She believes in the power of the ordinary to be both significant and beautiful, her motivation is not to mythologize or to romanticize her characters. She simply writes about black people as people, not as curios.
She graduated from Wilson Junior College in 1936, and later taught creative writing at Chicago's Columbia College at the University of Wisconsin. In addition, she lectured at the City College of New York and North Eastern Illinois University.
From the impressive achievements of Brooks's youth sprang a remarkable writing career. Her first volume of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville, explores the commonplace lives of black citydwellers. It won Brooks the merit award from Mademoiselle magazine, an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, and a two year Guggenheim Fellowship.
Her second volume, Annie Allen, pursues similar themes but is written from the point of view of a black woman surviving the urban setting. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1950, making Brooks the first black poet to receive the prestigious award.
Brooks rejects the designations given to her by various critics such as an intellectual a poet and a protest writer. She instead views her work as a result of two distinctive periods in her creative life -- pre-1967 and post 1967, or before and after her embrace of a new black consciousness.
In her autobiography, Report from Part One, Brooks reflects on the consciousness: â
"Until 1967 my own blackness did not confront me with a shrill spelling of itself. I knew that I was what most people were calling 'a Negro'; I called myself that, although always the word fell awkwardly on the poet's ear ... I had always felt that to be black was good ..."
Following the publication of Riot in 1969, Brooks went on to write several other books, including two children's books, Aloneness and The Tiger who Wore White Gloves; Family Pictures; Beckonings; and A Capsule Course in Black Poetry Writing (a book of nonfiction prose co-authored with Keorapetse Kgositsile, Haki R. Madhubuti, and Dudley Randall).
A fountain of creativity, Brooks continued to pour forth works in her sixties and seventies. Her more recent books include:
The five selections re-printed below represent the thematic and stylistic range of bricks is poetry from 1945 to 1975.
As character studies, the poem "The Mother," "The Bean Eaters," "The Children of the Poor," and "The Boy Died in my Alley" pursue various themes with intricate, but settle rhyming schemes.
While "The Children of the poor" suggests a more traditional approach to rhythms and language, "The Mother," and "The Bean Eaters" begin in a conventional way but eventually break into the irregular rhythms and colloquial distinction associated with free verse.
"A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi" maintains the free verse form as it depicts the attitudes that shaped racial stereotypes and led to the killing of black people.
Abortions will not let you forget.
You remember the children you got that you did not get,
The damp small pulps with a little or with no hair,
The singers and workers that never handled the air.
You will never neglect or beat
Them, or silence or buy with a sweet.
You will never wind up the sucking-thumb
Or scuttle off ghosts that come.
You will never leave them, controlling your luscious sigh,
Return for a snack of them, with gobbling mother-eye.
I have heard in the voices of the wind the voices of my dim killed children.
I have contracted. I have eased
My dim dears at the breasts they could never suck.
I have said, Sweets, if I sinned, if I seized
And your lives from your unfinished reach,
If I stole your births and your names,
Your straight baby tears and your games,
Your stilted or lovely loves, your tumults, your marriages, aches, and your deaths,
If I poisoned the beginnings of your breaths,
Believe that even in my deliberateness I was not deliberate.
Though why should I whine,
Whine that the crime was other than mine?â
Since anyhow you are dead.
Or rather, or instead,
You were never made.
But that too, I am afraid,
Is faulty: oh, what shall I say, how is the truth to be said?
You were born, you had body, you died.
It is just that you never giggled or planned or cried.
Believe me, I loved you all.
Believe me, I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you
The Children of the Poor
People who have no children can be hard:
Attain a mail of ice and insolence:
Need not pause in the fire, and in no sense
Hesitate in the hurricane to guard.
And when wide world is bitten and bewarred
They perish purely, waving their spirits hence
Without a trace of grace or of offense
To laugh or fail, diffident, wonder-starred.
