The 'antenna of her race'

February 21, 1994|By Barbara Samson Mills

OFTEN during Black History Month, the quiet voices go unheard. One of those for more than 50 years has belonged to the African-American poet Gwendolyn Brooks, although quiet may not be an accurate description of this woman's music. Powerful, intense, exciting, passionate are more accurate.

With her first book of poems, "A Street in Bronzeville," published in 1945, the poet received immediate praise. She was acclaimed as a gifted, memorable writer who combined her racial background with the highest literary achievement.

That background was an advantage to her; her father had a deep reverence for books and education, and her mother, a fifth-grade teacher, encouraged her daughter to write. Early in her life, Ms. Brooks met poets Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes. Hughes, whom she considered a strong influence, encouraged the young poet to go on writing. By 16, she had published 75 poems in the Chicago Defender, and in 1937 at age 20, her work appeared in two anthologies. In 1950, she was the first black woman poet to win a Pulitzer Prize

Early on, Ms. Brooks' writing gave an intimate, stirring view of black life, far in advance of its time. In fact, exception was taken to one of her poems, "the mother," because it dealt with abortion. It was also one of the most touching; in the poem the mother agonizes over an abortion and decides that she, not society, will kill her children. It isn't an easy decision, nor one that will be forgotten. . . . "Abortions will not let you forget . . . I have heard in the voices of the wind the voices of my dim killed children."

It was not until 1967, Ms. Brooks says, that her own blackness confronted her "with a shrill spelling of itself." Her favorite literary figures, Frost, Pound, Eliot, Hemingway and Donne, produced, according to biographer D.H. Melhem, "a white style and black content."

"Annie Allen," Ms. Brooks' Pulizer Prize-winning work, established her as a "negro poetess." The New York Times said of her, "When she writes . . . out of her very real talent, she induces almost unbearable excitement." The New Yorker found that "she can pull a sonnet as tight as a bowstring," but also that "the intense compression of language and symbols at times may strain comprehension."

In the 1950s and 1960s, Ms. Brooks' vision widened from a "black and tan motif" to include aspects of women's roles culled from her own experience as wife, mother and national figure during the civil rights movement. The riots that followed the death of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 added a dimension of richly allusive poems to the Brooks collection, and in the late 1960s and 1970s she became, to quote Ezra Pound, the "antenna of her race."

Barbara Samson Mills writes from Monkton.

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