Prose from Poetry Magazine

From “A Surprised Queenhood in the New Black Sun”

The Life & Legacy of Gwendolyn Brooks.
Black and white photgraph of Mecca Flats interior.

The Committee for the Arts began meeting in Chicago in 1966. In 1967, it would become the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC). Its members included Gerald McWorter (later known as Abdul Alkalimat), sociologist; Jeff Donaldson, visual artist; Conrad Kent Rivers, poet; Joseph Robinson, community organizer; E. Duke McNeil, attorney; and Hoyt W. Fuller, editor of Negro Digest, long known to Gwendolyn Brooks. Also known to Brooks was Ann McNeil (later Dr. Ann Smith), whom Brooks had met at Northeastern Illinois University, when both were teaching there.

The idea behind OBAC was the belief that art has properties that would heal and restore the collective psyche of the black citizens of Chicago, so as to enable them to achieve political and socioeconomic empowerment. In other words, OBAC’s goal was to create art that makes people whole and self-determining. OBAC was named by Jeff Donaldson after the Yoruba word Oba, meaning chief or leader. OBAC was divided into several workshops on the visual arts, writing, community organizing, and drama, whose presentations were overseen by Ann McNeil. There was no music workshop as the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians already existed. OBAC’s drama presentations did not compete with Val Gray Ward’s Kuumba Theater.

OBAC’s visual arts workshop was headed by Donaldson, later dean of the College of Fine Arts at Howard University. Participants in that workshop painted the famed Wall of Respect, an outdoor mural celebrating black heroes. This mural, painted on the side of a building at 43rd and Langley Avenue, would spark a mural movement across America. The Wall of Respect was dedicated on August 27, 1967, a singular public event for Brooks, aligning her with a new breed of black people. Portrayed were Brooks, Lerone Bennett Jr., H. Rap Brown, W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, Stokely Carmichael, Wilt Chamberlain, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Amiri Baraka, John Oliver Killens, Martin Luther King  Jr., Malcolm X, Thelonious Monk, Max Roach, Nina Simone, and Sarah Vaughan. The Wall of Respect also carried Baraka’s poem “S.O.S.,” which called to all blacks to help form a black solidarity. The community had chosen its own heroes.

The most long-standing of the OBAC workshops was the writers’ workshop, chaired by Hoyt W. Fuller. Among the founding members were Don Lee, Carolyn Rodgers, Jewel Latimore (later known as Johari Amini), Cecil Brown, and Ronald Fair. Brooks’s workshop and OBAC’s overlapped for a time. A literary movement was on. Unfortunately, her longtime mentor and friend Langston Hughes would not be there for it. He passed away after surgery on May 22, 1967. He had been a source of support and inspiration from the generation before her.

Brooks had been haunted by her experiences at the Mecca Flats building for decades. She had attempted to capture the edifice and its inhabitants in fiction several times but had not been successful. On August 29, 1962, Elizabeth Lawrence, Brooks’s longtime editor, had written to her, “Good! I am not surprised that you must get The Mecca out of your system, and I believe that poetry will serve you better than prose.”

It would not be until September 1967 that Brooks’s poetic version of In the Mecca would be delivered to what was now Harper & Row (previously Harper & Brothers). When it arrived, it was not well received by its first reader. By that time, Lawrence had retired and would have to be called in to review this new, artistically controversial work. Harper asked for additional poems for the “After Mecca” section. Brooks obliged. Harper & Row published In the Mecca in 1968, a most momentous year.

As a kind of preface to the poem “In the Mecca,” Brooks opened with a quote from the author John Bartlow Martin describing the Mecca building:

A great gray hulk of brick, four stories high, topped by an ungainly smokestack, ancient and enormous, filling half the block north of Thirty-fourth Street between State and Dearborn    ...    The Mecca Building is U-shaped. The dirt courtyard is littered with newspapers and tin cans, milk cartons and broken glass    ...    Iron fire escapes run up the building’s face and ladders reach from them to the roof. There are four main 
entrances, two on Dearborn and two on State Street. At each is a gray stone threshold and over each is carved “the mecca.”

