“It was not natural. And she was the first.” With these words, June Jordan opens her incisive and deeply moving essay on poet Phillis Wheatley, whose emergence from the hold of the slaveship that “brought [her] to America” (Wheatley’s words) into a precocious, philosophical poethood (in the second of her three languages) was nothing short of a miracle. That Suzannah and John Wheatley happened to be at the slave auction on the day she was to be sold, that they decided to be the ones to purchase “that [frail] Black girl standing on the platform,” that they named her for the slaveship on which she arrived, that she survived this burden along with all the others she had to carry, and that she lived and learned and discovered within herself “an intrinsic ardor” (Wheatley’s words) to create poetry—this was a miracle. “Was it a nice day?” Jordan asks, as she invites us to imagine that auction block. “Does it matter?”
Gwendolyn Brooks was born in the year 1917 and raised by her parents in Chicago, Illinois. Though her father was supporting a family of four on a custodian’s salary (because her mother stopped teaching to stay at home with her children), she had what long passed in Black America as a middle-class upbringing, complete with a single-family home, regular access to books and music, a belief in cleanliness and education, and her parents’ expectation that she would grow up to be something as outrageously wonderful (and yet racially circumscribed) as “the lady Paul Laurence Dunbar.” That Brooks went on to write poetry beginning at around the same early age that Wheatley had and continuing until the golden age of eighty-three, to win the 1950 Pulitzer Prize, become poet laureate of Illinois, serve as (de facto) poet laureate of the United States, and earn the love and admiration of poets and readers of poetry across all walks of life in this country and beyond—well, it was still not quite natural. And, in each of these achievements, in one way or another, she was the first.
On the occasion of Brooks’s centennial, we might look back at 1917 and ask: was it a good year? At a conference in her honor this spring, held at the DuSable Museum of African American History and the University of Chicago, I gave a paper that asked what we might learn about Brooks’s career by examining it in the context of those of her black “female contemporaries” (a phrase borrowed from the title of the panel I was on). If we consider the poets in her generational cohort—born within ten years before or ten years after her birth—we see her as one of the youngest women to develop artistically as a part of the “Chicago Renaissance.” Brooks, along with Margaret Walker, Margaret Danner, and Margaret Taylor Burroughs, was able to take advantage of the collective literary energy and supportive environment generated by, first, the South Side Writers Group (initially organized by Richard Wright) and, slightly later, the Modernist poetry workshop that also met at the South Side Community Art Center (led by Poetry magazine board member Inez Cunningham Stark). It’s no coincidence that Brooks and Walker—virtually the only two black women poets of their generation to achieve wide national recognition and sustain active careers over the course of more than five decades—both emerged from this milieu. That Brooks, with her uniquely wonderful blend of brilliance and curiosity, ambition and selflessness, was born in just the right time and place for a young black woman to be encouraged in her literary aspirations and nurtured in her art—this, too, was a miracle.
Brooks had very few black women poets as contemporaries, in this generational sense, whether within the Chicago Renaissance cohort or not (Mari Evans, Naomi Long Madgett, and Pinkie Gordon Lane help round out this small group). But even taking a more expansive view of “contemporaries”—to include earlier black women poets whose lives overlapped with Brooks’—we find her surrounded largely by figures whose careers either trailed off prematurely (Anne Spencer, Angelina Weld Grimké, Helene Johnson, and Gwendolyn Bennett, for example) or didn’t really get underway until they were nearly twice as old as Brooks had been when she started placing her mature work (such as Evans and Lane). That she came into her own as a poet at a moment when it was feasible for her to be taken up by journals like Poetry and Negro Story Magazine, to sign on with a publisher like Harper, and to have her second book come before a Pulitzer jury that didn’t include the likes of Wallace Stevens was the early miracle that made possible the later ones—notable among which was the miracle of being both established enough and young enough (as a mid-career poet of 50 in 1967) to make her unique and significant contributions to the Black Arts Movement. Yes, we can say that 1917—like 1950 and 1967, among others—was a very good year for Brooks and for those who love her work. But if we’re still counting black miracles—and black deaths—a century later, does it matter?
Wheatley frequently took the miraculous as a subject for her poetry. Among the various miracles that earned the attention of her pen are: the earth’s revolutions around the sun that give us both day and night; the American colonies’ revolution against British tyranny that gave us the democracy we now see endangered; her imagination’s ability to conjure up warm climes and flourishing fields as a West African captive living in the cold reality of Boston; and, not least fantastic, that her devout Christianity would have resulted from her being kidnapped into the transatlantic slave trade. We can think of reasons why Wheatley would compose elegies on the miracle of life after death. We can comprehend why the miraculous triumph of an unimposing young man over a gigantic, seemingly invincible foe would be attractive material for an unimposing young woman caught up in a voracious, seemingly inescapable socio-economic system.
