Gwendolyn Brooks—A Poet for Our Times

African American women have been writing and publishing poetry since colonial times but have not always been known and acknowledged. One of our earliest poets published in the United States was Phillis Wheatley. One of the best known, and most often studied African American women poets of the 20th century has been Gwendolyn Brooks whose birthday is celebrated this month.

Gwendolyn Brooks

Born in Topeka, Kansas, in 1917, Gwendolyn moved with her family to Chicago before she was a year old, and her work and success are closely identified with that Midwestern city. From early childhood, Brooks had few doubts about her career. Her first poem was published in a children’s magazine, American Childhood,  when she was thirteen years old. She continued to write and publish poems until she died at the age of 83 in 2000.

After graduating from a community college in Chicago, she worked for the NAACP (National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and continued to publish poems eventually appearing in the prestigious Poetry magazine. She was invited to join a poetry workshop where she met several other important African American poets including Langston Hughes who became a lifelong friend. She married Henry Lowington Blakely, Jr. in 1931 and the couple had two children. And year after year she continued to write poetry, which met with continuing success.

Her first book of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville was published in 1945. Her poems were admired by critics, and they were also read and cherished by a large popular audience. Brooks was able to write about the people of Bronzeville with warmth and an acknowledgement of the struggles of their lives.  In her poem “Kitchenette Building”, for example, she wrote of the difficulty of dreaming big dreams in a stunted environment:

But could a dream send up through onion fumes

Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes

And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,

Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms.

The list of Gwendolyn Brookes achievements is a long one: She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1950, the first African American to be so honored. She added many other prizes too. In 1986 she became the Poet Laureate of Illinois. She also served as a consultant to poetry in the Library of Congress and was the first African American woman inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Now, almost 25 years after her death, she is still honored and, more important, still read. You can read many of her poems on the Poetry Foundation website. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/gwendolyn-brooks, and her books are available in almost all public libraries.

Zora Neale Hurston—speaking for the unheard

What determines whether an artist’s work will be remembered? No one seems to have the answer to that. Some books drop from sight a few months after publication, others disappear for a while and then resurface when times change. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God did not make much of a splash when it was first published in 1937, but that was only the beginning of a long story. The fate of the book has become so mingled with the life and death of its author, that it is difficult to know which is the major cause of its longevity—the book or the intriguing life of its author.

Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston was born in Alabama in 1891, but her family soon moved to Eatonville, Florida, where she grew up. Eatonville was one of the first African American communities in America and Hurston’s father became mayor. After Hurston’s mother died in 1904, her father quickly remarried, and family tensions led Hurston to leave home before she finished high school. She studied at Howard University, but later moved to New York where she attended Barnard College and began writing fiction. She also studied with the anthropologist Frans Boaz as well as Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead. The recent book Gods of the Upper Air by Charles King recounts how Hurston became interested in studying and recording the language and culture of African Americans.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, published in 1937, is enriched by Hurston’s background in both literature and anthropology. The narrator, Janie, tells the story her life in the rhythmic dialect of Southern Florida. She recounts how her grandmother pushed her into an early marriage with an older man, how she left that unsatisfactory marriage in order to find a better life only to discover that her new husband wanted her to be simply a passive ornament for his life. The book springs to life in its later sections after Janie is freed from her second marriage by the death of her husband. Hurston’s vivid prose make the final section of the book both dramatic and satisfying as Janie’s search for happiness reaches its conclusion.

Even though Their Eyes Were Watching God is now regarded as a classic novel of the 20th century, it did not receive an overwhelming success from critics when it was published.  In his review, Richard Wright wrote: Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theatre, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the ‘white folks’ laugh. Her characters eat and laugh and cry and work and kill; they swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears …  Other reviews were more appreciative, including this from the New York Times : …from first to last this is a well nigh perfect story–a little sententious at the start, but the rest is simple and beautiful and shining with humor. In case there are readers who have a chronic laziness about dialect, it should be added that the dialect here is very easy to follow, and the images it carries are irresistible. (Both of these reviews are available on the Bookmarks website.)

Like all important novels, Their Eyes Were Watching God, will give you plenty to think about. The story of how Nora Zeale Hurston and her books were rediscovered after years of obscurity is as fascinating as the book itself. My suggestion would be to read the novel first and then go on to investigate more about the author. Gods of the Upper Air is one good starting point, but there are other sources to explore. You will find yourself on a fascinating journey.