A Tribute to Gwendolyn Brooks

Laura Tanenbaum

January 2001

(1917-2000)

     In April 1992, as a high school senior for whom the idea of the 'poet' (more real to me, I admit, than poetry itself, as I suspect is the case for most teenagers) denoted a strange mix of transcendence, pain, and unattainable grace, I had the opportunity to meet Gwendolyn Brooks. In conjunction with a poetry contest she sponsored for many, many years for young writers, we heard her read and then heard the efforts of our peers, the hunched over girls who blushed at Brooks' on-target depiction of the way white girls play with their hair and whispering boys who read stories about missing fathers. When she read "the mother," with its make-you-sit-up-straight-in-you-chair first line "Abortions will not let you forget," she told us that people thought they knew after reading the poem what side she was on, that we shouldn't figure we knew, but if we really wanted to, we could come talk to her, and she'd be happy to tell us. She understood, of course, the young person's desire to know which side everyone was on, to get from a poet more ammunition for the fights they're always staging with invisible adversaries.

     I think of that moment and of Brooks when I wonder about how debates about racial and sexual difference have shaped the way I think, write and teach. Reading her, I get a sense of the connection between the idea of the 'particular' as discussed in relation to multiculturalism and feminism and the more grounded, basic definition of the 'particular' that is the work of poetry: the loving, nuanced observation, obsessions with a detail that no one would notice if the poet weren't there to bring it to light. I think this is what Robin Morgan meant with her formulation "Hate generalizes; love specifies." Many accounts of Brooks' career emphasize her shift to the ideals of the Black Arts movement, and her own moving account of this transformation in the autobiographical Report from Part One underscores the importance of this transformation. Nevertheless, her devotion to recording the particulars of life in Chicago's black community - especially in pointed portraits individuals, from early works like "the ballad of chocolate Mabbie" and "Sadie and Maud" to the quasi-epic Annie Allen to the novella Maud Martha and the later collection Children Coming Home form a common thread on both sides of this divide. When she begins "Sermon on the Warplane" with an epigraph from Ron Karenga proclaiming "The fact that we are black is our ultimate reality," (In the Mecca, 49) her reader recognizes the richness of this foundation for exploration.

     One poem that Brooks read that afternoon sticks with me as I think about these questions. She prefaced her reading of "when you have forgotten Sunday: the love story" with an aimed-at-high-schoolers barb that regardless of what we might suspect, an old lady with a long marriage and children who had come into the world in the normal way might have something to say about love and that no matter how we felt, we most likely weren't in love, we'd just been to the movies. In these lines we have again the force of love lying in the particulars, rendered with the illusion of polemic force towards the goal of knowing love, where we all knew, or thought we knew where we stood:

-And when you have forgotten the bright bedclothes
on a Wednesday and a Saturday,
And most especially when you haveb forgotten Sunday -
When you have forgotten Sunday halves in bed,
Or me sitting on the front-room radiator in the limping afternoon
Looking off down the long street
To nowhere,
Hugged by my plain old wrapper of no-expectation
And nothing-I-have-to-do and I'm-happy-why?
And if-Monday-never-had-to-come -
When you have forgotten that, I say,
And how you swore, if somebody beeped the bell,
And how my heart played hopscotch if the telephone rang;
And how we finally went into Sunday dinner,
That is to say, went across the front-room floor to the
ink-spotted table in the southwest corner
To Sunday dinner, which was always chicken and noodles
Or chicken and rice
And salad and rye bread and teac
And chocolate chip cookies -
I say, when you have forgotten that,
When you have forgotten my little presentiment
That the war would be over before they got to you;
And how we finally undressed and whipped out the light and flowed into bed,
And lay loose-limbed for a moment in the week-end
Bright bedclothes,
Then gently folded into each other-
When you have, I say, forgotten all that,
They you may tell,
They I may believe
You have forgotten me well. (Street in Bronzeville,18-19.)

To read more of Brooks' poems, look for Selected Poems by Gwendolyn Brooks. HarperCollins,March 1999. ISBN: 0060931744.

 

 

 


Laura Tanenbaum is a PhD student in Comparative Literature at New York University, where she is working on her dissertation on treatment of the sexual revolution in contemporary American historical novels. She teaches in the Expository Writing Program at NYU and has also taught essay writing, creative writing and poetry at Choate Rosemary Hall's summer program. She is also an active member of GSOC-UAW at NYU, the first recognized graduate employee union at a private university in the United States.

lat202@is5.nyu.edu


Works Cited

Brooks,Gwendolyn, In the Mecca. New York: Harper & Row, 1964: 49.

---. A Street in Bronzeville, New York: Harper & Brothers: 18-19.

Works by Brooks:

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