On a Street in BronzevilleThe Words of Gwendolyn Brooks
“When I’m writing, I’m writing to satisfy myself ... But when it’s done, I’m happy to share it with others.”
She outlived the 20th century by 11 months and 3 days. They laid her to rest in Lincoln Cemetery at Blue Island, Illinois, 25 minutes, driving, from Chicago’s Southside. Writer. Wife. Mother. Contribution to the World. On the back of the stone; Selected Works. A Street in Bronzeville, 1945, is the first. The last, Bronzeville Boys and Girls, is wrapped around the side for want of space. She wasn’t born here, or in the city sprawling inland from the seven o’clock position on the coast of Lake Michigan. Draw a line southwest; Aurora, Mendota, Galesburg. Leave Illinois at a bend in the Mississippi and cross into Iowa at Fort Madison; Fox Valley, Indian Hills, Mussel Fork, over the Missouri at Sibley. Through the outskirts of Kansas City, along the banks of an eponymous river; Eudor, Lawrence, and Lecompton to Topeka – the place we dug up potatoes, a grid stretched over a floodplain. Here, seventh of June, 1917, Keziah bore her first child, Gwendolyn Elizabeth. Six weeks later, mother, daughter, and David Anderson went north and east. They crossed the Kansas, then the Missouri, then the Mississippi to the city on the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan.
The movement began just a few years before Gwendolyn was born. Life would be colder, and still hard in the north, but better than this. Anything was better than this. Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana, and Georgia emptied first; black families in their thousands, then hundreds of thousands. And then, by the time the First World War was fought, millions. A Great Migration, they called it. Later A Southern Diaspora. Chicago saw more incomers than any city other than New York. It was the city Gwendolyn Elizabeth called home for as long as she lived.
The water is cold. The lakefront is concrete, crenellated. Trees, a pathway, then the expressway. Christ the King, Lake Park Avenue, vacant squares and ovals of green. Soon enough, the grid of streets sets in. Take a left off South Martin Luther King Junior Drive down East Pershing Road, and then left again onto South Calumet. There is an empty lot on the right hand side. Grass grows up through the gaps in the flagstones. Edges graze edges, tipsily. The asphalt is sun bleached in patches, oil spotted, sewn together with sticky black lines of tar. Over a hump in the road, veer left. Bump up over the cracked curb and the grass verge. A gate, then one, two, three, four, five, six, seven steps. A peacock’s tail of glass in the door. Painted blue leans into its neighbour’s raw, red brick. Mirror images; bay windows on the outside, porches in the centre. The space between is elbow wide. Further, under the rust-rivet casket of the railway bridge, four storeys in brown and tan, with casement windows, bloom briefly. They peter out among remainders of terraces, sliced off, and tangles of seeding weeds darting up and away from balding turf. A teetering rank of cement posts; a stilt bridge; a picket fence. A Street in Bronzeville. It’s not 1945, but narrow your eyes, and you get the picture.
She looks more serious than in her portrait. She is older, more concrete, somehow. She wears a bright red jacket over a green and grey patterned blouse. Her head is covered; a triangle of colourful silk, tied at the nape of the neck. Behind her is a bust in bronze, larger than life size. “I see myself in there,” she says to the sculptor. “Sarah, thank-you,” she reads from a folded square of paper, “for extending my life into bronze … I shall be gone, and not gone.” The room applauds. In an earlier interview; grey hair, a surer voice, a downward turn at the corners of her mouth. Earlier still; horn-rimmed glasses and a hand on the chin, a crackle of voice through the wireless. “When I’m writing, I’m writing to satisfy myself,” she says. “But when it’s done, I’m happy to share it with others.”