While through a throttling dark we others hear
The little lifting helplessness, the queer
Whimper-whine; whose unridiculous
Lost softness softly makes a trap for us.
And makes a curse. And makes a sugar of
The malocclusions, the inconditions of love.
What shall I give my children? who are poor,
Who are adjudged the leastwise of the land,
Who are my sweetest lepers, who demand
No velvet and no velvety velour;
But who have begged me for a brisk contour,
Crying that they are quasi, contraband
Because unfinished, graven by a hand
Less than angelic, admirable or sure.
My hand is stuffed with mode, design, device.
But I lack access to my proper stone.
And plenitude of plan shall not suffice
Nor grief nor love shall be enough alone
To ratify my little halves who bear
Across an autumn freezing everywhere.
And shall I prime my children, pray, to pray?
Mites, come invade most frugal vestibules
Spectered with crusts of penitentsâ renewals
And all hysterics arrogant for a day.
Instruct yourselves here is no devil to pay.
Children, confine your lights in jellied rules;
Resemble graves; be metaphysical mules.
Learn Lord will not distort nor leave the fray.
Behind the scurryings of your neat motif
I shall wait, if you wish: revise the psalm
If that should frighten you: sew up belief
If that should tear: turn, singularly calm
At forehead and at fingers rather wise,
Holding the bandage ready for your eyes.
First fight. Then fiddle. Ply the slipping string
With feathery sorcery; muzzle the note
With hurting love; the music that they wrote
Bewitch, bewilder. Qualify to sing
Threadwise. Devise no salt, no hempen thing
For the dear instrument to bear. Devote
The bow to silks and honey. Be remote
A while from malice and from murdering.
But first to arms, to armor. Carry hate
In front of you and harmony behind.
Be deaf to music and to beauty blind.
Win war. Rise bloody, maybe not too late
For having first to civilize a space
Wherein to play your violin with grace.
When my dears die, the festival-colored brightness
That is their motion and mild repartee
Enchanted, a macabre mockery
Charming the rainbow radiance into tightness
And into a remarkable politeness
That is not kind and does not want to be,
May not they in the crisp encounter see
Something to recognize and read as rightness?
I say they may, so granitely discreet,
The little crooked questionings inbound,
Concede themselves on most familiar ground,
Cold an old predicament of the breath:
Adroit, the shapely prefaces complete,
Accept the university of death.
The Bean Eaters
They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair.
Dinner is a casual affair.
Plain chipware on a plain and creaking wood,
Two who are Mostly Good.
Two who have lived their day,
But keep on putting on their clothes
And putting things away.
And remembering . . .
Remembering, with twinklings and twinges,
As they lean over the beans in their rented back room that
is full of beads and receipts and dolls and cloths,
tobacco crumbs, vases and fringes.
A Bronzeville Mother Loiters In Mississippi. Meanwhile, A Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon.
From the first it had been like a
Ballad. It had the beat inevitable. It had the blood.
A wildness cut up, and tied in little bunches,
Like the four-line stanzas of the ballads she had never quite
understood--the ballads they had set her to, in school.
Herself: the milk-white maid, the "maid mild"
Of the ballad. Pursued
By the Dark Villain. Rescued by the Fine Prince.
That was worth anything.
It was good to be a "maid mild."
That made the breath go fast.
Her bacon burned. She
Hastened to hide it in the step-on can, and
Drew more strips from the meat case. The eggs and sour-milk biscuits
Did well. She set out a jar
Of her new quince preserve.
. . . But there was something about the matter of the Dark Villain.
He should have been older, perhaps.
The hacking down of a villain was more fun to think about
When his menace possessed undisputed breath, undisputed height,
And best of all, when history was cluttered
With the bones of many eaten knights and princesses.
The fun was disturbed, then all but nullified
When the Dark Villain was a blackish child
Of Fourteen, with eyes still too young to be dirty,
And a mouth too young to have lost every reminder
Of its infant softness.
