The Impact of Modern American History on the Work of Gwendolyn Brooks

As an African-American woman, Gwendolyn Brooks' poetry reflected the many social and political changes that occurred in the United States during her lifetime. Born at the end of WWI, Gwendolyn's first book A Street in Bronzeville, was published at the end of the second World War. In 1950, she became the first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize for Annie Allen, which she wrote at the relatively young age of 31. During an era of McCarythism following the Korean War, perhaps Brooks writing was safe enough to avoid the scrutiny of an increasingly paranoid government. In a 1962 interview with Studs Terkel, Brooks explains that her primary focus while writing Annie Allen was writing flawless poetry, with an emphasis on technique. When she wrote A Street in Bronzeville on the other hand, "I was just interested in putting people down on paper, although it is rougher than Annie Allen, I feel that there's more humanity in it" she says (7 Gayles).

Shortly after the ruling in Roe vs Wade which ended segregation, the Civil Rights Movement was born. In 1956, Brooks wrote Bronzeville Boys and Girls, which was the same year of the Montgomery Bus Boycott led by Martin Luther King Jr. After the start of the Vietnam War in 1959, Brooks' focus shifted from focusing solely on the lives of urban black folks, to a more universal theme in The Bean Eaters (1960). In the same interview with Terkel, Brooks explains that she "was referring to the great mass of eaters of beans, people who are not rich (9 Gayles). In this work, we see a valiant response to the racial injustices and social climate of the time. For example, the poem "A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi, Meanwhile a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon" was written about the tragic murder of Emmit Till, the modern-day, racially motivated lynching which occurred in 1955. Between 1960 and 1968 (which marked the so-called end of the Civil Rights Movement), Gwendolyn Brooks poetry became more "black," as she was surrounded by influencers of the Black Nationalist movement, popularized by Malcolm X and the Black Muslims. In 1964, Martin Luther King Jr. led the March on Washington, and also won the Nobel Peace Prize. Perhaps in response (in part) to the increasing amount of race related violence-such as the race riots of 1965-and black on black crime, Brooks wrote "We Real Cool," her most anthologized poem to date, which related the rate at which young black men were dying at their own hands. In 1967, Brooks attended the 2nd Black Writers Conference at Fisk University, which marked the beginning of her lifelong role in the Black Arts Movement. In 1968, In the Mecca was published, which is arguably her most distinctly "black" book of all. This was the year that she was also named Poet Laureate of Illinois.

From the publishing of The Riot-again, a response to the racial tensions and violence that was a result of American racism-in 1969, to 1980 (when A Primer for Blacks was published), essentially all of Brooks work was centered on Black unity, and pride. As race relations became less poignant in the 80's, Brooks hailed African-Americans for their contributions, notably Mayor Harold Washington of Chicago, in "Mayor Harold Washington of Chicago, the I Will City". From the mid 80's until her death in 2000, as equality and justice increased in America, Brooks continued to focus on Black people and children in her writing, while also achieving a number of great honors and awards. In 1987 she published Blacks, which is her own self-published anthology. In 1994, during President Bill Clinton's first term in office, Gwendolyn Brooks was named the National Endowment for Humanities Jefferson Lecturer, which she says was her greatest honor.

Works Consulted

Alexander, Elizabeth. The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks. American Poet's Project. The Library

Of America, 2005. Print.*

Gayles, Gloria Wade. Conversations with Gwendolyn Brooks. University Press of Mississippi

Jackson, 2003. Print.*

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