Today at 3:00 p.m., Gwendolyn Brooks Memorial Park, located at the corner of Adams and Normal streets, will be inaugurated. (Due to Covid-19 restrictions, participation is limited and by invitation only.)
The famous Chicago-based Pulitzer Prize-winning poet has visited Macomb frequently to read his poems and speak at WIU and Macomb High School. Because the Brooks Cultural Center, for black students at WIU, was named in his honor in 1970, and now we also have the Memorial Park, local residents should be aware of his perspective and accomplishments as as a poet.
Born in Kansas in 1917 and raised in Chicago, she has always been devoted to the problems of the black community. His first of twenty books of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville (1945), takes its title from the name of the journalists of the Black South Side. And his early poems describe the struggle and damaged lives, which are the inevitable result of poverty and limited opportunities, resulting from racial prejudice.
In a poem called “Queen of the Blues”, for example, a black blues singer looks back on her difficult life, when she first “delved hard into these white people / Kitchens / Until my knees be rusty ”and then ended up singing at the“ Midnight Club ”, where the men hanging out and drinking there just“ slap my thighs ”. Naturally, she longs for respect.
As this and various other poems reveal, Brooks was particularly sensitive to the complex lives of black women. In fact, one of his best-known poems in this book is “A Song in the Front Yard”, in which the speaker is a girl who her mother has forbidden to spend time in the backyard, where the people are very disadvantaged and more there are young rebels. But now she longs to share their lack of restriction:
“My mother chuckles, but I say it’s okay
How they don’t have to come in at quarter to nine.
My mother, she tells me that Johnnie Mae
Will become a bad woman. . . .
But I say it’s okay. Honestly, I do.
And I wish I was a bad woman too
And wear the brave black lace stockings of the night
And strut the streets with paint on my face.
As various poems by Brooks indicate, the limited culture of the poor in the black community negatively impacts many young lives. A poem called “From Witt Williams on his way to Lincoln Cemetery,” for example, recalls a deceased young man who simply hung out in pool halls and bars, like many others in his neighborhood. Although the exact cause of his death was not mentioned, the speaker lamented that “he was born in Alabama; / He was raised in Illinois”, so “He was nothing but a / A simple black boy ”. In other words, she says he was powerless to change his destiny.
As these and other poems show, in her early poems Brooks tends to bemoan the miserable and disadvantaged plight of so many African Americans, but she does not explicitly criticize biased white American culture. She did so later, however.
A poem that has been the subject of numerous anthologies, “The Lovers of the Poor”, appeared in a 1960 collection called The Bean Eaters, and it effectively ventures into the white mindset. It focuses on members of the Ladies’ Betterment League, who come to a building, to donate money to the black people who live there – “the poor and the mis-upon”. But they are not prepared for what they encounter, because “everything is going so badly! And quite too much for them, ”including“ The Stench; urine, cabbage and dead beans. . . . “
After all, the women of the Betterment League come from upscale suburbs like Lake Forest and Glencoe, and “they own Spodes, Lowestoft, candelabra, coats, hostess dresses, and sundial clocks.” They know Michigan Avenue and the Art Institute, and they think their money will be wasted in such misery in the slums, so they leave the building, instead of finding people to introduce it to. In other words, they reject the poor, after all, revealing their bigotry and limited understanding of these people.
So, what Brooks points out is the gravity of the circumstances of poverty that shape the lives of so many blacks and make it so difficult for whites to truly understand their predicament.
In another poem from the same book, titled “Defender of Chicago Sends Man to Little Rock”, the speaker is a reporter for this reputable black newspaper who is responsible for covering the unrest in this city over the desegregation of schools. public, during the 1950s. He finds out that white residents “throw saliva, rocks, / trash” and other things at black people, and he sees “men harassing brownish girls” as well as ‘”A bleeding brown boy”. So, the reporter concludes that the story he was sent to cover is far from over, and he realizes that White Little Rock fanatics are typical of many Americans in others. places :
“The biggest news I dare not
Telegraph to the chairman of the editorial staff:
“They are like people everywhere. “
And of course, such widespread atrocities committed by whites, designed to keep blacks in their place, have had a huge negative impact on the inner lives of African Americans. How can people facing such prejudices not be anxious and often afraid to challenge white audiences?
Or, as in another poem, “The Blackstone Rangers”, they end up hanging out in gangs, “Black, raw, ready”, becoming “Plagues in the city / Who won’t heal”.
It’s no surprise that the poet was always keen to help young black people – and others. Her assistance to the Western Black Students’ Association and her inspiring impact on African American students in our city led to the dedication of our Brooks Cultural Center to her in 1970. It was originally located in an old town. house in front of Lake Ruth, which was demolished in 2002, and therefore, it is the site of the memorial park. (The WIU Multicultural Center on Murray Street now includes the Brooks Cultural Center.)
In addition to being the first African American to receive a Pulitzer Prize (in 1950), Brooks later received other national awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. And she was also the Illinois Poet Laureate for over thirty years, until her death in 2000. Appreciated in Macomb for many years, she was also awarded Western’s first honorary doctorate in human letters. So it’s very nice that Macomb has such a bond with a talented American poet and a committed social and educational activist.
Writer and speaker John Hallwas is a columnist for the McDonough County Voice.