She Took Us to Our Literary Mecca: A Tribute to Gwendolyn Brooks

By Daphne Muse

Just in case no one has done so before, I want to remind the world, long
before Chicago had Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan, there was Gwendolyn
Brooks! Many of us recall how her work put us In The Mecca as we traveled A
Street in Bronzeville in search of Maude Martha, gathering with The Bean
Eaters, who in their lifetime, would come to celebrate Winnie.
As a beneficiary of a more than 30-year friendship with Gwendolyn Brooks,
my bank of memories and personal archives are filled with volumes of her
poetry, correspondence and countless pieces of ephemera. While my heart
hangs heavily over her loss, my spirit dances divinely for one of America’s
finest poets. With pen in hand and verse in her heart, she died Sunday,
December 3rd in her South side Chicago home one week after being diagnosed
with cancer. She was surrounded by her daughter Nora, poet Haki Madhubuti and
other people she loved.
As she transitions back to spirit, I know she is writing to express her
own indignation poetically demanding an investigation into the ongoing brutal
disenfranchisement of ordinary Black American citizens, about whom she wrote
so eloquently. Her work spanned five decades and is certain to be held in
perpetuity in our hearts and minds, as well as through the works of multiple
generations of poets she mentored. In Spring 2001, her voice will rise again
and span the new century through the publication of her last book – In
Montgomery: New and Other Poems (Third World Press). Starting in 1969 with
Riot, she sustained her commitment to her integrity and continued to place
her work with independent black publishers.

Brooks wore her 1950 Pulitzer Prize, the 1994 National Endowment for the
Humanities Jefferson Lectureship (the highest humanities award given by the
federal government) and her hundreds of other outstanding accolades as she
did her clothes–simply. Through her poetry, presence and uncomplicated
demeanor, she firmly admonished black people not to be clubbed into
submission and to stand tall in their power and honor their truth.

Across from my writing desk hangs a wonderful photograph reminding me how
powerfully her mentoring reach extended. In the photo a lovely and youthful
Brooks is surrounded by the “Jump Badders,”–Carolyn Rodgers, Sharon Scott,
Johari Amini, Mike Cook, Walter Bradford and Haki Madhubuti (Don Lee)–young
Chicago poets she mentored starting in the mid-60’s. Along with the voices
of a new generation of slammin’ and jammin’ poets, some of the more seasoned
voices continue to bloom across the American literary landscape.

We in the Bay Area are especially privileged for her legacy has become
institutionalized through the acquisition of an extraordinary collection of
manuscripts, correspondence and photographs from the Brooks archives recently
acquired by UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. During the past three decades,
Brooks presented her often lean and sometimes richly textured narrative
through witty and socially compelling poetry at several readings at UC
Berkeley. Just as she did in 1974 at Zellerbach, she packed the house again
in April 1997 and elevated the bar of those gathered to “cook and book with
Ms. Brooks.” As each poem flowed effortlessly from her well-orchestrated and
fully engaged voice, she mesmerized teenagers and gave wizened elders even
more to think about. From “When Mrs. Martin’s Booker T.” and “A Man of the
Middle Class,” to “We Real Cool” and “The Womanhood,” the almost 1,000 people
gathered in Wheeler auditorium held on to her every ingenious word. Another
700 hundred had been turned away tearfully. After two hours of reading and
with no cessation in her rhythm, she remained another two hours, just before
midnight, and signed each book of the more than 300 people who waited in line
for proud and visionary inscriptions to relatives, friends and themselves.

For her return trip, I presented her with the traditional shoe box. For
those of you who don’t know or might have forgotten, there was a time when
black people could not eat in the dining cars of trains. Families and
friends sent us packing with shoe boxes brimming with fresh from the stove
fried chicken, potato salad and right from the oven sweet potato pie that I
can still smell.

Back in 1968, Majorie Holmes, then a critic for the Evening Star (DC)
Newspaper wrote in her review of Selected Poems by Gwendolyn Brooks, “…one
of our greatest living poets….Anyone who has a real hunger for poetry ought
to know Gwendolyn Brooks. She is original. Her imagery is startling. She
has a ‘beat’…You can march to the music she makes. She grips the strong
stuff of life and squeezes a kind of bloody beauty from it.” And until
Sunday, December 3rd, she continued to grip the strong stuff and squeeze a
kind of bloody beauty from a life so well lived.

Daphne Muse is a writer who lives in Oakland, California.

Daphne Muse
2429 East 23rd Street
Oakland, CA 94601-1235
510 436-4716/510 261-6064 (FAX)
[email protected]
Books by Gwendolyn Brooks
A Street in Bronzeville, 1945
Annie Allen, 1949
Bronzeville Boys and Girls, 1956
The Bean Eaters, 1960
Selected Poems, 1963
We Real Cool, 1966
The Wall, 1967
In the Mecca, 1968
Family Pictures, 1970
Riot, 1970
Black Steel: Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, 1971
The World of Gwendolyn Brooks, 1971
Aloneness, 1971
Aurora, 1972
Beckonings, 1975
Black Love, 1981
To Disembark, 1981
The Near-Johannesburg Boy and Other Poems, 1986
Blacks, 1987
Winnie, 1988
Children Coming Home, 1991

Report from Part One: An Autobiography, 1972
A Capsule Course in Black Poetry Writing, 1975
Primer for Blacks, 1981
Young Poet’s Primer, 1981
Very Young Poets, 1983
Maud Martha, 1953

Online Resources

Gwendolyn Brooks – Modern American Poetry

Voices From the Gaps – Women Writers of Color (archived link)

Gwendolyn Brooks Cultural Center

7th Annual Literary Festival at Old Dominion University, October 1-4, 1984

Lesson Plan – Gwendolyn Brooks (archived link)

An Interview with Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks Reading Her Poetry

gwenbrooks.html (archived link)

“The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till”

Gwendolyn Brooks: A Perspective of Black Life
by Anise Evans

Lanston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks

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