Gwendolyn Brooks and the Children

Essay by Susan Dunn Hensley, Ph.D.

Associate Lecturer of English


Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” Matthew 19:14.


In his 1964, “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King articulates the cost that racism, segregation, and injustice have on the next generation. When asked why justice cannot wait, he lists many reasons, but perhaps most poignant is the following:

When you “suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean? . . . then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait"

King’s concern about the “ominous clouds of inferiority” that begin to form in the minds of children who face injustice and discrimination speaks to the wide-reaching intergenerational consequences of racism. His letter also addresses the difficult task faced by black parents.

A little over a decade before King wrote his letter, Chicago-poet Gwendolyn Brooks found herself having to offer a strikingly similar explanation of injustice to her own five-year-old son, Henry, Jr. In the story “How I Told My Child About Race,” published in the Negro Digest (June 1951), Brooks recounts walking with her son on the campus of the University of Chicago when a group of six or seven young white men began to throw “handfuls of rocks” while shouting racial epithets at them.

Her young son asked why “those men” would want to hurt them. Brooks explained as best anyone can the evils of this world. But she also told her son, “When you are bigger you may be able to help them change the way they feel by teaching them . . . you are a person and good, wise, and helpful to the world” (qtd. in Flynn 490).

King’s letter and Brooks’ story remind their audiences of the powerful impact that oppression and injustice can have on the next generation. In her writing and in her life work, Gwendolyn Brooks paid particular attention to the lives and experiences of children.

 In her poetry, Brooks often explores childhood “as a position from which to critique prevailing constructs of class and race” (Flynn 484). But in Bronzeville Boys and Girls, Brooks also tries to capture the voices of children as she reaches out to young readers.  Although critics often dismiss works written for children as less significant than those written for adults, a significant part of Brooks’ “political project,” observes critic Richard Flynn, involves “a clear-eyed, tough, and compassionate look at the plight of children” (484). In Bronzeville Boys and Girls, Brooks asserts the dignity of black children, while shining light on struggles that they face.

Bronzeville Boys and Girls

In 1956, Gwendolyn Brooks released a book of verse for children entitled Bronzeville Boys and Girls. The poems, which focus on the joys and struggles of childhood, take the names of various fictional children living in the black community of Bronzeville on the South Side of Chicago.

It is a widely held misconception that Brooks’ verses for children present a universalized and romanticized view of childhood. This may be because of standard academic literary practices that involve “separating works for adults from works for children” (Mason Phillips and Michelle Phillips 145-146).  Even those who have recognized the artistry and significance of the poems, including many early reviewers, at times ignore the particularity of the poems. Instead, critics tie the poems to universal themes concerning the innocence and imagination of childhood.

There is a  real sense of childhood as a time of wonder and imagination in the work. But, Brooks centers all her poetry in the Bronzeville community, and despite the often joyful celebration of childhood, many of the poems either hint at or directly address the suffering that attends the particular childhood experiences of black boys and girls living in Bronzeville.

And while many of the poems reveal glimpses of the oppression and poverty that assails black children, it would be a mistake to assume that only those poems that discuss social issues are politically relevant. As Brooks asserts in an interview with Claudia Tate, “Many of the poems, in my new and old books, are ‘politically aware’ . . . . You know, when you say ‘political,’ you really have to be exhaustive” (106). Indeed, even when Brooks’ poems do dwell on more general themes such as the importance of imagination and the freedom of childhood, her works still serve a significant purpose: asserting the dignity of the young black children of Bronzeville and of urban America.

Including Black Children in the Narrative of Childhood

Although Brooks clearly centers her verses in Bronzeville, early reviewers often focused positively on the universal nature of Brooks’ depictions of childhood. A New York Herald Tribune review of the 1956 edition says that the poems “are universal and will make friends anywhere, among grownups or among children from eight to ten" (qtd. in Phillips 146). Doris M. King offers a similar review of the book. She observes that, while some of the poems focus on social issues, other poems, "being unfettered by social implications," are "as light and free and delightful as the child" (qtd. in Phillips 147).

