wasn’t going to speak out against the criticism made, instead she held her ground and defended her work respectfully. Washington continues on with the public’s opinion, saying that, “In 1953 no one seemed prepared to call Maud Martha a novel about bitterness, rage, self-hatred and the silence that results from suppressed anger. No one recognized it as a novel dealing with the very sexism and racism that these reviews enshrined. What the reviewers saw as exquisite lyricism was actually the truncated stuttering of a woman whose rage makes her literally unable to speak.” Because this novel is about the silences that Maud Martha faces every day, direct comparisons can be taken from the everyday lives of black Americans. The struggles of Maud Martha stemmed from Brooks’ own experiences, which are heavily prevalent in her other literary works.

    The experiences that Gwendolyn Brooks draws from can be found from every part of her life. In her poem, “A Sunset of the City,” Brooks contemplates the value of living. With everything that she’s been through, is it worth living another day? Throughout this poem, it is made clear that the speaker is ready to embrace death and isn’t afraid anymore. In the first lines, the speaker explains experiences that have swayed her decision. Butler 6

“Already I am no longer looked at with lechery or love.
My daughters and sons have put me away with marbles and dolls,
Are gone from the house.
My husband and lovers are pleasant or somewhat polite   
And night is night.” (1-5)
The difference from her earlier works displaying fight and fear, this poem exhibits acceptance and willingness of death.  Rounding out the poem, middle lines show that this is what the reader wants: for life to be over. He or she has done enough, accomplished what needed to be, and sung the song that welcomes the end.
“It is a real chill out. The fall crisp comes.   
I am aware there is winter to heed.   
There is no warm house
That is fitted with my need.
I am cold in this cold house this house
Whose washed echoes are tremulous down lost halls.
I am a woman, and dusty, standing among new affairs.   
I am a woman who hurries through her prayers.” (13-20)
Her last line shows the severity of the circumstances that have led her to a serious decision, stating, “Somebody muffed it? Somebody wanted to joke,” (28).

    Gwendolyn Brooks, someone who gave the black youth of the civil rights activism period a voice, also shared her own. Her voice and experiences shaped her poetry to reflect the political consciousness of the 1960’s, a time that greatly impacted black America. The fear that they felt, combined with the unity they developed, inspired Brooks to speak out against the ones who silenced her. An accomplished poet, author, teacher, and literary genius, Gwendolyn Brooks fought valiantly alongside civil rights leaders with her writing, and helped express the voice of her community.

Works Cited

Brooks, Gwendolyn. A Sunset of the City. Selected Poems, 1963. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and- poets/poems/detail/43318. Accessed 6 Dec. 2016.
Brooks, Gwendolyn. The Bean Eaters. 1st ed. Harpers, 1960. Print.
Brooks, Gwendolyn. Maud Martha. 1st ed. Harper & Brothers, 1953. Print.
Brooks, Gwendolyn. RIOT. Blacks. Third World Press, 1994.
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and- poets/poems/detail/58377. Accessed 6 Dec. 2016.
Brooks, Gwendolyn. truth. Blacks. Third World Press, 1987. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and- poets/poems/detail/54810. Accessed 6 Dec. 2016.
Clark, Norris B. "Gwendolyn Brooks and a Black Aesthetic." Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Daniel G. Marowski and Roger Matuz, vol. 49, Gale, 1988. Literature Resource Center, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LitRC&sw=w&u=paci91811&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CH1100 002795&it=r&asid=f198305e3ed2e6ed126096b393f14996. Accessed 6 Dec. 2016.
Originally published in A Life Distilled: Gwendolyn Brooks, Her Poetry and Fiction, edited by Maria K. Mootry and Gary Smith, University of Illinois Press, 1987, pp. 81-99.
Washington, Mary Helen. "Taming All That Anger Down': Rage and Silence in Gwendolyn Brooks' Maud Martha." Contemporary Literary Criticism Select, Gale, 2008. Literature Resource Center, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LitRC&sw=w&u=paci91811&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CH1100 019590&it=r&asid=5fd5a9a26f2c955f7540334b0b7d2ebd. Accessed 6 Dec. 2016.
Originally published in Massachusetts Review, vol. 24, no. 2, Summer 1983, pp. 453- 466.

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