Gwendolyn Brooks: A Centennial Celebration
A Pulitzer Prize winner, an Academy Fellowship winner, and the first black woman appointed as consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress, Gwendolyn Brooks was—and continues to be—an outstanding voice in the world of contemporary American poetry. Brooks, who was awarded countless literary honors in her lifetime, was known for writing poems that captured a cross-section of everyday life in her hometown of Chicago. In sonnets, ballads, epic poems, and more, Brooks captured the lives, speech, and perspectives of people as varied as those she encountered in her city, and was particularly known for her interrogation of race relations and class.
This year marks Brooks’s centennial, and to celebrate, we’ve created this new collection of essays, audio, and poems by and about Brooks.
(“and the people live till they have white hair”)
E. M. Price
The dry brown coughing beneath their feet,
(Only for a while, for the handyman is on his way)
These people walk their golden gardens.
We say ourselves fortunate to be driving by today.
That we may look at them, in their gardens where
The summer ripeness rots. But not raggedly.
Even the leaves fall down in lovelier patterns here.
And the refuse, the refuse is a neat brilliancy.
When they flow sweetly into their houses
With softness and slowness touched by that everlasting gold,
We know what they go to. To tea. But that does not mean
They will throw some little black dots into some water and add sugar and the juice of the cheapest lemons that are sold,
While downstairs that woman’s vague phonograph bleats, “Knock me a kiss.”
And the living all to be made again in the sweatingest physical manner
Tomorrow. . . . Not that anybody is saying that these people have no trouble.
Merely that it is trouble with a gold-flecked beautiful banner.
Nobody is saying that these people do not ultimately cease to be. And
Sometimes their passings are even more painful than ours.
It is just that so often they live till their hair is white.
They make excellent corpses, among the expensive flowers. . . .
Nobody is furious. Nobody hates these people.
At least, nobody driving by in this car.
It is only natural, however, that it should occur to us
How much more fortunate they are than we are.
It is only natural that we should look and look
At their wood and brick and stone
And think, while a breath of pine blows,
How different these are from our own.
We do not want them to have less.
But it is only natural that we should think we have not enough.
We drive on, we drive on.
When we speak to each other our voices are a little gruff.
They carved the letters yellow,
the wood around the letters green,
chained a picnic table to the grass
out near where the roof of the dead
mall directs a crack
of sunset to radiate the Burger King sign gold.
Last place open after midnight:
then apartment windows hold
stars and satellites in the cold.
A creek runs like a paper fold
from one corner of park to other,
twenty or thirty blocks from where
she took her first breaths of infancy
in the only city I know of
with the letters for poet
that does not also carry
a port or a point in its name.
arrive. The Ladies from the Ladies' Betterment League Arrive in the afternoon, the late light slanting In diluted gold bars across the boulevard brag Of proud, seamed faces with mercy and murder hinting Here, there, interrupting, all deep and debonair, The pink paint on the innocence of fear; Walk in a gingerly manner up the hall. Cutting with knives served by their softest care, Served by their love, so barbarously fair. Whose mothers taught: You'd better not be cruel! You had better not throw stones upon the wrens! Herein they kiss and coddle and assault Anew and dearly in the innocence With which they baffle nature. Who are full, Sleek, tender-clad, fit, fiftyish, a-glow, all Sweetly abortive, hinting at fat fruit, Judge it high time that fiftyish fingers felt Beneath the lovelier planes of enterprise. To resurrect. To moisten with milky chill. To be a random hitching post or plush. To be, for wet eyes, random and handy hem. Their guild is giving money to the poor. The worthy poor. The very very worthy And beautiful poor. Perhaps just not too swarthy? Perhaps just not too dirty nor too dim Nor—passionate. In truth, what they could wish Is—something less than derelict or dull. Not staunch enough to stab, though, gaze for gaze! God shield them sharply from the beggar-bold! The noxious needy ones whose battle's bald Nonetheless for being voiceless, hits one down. But it's all so bad! and entirely too much for them. The stench; the urine, cabbage, and dead beans, Dead porridges of assorted dusty grains, The old smoke, heavy diapers, and, they're told, Something called chitterlings. The darkness. Drawn Darkness, or dirty light. The soil that stirs. The soil that looks the soil of centuries. And for that matter the general oldness. Old Wood. Old marble. Old tile. Old old old. Not homekind Oldness! Not Lake Forest, Glencoe. Nothing is sturdy, nothing is majestic, There is no quiet drama, no rubbed glaze, no Unkillable infirmity of such A tasteful turn as lately they have left, Glencoe, Lake Forest, and to which their cars Must presently restore them. When they're done With dullards and distortions of this fistic Patience of the poor and put-upon. They've never seen such a make-do-ness as Newspaper rugs before! In this, this "flat," Their hostess is gathering up the oozed, the rich Rugs of the morning (tattered! the bespattered . . . ), Readies to spread clean rugs for afternoon. Here is a scene for you. The Ladies look, In horror, behind a substantial citizeness Whose