Brooks wanted to write poems that called to all black people. Poems to teach, entertain and illuminate. She used elegant spare rhythms. Through activism, she showed her passionate commitment to making her work available to black people everywhere believing poetry was not the sole province of the privileged, educated few.
Born in Kansas and moved to Chicago where she spent most of her life. Published her first poem at thirteen in American Child magazine. Graduated from high school and was a regular contributor to the weekly variety column of the Chicago Defender. Attended Wilson Junior College and joined Chicago’s NAACP Youth Council. Got married.
Brooks had a child and met a pivotal teacher.
Won the Midwestern Writers’ Conference poetry award in 1943. Approached by Emily Morison of Knopf for a book of poems. A Street in Bronzeville was published in 1945. Followed by Annie Allen (1949), winner of the 1950 Pulitzer Prize. Maud Martha (1953); and The Bean Eaters (1960). Brooks’s poetry of this period is solidly based in the stuff of everyday life.
1967 was the year of the Second Black Writers’ conference at Nashville’s Fisk University. Brooks was exposed to cultural activists and artists who would fashion the outline of a new black cultural nationalism. Much of Brooks’s subsequent activity was inspired by her experience at Fisk, including the creative writing class that she conducted with some of Chicago’s Blackstone Rangers, a teenage gang. In 1968, she published In the Mecca, with its brilliant closing pieces: the “sermons” on the Warpland.
Brooks’s poetry has several distinctive traits: a stunning juxtaposition of disparate objects and words, masterful control of rhyme and meters, sophisticated use of formal and thematic irony, translation of public events into memorable poetic detail. A poet’s primary concern–to hammer out a portrait of and for African Americans–remained unaltered.
Fiction Maud Martha: a female subject’s ruminations before, during, and after World War II. One of the few works by a black woman writer written between the Harlem Renaissance and the civil rights era. Not marked by the ideological debates or ugliness of racism, classism, and sexism. Narrates the most difficult, or unspeakable, of human failings–those that occur on the level of intimacy. Generous, sensitive, and tough.
“the mother” relates the inner thoughts of a woman who has experienced abortion.
“The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock”: Federal intervention was necessary to implement school desegregation in Little Rock. The poem opens with a picture of domestic life in the suburbs. People going to church and performing their after-church rituals. Little Rock at Christmas, in summer, outdoor concerts, romance. The expected norms. Phone calls, polite manners. I got to Little Rock to find the news of school desegregation…but it’s so normal here. Then: the spitting, the throwing of rocks, garbage, and fruit. Girls and boys alike were engaged in this behavior. One of the little brown boys was bleeding. So did Christ.
“We Real Cool”: Running with the bad crowd at the pool hall. Drop out, stay out late, sing, drink, dance and die.