Gwendolyn Brooks at 100
But I say it’s fine. Honest, I do.
And I’d like to be a bad woman too,
And wear the stockings of night black lace.
And strut down the street with paint on my face.
—“song in the front yard,” from A Street in Bronzeville
What always amazes me about this poem, from Gwendolyn Brooks’s first collection, is the way the child-narrator fantasizes a defiant transformation into a grown woman, a “bad woman,” wearing “the stockings of night black lace,” while still projecting a child’s voice, in the sing-song repetition of “And.” Or perhaps the poet sees herself as the little girl longing to have the autonomy of a grown woman, signifying sexuality with the metaphor of black stockings and makeup. I know that if a woman wore black, blue, or dark brown stockings, she had to be grown and was assumed to somehow be more advanced in sexual knowledge, especially if the stockings had a seam.
In 1981 I was to meet Gwendolyn Brooks for the first time—in person. I had read her Collected Poems as an undergraduate during the late-sixties, auditing Arthur P. Davis’s “Negro Literature in the U.S.” at Howard University. The course spanned from Lucy Terry to LeRoi Jones. The latter, Prof. Davis admitted he did not understand a word of what “Jones and the other Black Arts boys were saying.” This was summer 1967. John F. Kennedy and Malcolm X were both dead from assassins’ bullets. Brooks was 50 years old. Now we celebrate her 100th birthday. At the age of 50, Brooks was about to publish In The Mecca, a turning point for the poet. Brooks declaims her refusal to continue to write in the political confines of Western formalism and Western institutions. She did continue, however, to use lyric verse, end and internal rhyme, and sonnet types. I think once you master the sonnet as Brooks did, you can never give it up. She wanted to take her poetry to her people. She gives her influence over to Broadside Press, founded by Dudley Randall, one of the arbiters of the Black Arts Movement (at least in poetry), and takes on the mantle of poet-activist.
I was, in 1981, a student life programmer at Rutgers College. I was advising student organizations, which had the lion’s share of student fee money at Rutgers University. These white students who led organizations were under tremendous pressure from black student leaders, faculty, and staff to diversify their programming across the board, from lectures to major concerts. In those days, “diversify” meant adding in more black people or black cultural issues. My colleague Ann—a young, white woman, progressive with a great sense of humor—asked my advice about inviting Gwendolyn Brooks. I championed the idea, though I hadn’t read her work since the mid-seventies. We prepared for the advent of Ms. Books. We collaborated with the English department to assign their contemporary American literature classes her writing. This collaboration, as well as many others, resulted in a 600-person, standing room only event. I had never heard Ms. Brooks read before. And hearing her was quite an experience. I remember she read “the mother” (“Everyone calls it my abortion poem,” she said.): "Believe that even in my deliberateness I was not deliberate," as well as one of her more recent poems, “The Life of Lincoln West”: “Ugliest little boy / that everyone ever saw / That is what everyone said.”
She read vigorously for a full hour. And remember, I said there were close to 600 people in attendance. Many people—students and others—wanted to speak to her afterwards. The line of people wrapped around the room. She received everyone who wanted to speak with her—not as many as 600. Several times, we had to move certain individuals along. I spent a lot of time going outside to smoke cigarettes that night.
I had to kick their law into their teeth in order to save them.
The next day I was walking on campus, headed toward my office, when my colleague Ann was driving Ms. Brooks to the train station. Ann drew to a stop; I got into the VW Beetle, and Ms. Brooks laughed and said “Oh, seeing you is just like seeing a neighbor.” I think my understanding of “neighbor” deepened. One could be one's neighbor when people lived as far apart as Chicago, Ill. and New Brunswick, N.J. I saw her grasp of and commitment to the neighborhood, the block, the city—and those who live in them. Ann asked me to escort Ms. Brooks to the train station and wait with her for the train. This, I did happily. We climbed the rickety, raggedy stairs to the NYC side of the New Brunswick rail stop and waited for the Manhattan-bound train. She was game for climbing those stairs. Head up and back. I don’t remember all of what we talked about—City College where she had taught briefly, poet Adrienne Rich, upcoming train travels with her aunts. There were ellipses that were filled with speculations on the weather, i.e. how high the snow can get in Chicago, favorite months, favorite seasons (my favorite month is March, hers October, Fall our favorite season.). But we continued to hit it off. Much of it having to do mutually with our blackness, of course.
It was Mabbie alone by the grammar school gates.
Yet chocolate companions had she
Mabbie on Mabbie with hush in the heart.
Mabbie on Mabbie to be
I invited her back to Rutgers, circa ’87. She remembered me from before. She had endorsed my second book of poetry with the feminist press, Firebrand—Living As A Lesbian.
Students I worked with were very professional, in terms of their task-accomplishments in reference to the program. They handled everything from logistics to microphones. The student who designed this poster said: “I spent the weekend thinking about this ‘lady’.”
