“The purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself.”
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Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks was born on Sunday, June 17, 1917 in Topeka, Kansas to David and Keziah Brooks, the descendants of field slaves. Both of her parents were native to the sunflower state, but eventually migrated to Chicago’s South Side, where they raised Gwendolyn and her younger brother Raymond.
Her love for poetry stemmed from both parents, who began encouraging their daughter’s creative and intellectual side by having her read and recite poems, at a young age. David Brooks advised his children to use education as a tool to overcome racism, hardships, and other challenges confronted by blacks growing up in the great depression era. No doubt, her parent’s tutelage was influential, priming Gwendolyn for the literary scene, which became a significant part of her life.
At the age of 16, Brooks reached a milestone where her talents became noticed by established Harlem Renaissance writers such as James Johnson and Langston Hughes. Johnson encouraged her to read modern poets to hone her skills and Hughes praised her talents and pushed her to continue writing. Acting on Johnson’s advice, she began studying authors such as T.S. Elliot, E.E. Cummings, Emily Dickinson, and Ezra Pound who all had some type of influence on her creative process.
Receiving the outside endorsement of two prolific writers, and a few teachers, she felt others were beginning to take her work seriously. Brooks began publishing her poetry in the Chicago Defender, a black newspaper, and by the time she turned 19, the paper had published precisely seventy-five of her poems.
Brook’s went on to develop an effectual emotional style of writing, painting a real and jarring picture of the condition of blacks in America. This was during a time when the “black experience” was foreign to a majority of her audience, which happened to be middle class whites. Writing under the auspices of writers such as T.S. Elliot, in a questioning tone of modernism, placed Gwendolyn ahead of her time and at unique advantage over other poets in her genre. Her work was black in content but traditionally white in style, addressing the lives of everyday African-Americans, the struggles with racism, poverty, black pride, and the exploitation of women.
In 1950, Gwendolyn Brooks became the first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize for Annie Allen, a masterpiece, which chronicles the journey of an African-American girl growing into adulthood. Throughout her career, Brooks was bestowed with several accolades, over seventy honorary degrees, and awards due to the subject matter acknowledged in her writing. She was able to capture the multifarious linguistic dance of rhyme and meter, with a devotion to consciously create original verse that portrayed challenges and triumphs of blacks through many periods. Her poems breathe life into a race of people at a time where being a minority was perceived as unwelcoming and bleak. On December 3, 2000, at the age of 83, Brooks lost her battle with cancer. As time goes on, I’m sure she will be revered as both activist and writer who had the ability to proactively change the world through her magnificent and expressive work.
Below are a compilation of poems that capture Brook’s spirit through many life experiences and ever-changing perspectives on race issues, pride, class, and gender. Some poems are gritty and straight forward, while others are simplistic in nature, but nevertheless complex and compelling in thought. I also contribute an original piece inspired by Brooks writing. Thank you for reading The Pen Bleeds.
Do Not Be Afraid of No
Do not be afraid of no,
Who has so very far to go”:
New caution to occur
To one whose inner scream set her to cede, for softer lapping and smooth fur!
Whose esoteric need
Was merely to avoid the nettle, to not bleed.
Stupid, like a street
That beats into a dead end and dies there, with nothing left to reprimand or meet.
And like a candle fixed
Against dismay and countershine of mixed
Wild moon and sun. And like
A flying furniture, or bird with lattice wing; or gaunt thing, a-stammer down a nightmare
neon peopled with condor, hawk and shrike.
To say yes is to die
A lot or a little. The dead wear capably their wry
Enameled emblems. They smell.
But that and that they do not altogether yell is all that we know well.
It is brave to be involved,
To be not fearful to be unresolved.
Her new wish was to smile
When answers took no airships, walked a while.
Beauty has a coldness
That keeps you very warm.
“If I run out to see the clouds,
That will be no harm!”
So Ella left her oatmeal
And fleecy coat behind
And ran into the winter
Where there were clouds to find.
Mother-dear went following,
But reprimand was mild.
She knew that clouds taste better than
Oats to a little child.
John, Who Is Poor
Oh, little children, be good to John!
Who lives so lone and alone.
Whose Mama must hurry to toil all day.
Whose Papa is dead and done.
Give him a berry, boys, when you may.
And, girls, some mint when you can.
And do not ask when his hunger will end,
Nor yet when it began.
Everybody here is infirm.
Oh. Mend me. Mend me. Lord.
Say to them
Say to them
Say to them, Lord:
Look! I am beautiful, beautiful with
My wing that is wounded
My eye that is bonded
Or my ear not funded
Or my walk all a-wobble.
I’m enough to be beautiful.
To Those Of My Sisters Who Kept Their Naturals
I love you.
Because you love you.
Because you are erect.
Because you are also bent.
In season, stern, kind.
Crisp, soft -in season.
And you withhold.
And you extend.
And you Step out.
And you go back.
And you extend again.
Your eyes, loud-soft, with crying and
are older than a million years.
And they are young.
You reach, in season.
You subside, in season.
below the rich rough right time of your hair.
You have not bought Blondine.
You have not hailed the hot-comb recently.
You never worshiped Marilyn Monroe.
You say: Farrah’s hair is hers.
You have not wanted to be white.
Nor have you testified to adoration of that
State with advertisement of imitation.
(never successful because the hot-comb is laughing too.)
But oh, the rough dark Other, Music!
The natural Respect of Self and Seal!
Your hair is Celebration in the world!
to the Diaspora
you did not know you were Afrika
When you set out for Afrika
you did not know you were going.
you did not know you were Afrika.
You did not know the Black continent
that had to be reached
I could not have told you then that some sun
somewhere over the road,
would come evoking the diamonds
of you, the Black continent–
somewhere over the road.
You would not have believed my mouth.
When I told you, meeting you somewhere close
to the heat and youth of the road,
liking my loyalty, liking belief,
you smiled and you thanked me but very little believed me.
Here is some sun. Some.
Now off into the places rough to reach.
Though dry, though drowsy, all unwillingly a-wobble,
into the dissonant and dangerous crescendo.
Your work, that was done, to be done to be done to be done.
The Homeless Condition
To be homeless
Is to roam the streets at night.
In your loneliness, you are beside yourself.
You see things
Through urban eyes.
A taxi is yellow.
A rat is grey.
A working girl is turning tricks.
Unexpectedly the city knows what you know too.
In every dank alley she is there
And there you stand
Braving a bitter reality together.
Freezing winters, hungry nights
She blankets you in corrugated scraps.
A sadness too much to endure.
She hesitates to look you in the eye
Because your pain is too familiar.
When she pretends
You’re not there
Then turns her back
And walks away,
Your crutch breaks,
An infinite melancholy.
You are the indigent half
Of a contemptible metropolis.
You reminisce on days gone by
Of simple pleasures
Taken for granted.
To eat plenty,
To bathe well,
To sleep comfortably,
And have a home;
Luxuries to the have not’s.
But she still walks
With blinders on.
An intentional dilemma
Of the human condition.
To watch you lie there
On cracked sidewalks
A fixed structure
© Seven Magazine