Turn left from East 74th Street onto South Evans Avenue. Her house has a clapboard front painted pale, like a bird’s egg. Through the gate, a single stride, then one, two, three, four, five, six steps up to the white-painted porch with lattice work on the front. A door in the middle, a window on each side, one more up in the eaves. It’s the eighth house on the left. There is no need to count; it is the smallest house on the street. There might be a yellow bus parked outside, delivering visiting school children. Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy, East 111th Street. Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School, South Kenilworth Avenue. Gwendolyn Brooks Junior High, Wallace Street. Someone has tied a balloon to the railings, perhaps. Or left a note, handwritten, pushed in between the flagstones by the gate. Others stop and stare, some line from some poem or other on their lips, behind the tips of their tongues. She would come out onto the porch to talk to them, if she were still here. “I thought that was what I was supposed to do,” she says, “share my love of poetry with anyone who was interested.” A group of rowdy children beneath the scowling portraits in the congressional library. Hours of the night-time spent answering letters. “I am encouraging to anyone who is writing with seriousness,” she says, seriously. A pause. A student in a lecture theatre who thinks the time for talking about blackness is over. We’re all just Americans now. “Blackness has some degree of specialness for every black person,” she says. “So every black person can tell you a different story.”
The year before she moved into this house, she published her first and only novel Maud Martha. Three years before she moved into this house, she gave birth to her daughter, Nora Blakely. Four years before she moved into this house, she was the first black American to win a Pulitzer Prize. Five years before she moved into this house, she published her second book of poems; Annie Allen. Nine years before, her first book, A Street in Bronzeville. 24 years before, her first published poem, Eventide, appeared in American Childhood. 26 years before, she started sending her work to editors: “I felt that I had to write. Even if I had never been published,” she says, “I knew I would go on writing, enjoying it and experiencing the challenge.” 30 years before, “a page of rhymes when I was seven. ‘You’re going to be the Lady Poet!’ my mother said to me.” She lived in this house for 40 years.
She doesn’t write about the flagstones much; or the brickwork; or the one, two, three, four, five, six steps up from the porch. Poet Laureate of Illinois in 1968, Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1985, National Endowment for the Humanities Jefferson Lecturer in 1994, National Medal of Arts in 1995, the Frost Medal, the Shelley Memorial Award, more than 75 honorary degrees from colleges and universities around the world: Her awards weren’t for describing topography. In a dark wood-panelled room, she sits on the edge of her chair, nervous. Hands clasped in her lap. A dusty couch behind her, a jaunty lamp refutes the gloom. She wears a tight-fitting black knitted cap, a teal overcoat in a soft synthetic fabric, buttoned up, collars curled. Her dress is red, green, ochre; dots and wavy lines spread over her knees. She smiles. Swallows. Her glasses catch light from the lens of the camera, a reflected flash of colour that can only be the interviewer shifting in their seat. She laughs, shakes her head. “I was careful to say a people poet – not a people’s poet,” she said. “I don’t know exactly what that means. I’m fascinated by what people do and their responses to this and that.”
A ballad for a mother burning bacon. A mild maid with eggs and sour milk biscuits, fun disturbed and nullified. A hatred burst into glorious flower. Four verses for a bad woman in stockings of night-black lace, strutting down the streets with paint on her face. A boy breaking glass, in uneven metre, a garbageman, in nine lines, Jessie Mitchell’s mother, in 24 lines. An old yellow pair, for whom dinner is a casual affair. Lukewarm water, yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall. A good man, an independent man, the ugliest little boy that everyone ever saw. In little jars and cabinets of her will, he was born in Alabama, he was bred in Illinois, he was nothing but a plain black boy. “There are many stories that need to be told about blacks,” she said. “Real love stories, involving all ages.” Her Poor are sweaty and unpretty, they come together in rough ranks. Black and loud, and not detainable. And not discreet. Live not, she said, for the battles won, live not for the end-of-the-song. Live in the along. “If you want a poem,” she said, “you only have to look out a window. There is material always, walking or running, fighting or screaming or singing.”
The interviewer is off camera. His voice is young, enthusiastic. A little awe-struck, maybe, of the stern-faced, square-shouldered, straight-talking Poet Laureate of Illinois. “I’m interested,” he says, “in the intonation of it, how you would read it.” She does not pause. There is no sign of shyness. Her eyes do not flick left or right, no swallow, no bob of the head. “We real cool. We,” a sharp intake of breath, “Left school. We,” another sharp intake of breath. “Lurk late. We. Strike straight.” She syncopates, her eyes unwavering until, she. Concludes. “Passing by a pool hall one afternoon, I saw seven boys shooting pool,” she says. “I could see they were insecure, not cherished by society, so they should spit in the face of the establishment.” There is a pause between the words. She blinks and the city and all its glorious, shabby, fighting riot of life is right there. She smiles.
- Words: R Aslan