To Doris M. King, when Brooks focuses on the social realities of black children, she loses the universal appeal of the poems. As King puts it, some of the poems "seem to encumber . . . the universal wonder of childhood with a—often ever so faint—note of social comment" (Phillips 147).

One might be tempted to dismiss these attitudes as a product of their 1950s context, except for the fact that, as Rachel Conrad observes, the rereleased and reillustrated 2007 edition of the book uses as the only text on the back cover the excerpt from the aforementioned New York Herald Tribune review of the 1956 edition, which asserts the universal nature of the poems (Conrad 382). In Conrad’s view, the choice to include this sentence from the 1956 review indicates “the continued editorial investment in denying the particularity Brooks has drawn and viewing these poems simply as “universal” (382). To those who reviewed and marketed the book, the goal of children’s literature seems to be to speak to “all children,” a category often marked as white and middle class.

Why did critics so strongly focus on celebrating the universality of childhood they found in Brooks’ work?

First, the visual design of the book directed readers’ experience of the book. Ronni Solbert’s black and white illustrations in the 1956 edition depict the child characters as having the features of black children but with white skin.  Brooks was disappointed with these illustrations, but it would not be until 2007, with the release of the new edition, that the original illustrations were replaced with Faith Ringgold’s vivid, colorful illustrations, which represent the residents of Bronzeville as having dark skin.

Second, in addition to the illustrations, many of the poems in Bronzeville Boys and Girls evoke nostalgia for the innocence of childhood. Indeed, some of Brooks’ poems feel as if they could have been pulled from one of Kate Greenaway’s Victorian children’s books, with their idyllic settings and emphasis on the magic of childhood. Indeed, the first poem of Brooks’ book, “Mexie and Bridie,” presents two little girls having a “tiny tea-party,” complete with “pink cakes, and nuts and bon-bons” (1).Other poems in the book speak of playing in the snow, pretending to be grown up, having secret hiding places, cleaning up to go to Sunday church services, and playing in the starlight. These experiences suggest a universal childhood experience of play, wonder, and imagination.

And yet, in the 1950s, the very act of ascribing the joy and innocence of childhood to young black boys and girls held political significance.

As John Lash observes, “the portraits of Bronzeville Boys and Girls identify these Negro children with the essences of childhood itself” (21), and this act is not without significance for “[s]uch an identification is often tragically necessary in a nation and in a world which would brutally impose upon children the mannish prohibitions of social distinction and difference” (21). Rachel Conrad makes a similar assertion, suggesting that Brooks’ poems “instantiate the idea that even young children are important—are, indeed, persons—and that the individuality of black children deserves representation” (Conrad 381).

In these poems, Brooks asserts the beauty of imagination and of community in black neighborhoods. Although the poems hint at and sometimes directly comment on the problems facing the children of Bronzeville, they, nonetheless, assert a strong sense of community, family, and dignity. For example, the poem “Andre” celebrates family as a young boy dreams that he has the opportunity to pick who his parents will be and, with joyful surprise, realizes that he would not want any parents but the ones that he has. Unspoken in the poem is the fact that the young boy could have chosen wealthy parents in a different community, but, instead, he joyfully embraces his own community. The poem could be about any child, but as it focuses on a young black man – it reminds us of the importance of family and community that transcends the realities of oppression.

Desires and dreams bubble just below the surface of the poems. In “Eppie,” a little girl dreams of owning something “that is perfectly her own” (13). In “Luther and Breck,” two little boys dream of a nostalgic past in England, a land of knights and castles. While the dreams suggest lack, they also suggest a persistence of hope.

The many positive representations of childhood in Bronzeville Boys and Girls tempt even Brooks’ biographer, George Kent, to suggest that the book “represents the more Edenic side of Gwendolyn's own childhood” (122).

While certainly Brooks’ poems often evoke the magic of childhood and imagination, we do a disservice to the poems if we move them too far from their geographical and social context. Indeed, Richard Flynn argues that, "in the course of over fifty years of writing for and about children, Brooks' complex negotiation of childhood teaches us that the failure to see children in the specificity of their lived circumstances 'makes a trap for us' " (495).