“She is a Rhyme
The World of Gwendolyn Brooks
Students arranged for her to be driven from New York and they gave a reception for her, open to faculty and student leaders. I got to drive her to dinner at a very lovely Italian restaurant, with very white tablecloths and subtle candles (I remember she ordered the meatball dinner). Literary scholar and critic Cheryl Wall joined us, and I remember none of the discussion. Yet I remember the relationship she established with the two students who hosted her. She was very gracious and full of good humor. They kept asking her to ask them for something more, but she wanted nothing more. She read again to a capacity audience in the same student center as six years before. The students and I waited for her to receive all those who wished to speak to her. I again had to move some people along, those who couldn’t stop talking to her. Gwen Brooks was so endlessly receptive. She won’t stop you from talking. Finally I was able to drive her to her hotel from there. I said to her, ‘Ms. Brooks, you have a huge fan base and they all love to talk.’
My best allegiances are to the dead.
I swear to keep the dead upon my mind,
Disdain for all time to be overglad.
Among spring flowers, under summer trees . . .
I’ll have as mentors those reproving ghosts.
(“mentors” from “gay chaps at the bar”)
Next day we were to take her to conduct a creative writing workshop in one of the residence halls. We took her to lunch in one of our better-looking dining halls, two students, Ms. Brooks, and me. By this time we were really warmed up to one another—at least the students and Gwen, because Gwen and I knew one another and had been corresponding since our first meeting. The workshop had been a point of contention because more students than the hall could hold wanted to come, of course. And I had to be the gatekeeper. Some black student leaders, mainly male, felt any black notable who came to campus was within their purview to garner the attention of. However, two black women students, who had not signed up ahead of time, slipped into a standing room only workshop session—right by me. This was a lesson in policing the institution’s gates too closely. You can’t.
I think of how versatile Ms. Brooks is in her narrative and ethnographic skills. Here she is in the voice of one of the villains who murdered 14 year old Emmett Till:
What he’d like to do, he explained, was kill them all.
The time lost. The unwanted fame.
Still, it had been fun to show those intruders
A thing or two. To show that snappy-eyed mother,
That sassy, Northern, brown-black—
—“A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi Meanwhile A Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon,” from The Bean Eaters
She understood the insidiousness and the intricacy of anti-African-American sentiment in America:
For there can be no whiter whiteness than this one:
An insurance man’s shirt on its morning run.
This Mrs. Small now soiled
With a pair of brown
Spurts (just recently boiled)
Of the ‘very best coffee in town.’
—“Mrs. Small” from The Bean Eaters
Her earlier work portrays the perspective of Brooks as an anthropologist or sociologist, an ethnographic deployment that allows for a clarity of race, gender, and class analysis. She always schooled herself, which is what she was also doing in In The Mecca. She was doing her final seminar on the Western lyric. I still find the poem “an epic lesson on the spiritual and psychic condition of urban black people in post-modernity, lying in the shadows of ‘modernity and . . . the Holocaust,” and the “social forces of the 1960’s.”
Don Lee wants
not a various America.
Don Lee wants
a new nation
. . . . stands out in auspices of fire
. . . . wants
new art and anthem; will
want a new music screaming in the sun.
I remember the 1988 visit and how much the two (white) student leaders really liked her, because she knew how to show an interest in young people. One of them, the young woman, even gave her a compliment, which students don’t often do, even to people whom they admire—like Rock stars. The young woman said, “Thank you. You’re so accommodating.” Ms. Brooks and I chuckled and she thanked the young woman. As I drove her to the train station in Newark, N.J. so she could get to D.C. for another event, it became clear we were not going to make it in time for her train. She said, “Cheryl, it’s not your fault. I will call them when we get to the station. It’s only dinner.” Notice how she accommodated my failure to get the correct directions to the train station in Newark. We walked into the Newark Station, which has a beautiful waiting room of brass and marble. She went to the pay phone (remember them?) to call the party in D.C. I didn’t wait with her. She insisted I leave. (I don’t blame her. She hadn’t been by herself in two and a half days.). I think saying goodbye to her at this train station in Newark may have been the last time I saw her in the flesh. Circa 1988, she sent me a wonderful Xmas card. She wrote:
I don’t want to claim any kind of special relationship with Gwen Brooks, except that she was an exceptionally kind person. She was exceptionally kind to me and encouraging of my desire to write poetry. But she had been writing all her life, “the lady Paul Laurence Dunbar,” as her mother said. Me—I put many things before it. With Brooks, it was heavily integrated. It was truly her work—in the financial, artistic, intellectual, cultural senses of the word, her work.
Poet, critic, and activist Cheryl Clarke was born in Washington, DC. She earned her BA from Howard University and her MA and PhD from Rutgers University. Clarke is the author of five collections of poetry: Narratives: Poems in the Tradition of Black Women (1983), Living as a Lesbian (1986), Humid...