In the Mecca was dedicated “To the memory of Langston Hughes; and to James Baldwin, LeRoi Jones, and Mike Alexandroff, educators extraordinaire.” It also was dedicated “IN TRIBUTE — Jim Cunningham, Jim Taylor, Mike Cook, Walter Bradford, Don Lee, Curtis Ellis, Roy Lewis, Peggy Susberry, Ronda Davis, Carolyn Rodgers, Sharon Scott, Alicia Johnson, Jewel Latimore.” Brooks had acknowledged two generations of visionaries and cultural workers who had impacted the evolution of her own black, and increasingly urgent, consciousness. The long work on the volume had progressed as the poet herself had progressed on her path to greater political awareness.

In the Mecca is an extended narrative that is a mystery. The frame story is the search for a missing child. Along the way to her discovery, the reader encounters a rich variety of characters who dwell in the huge edifice of 176 apartments. Brooks introduces us to the inhabitants of many of those apartments, including Mrs. Sallie Smith, the mother of the lost Pepita.

The opening lines of In the Mecca are portentous and commanding.

Sit where the light corrupts your face.
Miës Van der Rohe retires from grace.
And the fair fables fall.

It is conceivable that the poet is transforming the reader into the rotting building with its corrupt face. And the “fair fables” or fairy tales, or tales of goodness, fall or are no longer credible. This will not be a story with a happy ending. None of the stories here have happy endings. Brooks is busy in this opening tercet. An additional interpretation may present Brooks in the traditional role of African 
storyteller, or griot. An image is projected of black people gathering around a fire, which provides the light that distorts faces. The background of the story is the ruin of the building. Finally, when these fair fables fall, they are “fair” people’s fables that fall. “Fair” could be pale-complexioned people. Alternatively, if “fair” means just or right, then the just fables fall. What is right and just does not occur.

Brooks wanted to explore the misery, tensions, distortions, and hope that resided in the roach- and rat-infested building that had once been grand. The underlying idea is that human beings are born into an innate dignity, only to deteriorate from neglect and cruelty, as do the inhabitants of the Mecca.

The character Mrs. Sallie Smith is a domestic worker like so many black women of that time. After work, she arrives home, ascends the “sick and influential stair,” so like herself. She has eaten leftovers at work where white people have feasted on the food she prepared. She is plump and “low-brown,” brown-skinned. In her weariness and slow letting go of the white world, she is “a fragmentary attar and armed coma. / A fugitive attar and a district hymn.” She is a lovely scent and a sleepwalker, not fully aware of her own power. She eludes the understanding of others. She is a sacred song of a certain region of the city, the black region. Hence, white people cannot catch her soul or understand her entirely.

We also meet the ecstatically religious Saint Julia Jones, who is with a young and lecherous Prophet Williams, who caused his wife, Ida, to die “in self-defense.” What is interesting to note as a rallying cry for black women, Brooks addresses the audience (“Kinswomen! / Kinswomen!”) about the plight of Ida having “died alone.” This should not be, says the poet; we are kin, of a tribe. Ida should have been supported, comforted, or even taken in by other black women.

Brooks is also telling us that black women are her target audience or its better half. This is very important. It is the first time she had really announced her intended audience. Perhaps it is the first time that black women have been the sole intended audience for her work. The vocabulary of the appeal, “Kinswomen,” suggests a black identification. Brooks had moved considerably in her political awareness and tells us so in just two words in a long poem.

Mrs. Sallie Smith speaks to Saint Julia Jones and Prophet Williams and moves on; she does not linger. Hyena, a bleached-blond debutante, “to the tune of hate,” bursts out of a doorway. The poet again announces her own shift in consciousness, making a judgment about the black woman who dyes her hair blond. Mrs. Sallie sees Alfred, an untalented writer who keeps writing while he teaches English, badly, at Wendell Phillips High School. “At faculty lunch hour / allows the zoology teacher, who has great legs, / to fondle him and curse his pretty hair.” At night he sleeps with Telly Bell, a Meccan woman in 309, or with Hyena. Alfred drinks, thinks, and reads an assortment of white, male literary masters. “So he is weak /    ...    / It is a decent enough no-goodness.”