Flynn argues that “rather than ‘arousing . . . nostalgia’ in adult readers, these poems seem calculated to point out the dangers of a nostalgia that obscures the actual conditions of children" (492). Mexie and Bridie may be happily having a tea party in the sun with only the birds and God watching, but they do not occupy the privileged position of the young ladies enjoying tea in Greenaway’s books. They and the other young children who fill the pages of Bronzeville Boys and Girls live in the same neighborhoods as the young men of “We Real Cool,” who live fast and die entirely too young. Brooks’ “children do not exist in a pastoral world apart from the socio- economic and psychological problems that beset her adult characters" (Smith 130). The scenes that play out in Brooks’ poems might evoke the nostalgia of childhood, but this nostalgia exists right alongside the harsh truths of poverty and suffering.

Examining the Struggles of Black Youth

In many of the poems, Brooks reminds readers of the children’s reality beyond the wonder. As Flynn argues, despite its often ideal representation of childhood, the book frequently disrupts “the idealizing and sentimental view of childhood endorsed by mainstream culture in the ‘50s” (492). This disruption appears in the poem about Rudolph, who is tired of the crowded, confining aspects of the city and wants to go to the country where the buildings are not so close together.

Rudolph’s desire to return to a green world suggests the contrast between Brooks’ verse world and the world presented in many of the children’s books of the day. In these books, children did not need to long for the green world as they were consistently presented in leafy suburbs, playing in manicured yards, if not in fully realized pastoral settings. Rudolph’s plight in the city, constrained by the buildings, might be seen as parallel to the confined life of the dying fish in a small bowl in Brooks’ poem about Skipper. Skipper talks to the fish, gives him fresh water, and the best food, but his efforts amount to nothing. The fish, perhaps unable to handle such close confinement, remains sad and pale. Finally, the fish dies, and Skipper buries him under an old tree in the garden.

Other poems address the reality of growing up in poverty. For example, Otto does not receive the Christmas presents that he wanted, and Lyle has had to move seven times.  Both poems convey particular struggles that affect the children of Bronzeville.

Otto’s sadness is compounded by the fact that he cannot share it with anyone, for he says, “My Dad must never know I care / It’s hard enough for him to bear” (38).  Meanwhile, Lyle’s experience of constant displacement weighs heavily on him, pushing him to consider the experience of a tree that will not have to “pack his bag and go. . . . . / In his first and favorite home / Tree shall stay and stay” (25).

Brooks does not explain the reasons for Lyle’s constant displacement; she simply offers a glimpse of the young boys’ despair as he is forced to once again leave a place that had been home. The final lines of the poem prove poignant as Lyle considers that the tree, unlike his parents and him, will never have to move from the “land he learned to love” (25).

We do not know what Otto wanted for Christmas, nor do we know why Lyle’s parents could not find a permanent home, but we understand that urban poverty and the reality of segregated neighborhoods has a profound impact on the experiences of the residents of Bronzeville.

The poem “John, who is Poor” proves even more stark. Within a sing-song rhythm that brings to mind the songs of innocence in William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, Brooks considers the impact of poverty on urban children. In the poem, Brooks’ poetic persona reminds the other children to be kind to John, for his “Mama must hurry to toil all day,” and his “Papa is dead and done” (10). This short verse poem speaks of the realities of loneliness and hunger that will hardly be alleviated by the persona’s instructions to offer him “a berry” or “a mint.”

Because these poems are for children, Brooks does not present in detail the real conditions of poverty. However, we must assume that, when she speaks of John’s poverty, she means to evoke the same conditions that we find in her poems for adults such as the stark “Lovers of the Poor” in Brooks’ Selected Poems.

In “Lovers of the Poor,” Brooks uses a visit by the Ladies’ Betterment League to the home of a poor family in order to dramatize the striking contrast between the league’s romanticized vision of the poor and the real conditions of urban poverty.

