The African American poet Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks was born June 7, 1917, to Keziah and David Brooks in Topeka, Kansas. Later that year the Brooks family moved to Chicago, where her two siblings were born. Brooks' mother discovered Gwendolyn's gift for writing when she was seven. She promptly encouraged this talent by exposing the girl to various forms of literature. Her parents, however were very strict and she was not allowed to play with the kids in the neighborhood. As a child she lacked the sass and brass of the other girls in her class and became very isolated. As a result, she made few friends while in school. When Brooks was at home in her room she often created a world of her own by reading and writing stories and poetry. Due to her lack of social skills she became very shy and continued to be shy throughout her adult life. After graduating from high school she went on to Wilson Junior College and graduated in 1936. Her early verses appeared in the Chicago Defender, a newspaper written primarily for the black community of Chicago. In 1939 she was married to Henry Blakely and they had two children, Henry junior and Nora Blakely. In 1945 Gwendolyn Brooks' first book entitled A Street In Bronzeville was published. In 1949 Annie Allen (a loosely-connected series of poems related to a black girl's growing up in Chicago) was published and received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1950, becoming the first African American to receive this prestigious award in poetry. In 1953 Brooks' first novel is published Maud Martha. In 1963 she published Selected Poems and secured her first teaching job at Chicago's Columbia College. In 1967 at the Fisk University Writers Conference in Nashville, Brooks met the new black revolution. She came from South Dakota State College, which was all white, where she was received with love. Now she had arrived at an all black college where she was now coldly respected. After this trip Brooks says that she is no longer asleep she is now awake. After 1967 she became aware that other blacks feel that way and are not hesitant about saying it. She appeals to her people for understanding and is more conscious of them in her writing. In 1968 she published her next major collection of poetry, In the Mecca. The effect of her awakening is noticeable in her poetry. Brooks is less concerned with poetic form, and uses mostly free verse. In 1968 she was named poet laureate for the state of Illinois and was also the first African American to receive an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in 1976. Since then, Gwendolyn Brooks has gone on to receive over fifty honorary doctorates from numerous colleges and universities. She has received two Guggenheim Fellowships and has served as Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress. In 1990 she became professor of English at Chicago State University. Ms. Brooks died at the age of 83 Sunday December 3, 2000.
The Lovers of the Poor
arrive. The Ladies from the Ladies' Betterment
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.
Note 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.