Gwendolyn Brooks 1917-2000
— Tyrone Williams
FOR THOSE OF us mourning Gwendolyn Brooks' death, her career appears to encapsulate, if not exemplify, the vexed relationship between aesthetics and ethics, an argument older than Plato's Republic.
I cite this historical marker in order to remind us that the work of Brooks, like that of so many older Negro Americans (and this term must be respected for its historicity) writing in the early-to-middle 20th century, presupposes a tenuous but vital heritage. One might call it "Negro American culture."
By definition, as the Harlem Renaissance demonstrates, this culture would necessarily be both "Negro" and "American," to use W.E.B. Du Bois' infamous opposition.
Just as Du Bois understood that this opposition necessitated that the Negro American artist function as a kind of Gramscian "organic intellectual," inextricably wedded to the Negro community, so too Brooks saw herself as an aesthetic ambassador between different cultural traditions (specifically, African and European).
Brooks never left her beloved Chicago South Side, choosing to serve as a resource for the young Blacks in her community, to argue for the value of both the arts and the struggle for Black Liberation, while insisting on the importance of thinking in international, if not universal, terms.
It is this tension—between the parochial and the universal, between ethical commitment and aesthetic innovation—that is her most immediate legacy. A tentative assessment of her work, both political and artistic, must begin where she herself began: the life of the mind.
Gwendolyn Brooks' first book of poems, A Street in Bronzeville, published in 1945 when she was 28, contains formal and thematic clues to her widespread reception by a certain artistic establishment. These poems, influenced by the Harlem Renaissance aesthetic of "the New Negro" and the modernist collages of Pound and Eliot, Cummings and Williams, are largely realistic depictions of Black American life.
The same could be said for the psychodrama of Annie Allen, published four years later in 1949. This modernist, oblique work suggested that Brooks, like Ralph Ellison (who published Invisible Man three years later), represented a new kind of Negro American, one who had overcome the polarities of color-line angst (at least in art) as summed up by W.E.B. Du Bois in 1910.
Both Brooks and Ellison availed themselves of formal tools and strategies derived from Negro folklore and from the cream of late 19th century and early 20th century Caucasian (not just American) literature.
Thematically, their work in poetry and fiction implicitly and explicitly insisted that the province of art was only adjacent to—not coincidental with—the world of political, cultural and social history. In practice this had the effect of a focus on, and elevation of, the individual life (hence the interiority central to both artists' work in this period), set against, if not always opposed to, the "community," however defined.
This tendency in both Ellison and Brooks coincided with the post-World War II reaction against communist and socialist influence in U.S. politics and culture, which culminated in intensified "red-baiting" in the 1950s.
Of course, the most common cliche concerning American values pits the lone individual against the community, and its incarnation takes multiple forms in American literature in general. From this perspective, the Harlem Renaissance, the "New Negro," can be understood as a calling forth of Negro individuals from the mass of undifferentiated Africans.
The implications of this aesthetic stance would change for Brooks in the 1960s, and it will remain a matter of debate whether her turn to "protest" writing, her divergence from Ellison's path, undercut or supported her development as a poet.
For Brooks the change in her work was not thematic so much as it was formal, a shift from psychological explorations of social issues to social explorations of psychological issues. In her autobiography Brooks reports that she was swayed by the clarion call of the Black Arts Movement, a multidisciplinary, diverse group of artists, critics and intellectuals dedicated to valorizing a "Black aesthetics" as the foundation for cultural production in the United States.
Brooks, living on the South Side of Chicago, understood all too well the appeal of founding a cultural movement on the ideas, desires and needs of ordinary people. She gained a certain amount of notoriety, and lost a great deal of respect from the cultural establishment, not only because of her perceived turn to "didacticism"(though her work never lost completely the nuances and ambivalence associated with her pre-sixties work), but also because she began working with the members of the notorious Blackstone Rangers, one of the most feared Chicago gangs of the period.
Her sixties' books—particularly In The Mecca (1963) and Riot (1969)—reflect, for better or worse, the influence of the various Black Power and Black aesthetic movements.
Given all of the above, it is impossible to predict what place the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks will occupy in the history of 20th century American literature, precisely because that history—or histories—will be written by those deciding whether outspoken protest in verse forms constitutes a more significant human achievement than verse that depicts, in all its contradictions, the life of a people.
These two choices obviously need not be mutually exclusive, and to that end, we can only hope that Gwendolyn Brooks' future readers will understand the relative value and historical contexts of all her poetic output. Only then will there be the mere beginning of an honest and fair assessment of this poet's place in literary history.
Tyrone Willimas is a Detroit poet and currently chair of the English Department at Xavier University in Cincinnati.
ATC 90, January-April 2001