The details of “Lovers of the Poor” speak, assaulting the senses with descriptions of smells: “the stench; the urine, cabbage, and dead beans,/ . . . / The old smoke, heavy diapers . . .” (Selected Poems 91). The poem also speaks of darkness and of “general oldness”: “Old wood. Old marble. Old tile. Old, old, old. / Not homekind Oldness! Not Lake Forest, Glencoe./ Nothing is sturdy, nothing is majestic” (91). There is nothing romanticized about this depiction of poverty, and the presence of the ladies of the Ladies’ Betterment League makes this point perfectly clear.

Brooks' poetic persona describes the ladies’ desire to donate “their largesse to the lost” (92). However, the wording of the poem makes clear their reluctance to give it to those who do not fit their image of the worthy poor: “But to put their clean, their pretty money, to put/ Their money collected from delicate rose-fingers / Tipped with their hundred flawless rose-nails seems . . .” (92). The conjunction “but” and the ellipses marks do a great deal of work here, suggesting the discomfort that the ladies feel as they encounter a poverty that disturbs their world view. This is a poverty that steals dignity from those who must live through it. It is in the face of this sort of poverty that John and those like him must struggle to assert their dignity.

Supporting and Working with Children

While Brooks’ poetry reveals the struggles of the children of Bronzeville, she also continually asserts their dignity. For example, in “Narcissa,” the young protagonist sits and daydreams. In her mind, she moves from one persona to another, starting as “an ancient queen” and transforming first into a “singing wind” and finally into “a nightingale” (4).  The poem reminds the reader of the young Black child’s connection to antiquity, to nature, and to poetry. As Conrad observes, Narcissa’s transformation into a nightingale “suggests that Brooks considers her a child-poet” (“And Stay” 391).  In poems such as “Narcissa,” Brooks positions young black children as creative agents who can transform their struggles into art.

Children mattered to Brooks. During her life, she increasingly saw “her role as being a poet for the young” (Phillips 146). As the poet laureate of Illinois, she asserted that "a poet laureate should do more than wear a crown— [he or she] should be of service to the young” (Phillips 146). Brooks put this belief into practice. As poet laureate, Brooks “visited countless universities, high schools, and elementary schools” (Phillips146). In addition, she initiated Poet Laureate Awards for students, “often funding the prizes herself” (Phillips 146). Through her engagement with students, Brooks encouraged the hopes and dreams of Black children. Through her writing, she gave voice to their hopes, dreams, and sufferings.


Works Cited

Conrad, Rachel. "“And stay, a minute more, alone”: Time and Subjectivities in Gwendolyn Brooks’ Bronzeville Boys and Girls." Children's Literature Association Quarterly, vol. 38, no. 4, 2013, pp. 379-398. 

Conrad, Rachel. “Children Coming Home: The Anticipatory Present in Gwendolyn Brooks’ Poems of Childhood.” Callaloo, vol. 37, no. 2, 2014, pp. 369–88.

Flynn, Richard. "" The Kindergarten of New Consciousness": Gwendolyn Brooks and the Social Construction of Childhood." African American Review, vol. 34, no. 3, 2000, pp. 483-499.

Tate, Claudia. “Interview with Gwendolyn Brooks.” Conversations with Gwendolyn Brooks, edited by Gloria Wade Gayles, University of Mississippi Press, 2003, pp. 104-111.

Kent, George E. A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks. UP of Kentucky, 1990.

King, Martin Luther. “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” Bill of Rights Institute., July 2022.

Lash, John. “A Long, Hard Look at the Ghetto: A Critical Summary of Literature by and about Negroes in 1956.” The Phylon Quarterly, vol. 18, no. 1, 1957, pp. 7–24.

Phillips, Mason, and Michelle H. Phillips. “Moving In and Stepping Out: Gwendolyn Brooks’ Children at Midcentury.” African American Review, vol. 47, no. 1, 2014, pp. 145–60. 

Smith, Gary. “Paradise Regained: The Children of Gwendolyn Brooks’ Bronzeville.” A Life Distilled: Gwendolyn Brooks, Her Poetry and Fiction, edited by Maria K. Mootry and Gary Smith. University of Illinois Press, 1989.

Williams, Jennifer D. “‘They Call It Bronzeville’: Revisiting Chicago’s South Side.” The Black Scholar, vol. 47, no. 4, 2017, pp. 69–75