A boy breaks glass and Mrs. Sallie
rises to the final and fourth floor.

Something is shattered as Mrs. Sallie reaches her destination. Some reflection has ended and some broken act is about to begin. It is a beginning that is an ending. It is the final floor as opposed to the highest. The poet addresses Mrs. Sallie’s children, and all of us who are the children of mothers who earn their bread by doing domestic work. She speaks to the collective. Mrs. Sallie has brought “hock of ham” and “mustard” (greens) cooked by an “undaunted” eldest daughter “who once / pushed her thumbs in the eyes of a Thief.” Lastly, we children are given “six ruddy yams” and hot-water cornbread. It is the best that the mother can do. It is a traditional soul-food dinner.

Mrs. Sallie perches her hat on the kitchen table and surveys the “sick kitchen” thinking of all the changes she wants to make, but cannot afford to. It is no use. The environment is deeply wrong, and superficial decorations will not be enough. They would resemble a “pomade atop a sewage.”

One of Mrs. Sallie’s children, chewing gum, prepares to meet a boyfriend. This is Yvonne, the brave eldest. Most of the remaining children come into view one by one: Melodie Mary, Cap, Casey, Thomas Earl, Tennessee, Emmett, and Briggs. All of these young people “hate sewn suburbs,” meaning white people and the accoutrements of white people, things that they do not have. Each child of Mrs. Sallie has his or her particularity and story. Melodie Mary likes or pities rats and roaches, ruminates on China. Reticent Briggs joins a gang. Tennessee wants to be like his contented cat. “Thomas Earl loves Johnny Appleseed.” Emmett, Cap, and Casey are malnourished, in need of the soul food their mother prepares for them but does not always have enough of. They are not healthily fattened off treats.

Alfred, the failed writer and schoolteacher, considers Mrs. Sallie and her relationship to the “toy-child” she cares for at work. Mrs. Sallie “evokes and loves and loathes a pink-lit image / of the toy-child.” There is a world of difference between what the world has for Mrs. Sallie’s children and the “toy-child,” the white child. In summation, “What else is there to say but everything?” That everything includes aesthetics, politics, economics, history, sociology, psychology, anthropology, even culinary arts. When Mrs. Sallie considers the “toy-child,” she comes upon her own absent child.

Realization comes in capital letters: “suddenly, counting noses, mrs. sallie / sees no pepita. ‘where pepita be?’”

She queries each of her children on the whereabouts of Pepita. The mother is distraught. The children all chime that they “Ain seen er” again and again. The children cut off their individual preoccupations and go from door to door throughout the building in search of Pepita. Brooks captures the hysterical mood of the desperate search for the little girl.

We meet the neighbors as the search goes on: Great-great Gram remembers sleeping on a vermin-infested dirt floor during slavery; Loam Norton is Jewish and considers the concentration camps; Boontsie De Broe is a lady; John Tom is the kind neighbor whose phone Emmett uses to call the police.

The police arrive but are in no hurry to help, though eventually they leave with a photo of Pepita and begin pounding on neighbors’ doors. Aunt Dill also comes and causes greater worry with her tales of bad endings.

We encounter Alfred, the schoolteacher, again as he weaves a long story about Léopold Senghor, the Senegalese poet of Negritude who was president of Senegal. Hyena returns and speaks disdainfully of Pepita. She earns her animalistic name because she shows no genuine feeling. Mazola ruminates on Death and the body going out of a house. Then, all of a sudden, we are presented with Don Lee, an actual historical poet figure; Lee is spoken of with a sense of his fire and moral rectitude. He is refreshingly juxtaposed to Alfred, who is without talent, and to the terrible brokenness and depression of the Mecca. He is a “physical light,” a living candle against the gloom in which there is no way to see, especially at this moment when a child is lost.