trains clank out across her swollen heart. Who, arms akimbo, almost fills a door. All tumbling children, quilts dragged to the floor And tortured thereover, potato peelings, soft- Eyed kitten, hunched-up, haggard, to-be-hurt. Their League is allotting largesse to the Lost. But to put their clean, their pretty money, to put Their money collected from delicate rose-fingers Tipped with their hundred flawless rose-nails seems . . . They own Spode, Lowestoft, candelabra, Mantels, and hostess gowns, and sunburst clocks, Turtle soup, Chippendale, red satin "hangings," Aubussons and Hattie Carnegie. They Winter In Palm Beach; cross the Water in June; attend, When suitable, the nice Art Institute; Buy the right books in the best bindings; saunter On Michigan, Easter mornings, in sun or wind. Oh Squalor! This sick four-story hulk, this fibre With fissures everywhere! Why, what are bringings Of loathe-love largesse? What shall peril hungers So old old, what shall flatter the desolate? Tin can, blocked fire escape and chitterling And swaggering seeking youth and the puzzled wreckage Of the middle passage, and urine and stale shames And, again, the porridges of the underslung And children children children. Heavens! That Was a rat, surely, off there, in the shadows? Long And long-tailed? Gray? The Ladies from the Ladies' Betterment League agree it will be better To achieve the outer air that rights and steadies, To hie to a house that does not holler, to ring Bells elsetime, better presently to cater To no more Possibilities, to get Away. Perhaps the money can be posted. Perhaps they two may choose another Slum! Some serious sooty half-unhappy home!— Where loathe-lover likelier may be invested. Keeping their scented bodies in the center Of the hall as they walk down the hysterical hall, They allow their lovely skirts to graze no wall, Are off at what they manage of a canter, And, resuming all the clues of what they were, Try to avoid inhaling the laden air.
Dawn oversees percolating coffee
and the new wreckage of the world.
I stand before my routine reflection,
button up my sanity,
brush weary strands of hair with pomade
and seal cracked lips of distrust
with cocoa butter and matte rouge.
I ready myself once again
for morning and mortify.
Stacking poetry and bills in a knapsack;
I bundle up hope (it’s brutal out there).
For a moment, I stand with ghosts
and the framed ancestors surrounding me.
I call out, hoping she can hear me
over the day-breaking sirens—
hoping she’s not far away,
or right down the street,
praying over another dead black boy.
How will we make it through this, Ms. Brooks?
When she held a body,
she saw much worse than this.
I know she was earshot and fingertip close to oppression.
She saw how hateful hate could be.
She raised babies, taught Stone Rangers,
grew a natural and wrote around critics.
She won a Pulitzer in the dark.
She justified our kitchenette dreams,
and held on.
She held on to all of us.
Hold On, she whispers.
Another day, when I have to tip-toe
around the police and passive-aggressive emails
from people who sit only a few feet away from me.
Another day of fractured humans
who decide how I will live and die,
and I have to act like I like it
so I can keep a job;
be a team player, pay taxes on it;
I have to act like I’m happy to be
slammed, severed, and swindled.
Otherwise, I’m just part of the problem—
a rebel rouser and rude.
They want me to like it, or at least pretend,
so the pretty veils that blanket who we really are—
this complicated history, can stay pretty and veiled
like some desert belly dancer
who must be seen but not heard.
We are a world of lesions.
Human has become hindrance.
We must be stamped and have papers,
and still, it’s not enough.
Ignorance has become powerful.
The dice that rolls our futures is platinum
but hollow inside.
Did you see that, Ms. Brooks?
Do you see what we’ve become?
They are skinning our histories,
deporting our roots,
detonating our very right to tell the truth.
We are one step closer to annihilation.
Hold On, she says, two million light years away.
Hold On everybody.
Hold On because the poets are still alive—and writing.
Hold On to the last of the disappearing bees
and that Great Barrier Reef.
Hold On to the one sitting next to you,
not masked behind some keyboard.
The one right next to you.
The ones who live and love right next to you.
Hold On to them.
And when we bury another grandmother,
or another black boy;
when we stand in front of a pipeline,
pour another glass of dirty drinking water
and put it on the dining room table,
next to the kreplach, bratwurst, tamales, collards, and dumplings
that our foremothers and fathers—immigrants,
brought with them so we all knew that we came from somewhere;
somewhere that mattered.
When we kneel on the rubbled mosques,
sit in massacred prayer circles,
Holding On is what gets us through.
We must remember who we are.
We are worth fighting for.
We’ve seen beauty.
We’ve birthed babies who’ve only known a black President.
We’ve tasted empathy and paid it forward.
We’ve Go-Funded from wrong to right.
We’ve marched and made love.
We haven’t forgotten—even if they have—Karma is keeping watch.
Hold On everybody.
Even if all you have left
is that middle finger around your God-given right
to be free, to be heard, to be loved,
and remembered…Hold On,
Produced for K-12 educators, Teach This Poem features one poem a week from our online poetry collection, accompanied by interdisciplinary resources and activities designed to help teachers quickly and easily bring poetry into the classroom. The series is written by our Educator in Residence, Dr. Madeleine Fuchs Holzer, and is available for free via email.