Gwendolyn Brooks and the Unknown

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Upon winning the Midwestern Writers’ Conference poetry award in 1943, Gwendolyn Brooks pieced together what became her first book of poems, A Street in Bronzeville (325). In it, her gritty view of the south-Chicago neighborhood offers an unfiltered look into the lives of the area’s inhabitants and focuses on the domestic clashes between generations, social classes, siblings, and lovers.  On the heels of The Harlem Renaissance and World War II, Brooks deposited a unabashed reality of an American community whose stagnant state was the direct result of a government who provided virtually no assistance to returning black soldiers or their families.  A sense of identity and the unknown world is prevalent throughout a majority of this early published work. Two of the poems from A Street in Bronzeville carry with them a recurring curiosity and appeal toward the unknown.  A third poem, also published in 1945, continues her philosophical attention toward the unknown through the actions of a suave young man.  

This attention to the unknown appears in “kitchenette building”, a poem that juxtaposes personal ambition and personal obligation.  “Dream”, Brooks writes, “makes a giddy sound” which indicates how exciting aspirations can be. Immediately thereafter, however, she contrasts that with “strong” terms such as “rent” or “satisfying a man” (326).  This suggests that one’s dreams must come secondary to the daily obligations, especially for those in neighborhoods such as Bronzeville who are limited to living within tight quarters and represent a socio-economic reality for post-World War II readers.  The ambitions and advancements of the Harlem Renaissance artists should not be dismissed, but Brooks’ image of a family struggling to retain housing and the bare necessities such as food strike down the lofty goals of equality and immersion in white culture.  This speaker, the poem suggests, will be satisfied if there is enough “lukewarm water” remaining after the last child has bathed (326).

In “Sadie and Maud” Brooks exposes how two sisters’ different paths into adulthood sharply contrast the implied wisdom and direction of their parents or predecessors.  Sadie did not further her education and ended up with two children and no husband, which led to her sister and parents being ashamed of her (328). The final stanza, however, suggests that Maud’s conservative, academic route might have fulfilled her (and, presumably, her parents’) goals, but doing so also left her without a family of her own.  Maud, possibly on the advice of the previous generation, is falling in line with the politics of respectability in that furthering her education is the sole opportunity to enjoy a more fruitful existence. Yet, the implication with the final image of being “all alone/In this old house” is that Maud’s decision was the poorer of the two because she is left in an isolated state (328).  Presumably, Maud is the first of her lineage to qualify and attend college, which becomes the unknown presence in this poem. With no other details to apply, we are left connecting Maud’s academic aspirations with her lack of a family with whom she can enjoy the fruits of her scholarly labor. Brooks, thus, suggests a cautionary tale to her modernist readers because they may not wish to make the same sacrifices as Maud does in the spirit of gaining social acceptance in the educated world.  

Thirdly, the dense poem “The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith” offers a different spin on the unknown.  The entire poem details the minute-to-minute actions of a local ladies’ man whose entire existence is based in mystery and materialism.  Throughout the verse, the man’s previously unknown actions are delivered by an omniscient speaker. The previously unknown doings of Satin-Legs are suddenly now paired with this much broader announcement about humanity: “People are so in need, in need of help/People want so much that they do not know” (330).  Brooks is commenting on the ever-present magnetism toward instant gratification in the modern world by suggesting “they do not know” about the voids in their lives. Sexual satisfaction–unlike a healthy, more conventional intimate relationship–simply cannot endure. Brooks vocalizes this warning to her readers that abandoning traditional values and replacing them with satisfying selfish desires will ultimately doom the moral code of society.  

Though Gwendolyn Brooks was clearly inspired by the art and writings of Harlem Renaissance giants, she establishes a less abrasive morality in her poems by orchestrating recognizable individuals and painting cautionary images of black community members who have inched closer to forgetting or abandoning a traditional moral compass.  

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