The character of Amos meditates on the need to cleanse America of her falsehood. The ballad of Edie Barrow is striking in its formalism. It has the feeling of being part of an earlier version of In the Mecca. Edie loved a Gentile boy who married one of his own kind. There is also a lengthy consideration of   Prophet Williams, who brings to mind the tricks that Brooks observed while she worked for such a charlatan.

The poet asks, “How many care, Pepita?” She asks the lost child, because the lost child would know who really cares for her. Then she offers a short roll call of names: Staley and Lara, Eunie, Simpson, Bixby, and June. “Not those.” They do not care. And the prostitutes do not care. These are the three Maries, who it would seem are 
precursors to Toni Morrison’s three Maries in The Bluest Eye. Great-uncle Beer is a sporting man; Wezlyn wanders the halls in her insane search for her lover, Lawrence; Wezlyn earns much space as she represents the madness of the place. The following also do not care about Pepita: Darkara (who looks at Vogue), Aunt Tippie, Zombie Bell, Mr. Kelly, Gas Cady, the grave robber of flowers, the political janitor, and Wallace Williams.

Alfred appears again, to offer bad poetry. The policemen come upon the twins who put flour on their own faces, perhaps symbolic of their self-hate. Perhaps Brooks is having fun with this extreme image. Way-out Morgan collects guns to enact vengeance on white men who gave him “three local-and-legal beatings” and who “mob-raped” his sister in Mississippi. As a debt collector, he is like Morrison’s Seven Days in Song of Solomon. It is easy to imagine such a vengeful black character with a grudge against white people, but in reality, black people are rarely vengeful toward whites.

Marian is busy cooking, longing to be seen. And Aunt Dill, who appears again, is a woman of fake religiosity and pretense. Alfred senses the greatness stirring in the Mecca in spite of it all.

The last quatrain of “In the Mecca” is a worrisome whisper that bothers the heart of the reader and continues past the first and second reading. It describes when Pepita is discovered and we are told of the sounds she made as she died.

In the Mecca is Brooks’s most artistically revolutionary work. It follows no formal pattern. It contains disruptions in typography as far as the sudden use of capitalization with “where pepita be” and the joining of words and sentences “ain seen her I ain seen her” to create a sense of panic, hysteria. With these effects, Brooks places the reader in the scene and in a state of agitation if not terror.

The narrative itself is not continuous but told in disjointed stanzas, just as the people in the Mecca dwell in a state of disjointedness. They live their separate existences in their separate apartments. They lack a sense of community and unity, which Brooks would later more openly accuse black people of lacking.

As in none of her other works, Brooks presides over this long poem as a loving, stern, and authoritative presence. She is as “unapologetically Black” as the Chicago Defender says it is. She is not afraid to make value judgments or directly address her black audience, unlike in her previous work.

The poems of “After Mecca” are as memorable as the extended work. In this suite were published a number of Brooks’s most iconic 
poems, those that provide a broad context for the long narrative, but with many sounding the positive resonances of the Black Consciousness movement. They reflect most clearly Brooks’s own state of mind, her psychological transformation from Negro to black woman.

The after-set begins with “To a Winter Squirrel,” in which Merdice, so named to suggest her own “murdered heart,” “cooks guts,” chitterlings, at the kitchen window while observing a squirrel outside. Notes for the poem came to Brooks while she cleaned chitterlings, which she was taught to prepare by Gloria Bennett, wife of Lerone and a longtime friend. Merdice, in her cold house heated by a stove, as her “landlord has no coal,” considers the squirrel with delight and admiration. She admires its self-sufficiency and pleasure in itself. Just as Merdice delights in these things, it is easy to imagine Brooks delighting in these qualities, as she had delighted in the young black people she met in the late sixties and their self-possession.
 

From A Surprised Queenhood in the New Black Sun: The Life & Legacy of Gwendolyn Brooks (2017), which is reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.
Originally Published: May 30th, 2017

Born in Greenville, Mississippi, poet Angela Jackson is the fifth of nine children. She spent her early life in Greenville before moving with her family to Chicago’s Southside. Jackson earned a BA at Northwestern University, where she received the Academy of American Poets Prize, and an MA in Latin American...

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