Gwendolyn Brooks and the Black Literary Tradition

Essay by Theon Hill, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Communication

Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks represents the very best of the Black literary tradition, a vibrant tradition featuring luminaries like Langston Hughes, Pauli Murray, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Amiri Baraka, Toni Morrison, and Audre Lorde. She holds the distinction of being the first Black writer to win the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Annie Allen (1949) and the first Black woman to be inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1976).

My attraction to Brooks’ poetry lies in the revealing, yet reverential portrait of Black urban life that it offers. She resists the temptation to sensationalize Black life for what Toni Morrison called the “white gaze.” Rather, she locates complexity, beauty, and struggle in the everyday experiences of Black people seeking to navigate the realities of Jim and Jane Crow America. As a descendant of Black southerners who came to Chicago to escape oppression during the “Great Migration,” I am especially drawn Brooks’ 1945 collection A Street in Bronzeville. Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, also known as the city’s “Black Metropolis,” grew significantly during the migration as many Black southerners took up residence there. Brooks wrote not as an external observer of Black life in Bronzeville but as a resident. She explained, “I wrote about what I saw and heard in the street … There was my material.”

Rhetorically, A Street in Bronzeville features a profound use of pathos. Brooks feels with and for the Black people that serve as the subject(s) of her poetry. The stories she tells in poems like “the murder” – about an unsupervised young child who kills his baby brother – tugs on the heart strings as much as the moment in John Singleton’s classic film Boyz N the Hood when Ricky is shot. She empathizes with the plight of Chicago’s Black urban poor in poems like “kitchenette building,” explaining how difficult it was to dream in the midst of debilitating poverty:

We wonder. But not well! not for a minute!

Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now,

We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it.

Through her poetry, she demonstrates an unwavering commitment to valuing the lives of oppressed people. This commitment resonates with our Christian calling to care for the poor, orphan, widow, and the stranger. As the prophet Isaiah writes, “If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.” Brooks’ commitment to valuing the lives of oppressed people gives her work contemporary relevance almost twenty-five years after her passing. Contemporary artists regularly turn to her poetry due to voice it lends to silent and ignored forms of oppression that marginalized populations experience.

Brooks’ poetry does not uncritically glorify the lives of the oppressed nor does she reduce the oppressed to victims. Rather, she portrays them as human beings, a revolutionary move in mid-twentieth century America. She elevated the humanity of oppressed populations at a moment that the nation was committed to dehumanizing Black lives through Jim and Jane Crow segregation, domestic terrorism, and economic stratification.