Brooks’s poetry, by contrast, most often celebrates the ordinary. She calls us to remember the routine Sundays, when a woman might be “[h]ugged by my plain old wrapper of no-expectation / and nothing-I-have-to-do,” and have the usual “Sunday dinner, which was always chicken and noodles / Or chicken and rice / And salad and rye bread and tea / And chocolate chip cookies”—because the ordinary has its pleasures. She announces a baby’s birth with figurative flourish, but rhetorical understatement: “Weeps out of western county something new” (“the birth in a narrow room”). Brooks celebrates the celebrations that begin “[h]umbly,” “[s]outh of success and east of gloss and glass,” where beauty takes shape in “grave hoops of wood or gold, pendant / from black ears, brown ears, reddish-brown / and ivory ears,” the people themselves an adornment (“The Wall”). Unlike Wheatley’s “omnific God,” Brooks’s “Jehovah . . . tires of being great / In solitude”; her poetry imagines him longing for someone “[t]o slap Him on the shoulder, tweak His ear, / Buy Him a Coca-Cola or a beer.” Her elegies do not look forward to some glorious afterlife, but insist upon honoring the “plain black boy,” the simple life that was, or—as with the cousin who, “even now,” sheds the casket, “[s]lops the bad wine across her shantung, talks / Of pregnancy, guitars and bridgework”—somehow still “[i]s.” Perhaps it is more accurate to say that the miracle of Brooks’s poetry renders the ordinary extraordinary: a transubstantiation of language that changes not what she describes, but us, modifying how we see the world we share with her. Brooks re-envisions a young black woman, whose high-intensity imagination manages to “[w]arm and gratify the gray” of her circumscribed working-class existence, as a “thaumaturgic lass” (“The Anniad”). A “Gang Girl,” thanks to Brooks, “is / a rose in a whiskey glass.” In her work, we see a young Bronzeville ladies’ man as “a cat / Tawny, reluctant, royal,” who attires himself for love with “wonder-suits in yellow and in wine.” Brooks’s sonically charged metaphors and epithets bring into focus what she sees in people that some of her readers might otherwise not notice. In keeping with Wheatley’s observations, Brooks’s imagination transforms a climate of cool disinterest—even cold suspicion—into something warmer and more like home.
Brooks’s poetry also teaches us to value the ordinary by declining to cast what is or should be quite normal as high drama. The sturm und drang of a white mother horrified to see the “colored maid” kiss her “creamy child” is placed into its proper context: “She saw all things except herself serene: / Child, big black woman, pretty kitchen towels” (“Bronzeville Woman in a Red Hat”). The World War II-era integration of the army, fiercely resisted by hegemonic forces, is depicted in her precise lines as a non-event for the natural world, regardless of what white supremacist ideology might suggest to the contrary: “Neither the earth nor heaven ever trembled. / And there was nothing startling in the weather.” (There is something startling in the weather after Emmett Till’s murder: “Chaos in windy grays / through a red prairie.” It was not natural. And he was not the first.)
On the occasion of Brooks’s centennial, I celebrate her and her poetic brilliance. I think on what her poetry reveals about the ordinary, in light of what June Jordan thought about what Phillis Wheatley’s poetry reveals about the miraculous. I urge poets, lovers of poetry, and teachers of poetry to keep Gwendolyn Brooks’s name and work alive for the next hundred years and the hundred years after that. May it still be read, memorized, recited, and shared in that future time, when life—black life—is no miracle, but as quotidian as the revolution of the earth.
- Gwendolyn Brooks
- Phillis Wheatley
- Margaret Walker
- June Jordan
- Mari Evans
- Gwendolyn Brooks Centennial
- Margaret Danner
- Margaret Taylor Burroughs
- South Side Writers Group
- South Side Community Art Center
- Naomi Long Madgett
- Pinkie Gordon Lane
- Angelina Weld Grimké
- Helene Johnson
- Anne Spencer
- Gwendolyn Bennett
Born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee, poet Evie Shockley earned a BA at Northwestern University, a JD at the University of Michigan, and a PhD in English literature at Duke University. The author of several collections of poetry, including a half-red sea (2006) and the new black (2011), Shockley is...