That boy must have been surprised! For
These were grown-ups. Grown-ups were supposed to be wise.
And the Fine Prince--and that other--so tall, so broad, so
Grown! Perhaps the boy had never guessed
That the trouble with grown-ups was that under the magnificent shell of adulthood, just under,
Waited the baby full of tantrums.
It occurred to her that there may have been something
Ridiculous to the picture of the Fine Prince
Rushing (rich with the breadth and height and
Mature solidness whose lack, in the Dark Villain, was impressing her,
Confronting her more and more as this first day after the trial
And acquittal (wore on) rushing
With his heavy companion to hack down (unhorsed)
That little foe. So much had happened, she could not remember now what that foe had done
Against her, or if anything had been done.
The breaks were everywhere. That she could think
Of no thread capable of the necessary
She made the babies sit in their places at the table.
Then, before calling HIM, she hurried
To the mirror with her comb and lipstick. It was necessary
To be more beautiful than ever.
The beautiful wife.
For sometimes she fancied he looked at her as though
Measuring her. As if he considered, Had she been worth it?
Had she been worth the blood, the cramped cries, the little stirring bravado, The gradual dulling of those Negro eyes,
The sudden, overwhelming little-boyness in that barn?
Whatever she might feel or half-feel, the lipstick necessity was something apart. HE must never conclude
That she had not been worth it.
HE sat down, the Fine Prince, and
Began buttering a biscuit. HE looked at HIS hands.
More papers were in from the North, HE mumbled. More maddening headlines.
With their pepper-words, "bestiality," and "barbarism," and
The half-sneers HE had mastered for the trial worked across
HIS sweet and pretty face.
What HE'd like to do, HE explained, was kill them all.
The time lost. The unwanted fame.
Still, it had been fun to show those intruders
A thing or two. To show that snappy-eyed mother,
That sassy, Northern, brown-black--
Nothing could stop Mississippi.
HE knew that. Big fella
And, what was so good, Mississippi knew that.
They could send in their petitions, and scar
Their newspapers with bleeding headlines. Their governors
Could appeal to Washington . . .
"What I want," the older baby said, "is 'lasses on my jam."
Whereupon the younger baby
Picked up the molasses pitcher and threw
The molasses in his brother's face. Instantly
The Fine Prince leaned across the table and slapped
The small and smiling criminal.
She did not speak. When the HAND
Came down and away, and she could look at her child,
At her baby-child,
She could think only of blood.
Surely her baby's cheek
Had disappeared, and in its place, surely,
Hung a heaviness, a lengthening red, a red that had no end.
She shook her had. It was not true, of course.
It was not true at all. The
Child's face was as always, the
Color of the paste in her paste-jar.
She left the table, to the tune of the children's lamentations, which were shriller
Than ever. She
Looked out of a window. She said not a word. That
Was one of the new Somethings--
Tying her as with iron.
Suddenly she felt his hands upon her. He had followed her
To the window. The children were whimpering now.
Such bits of tots. And she, their mother,
Could not protect them. She looked at her shoulders, still
Gripped in the claim of his hands. She tried, but could not resist the idea
That a red ooze was seeping, spreading darkly, thickly, slowly,
Over her white shoulders, her own shoulders,
And over all of Earth and Mars.
He whispered something to her, did the Fine Prince, something about love and night and intention.
She heard no hoof-beat of the horse and saw no flash of the shining steel.
He pulled her face around to meet
His, and there it was, close close,
For the first time in all the days and nights.
His mouth, wet and red,
So very, very, very red,
Closed over hers.
Then a sickness heaved within her. The courtroom Coca-Cola,
The courtroom beer and hate and sweat and drone,
Pushed like a wall against her. She wanted to bear it.
But his mouth would not go away and neither would the
Decapitated exclamation points in that Other Woman's eyes.
She did not scream.
She stood there.
But a hatred for him burst into glorious flower,
And its perfume enclasped them--big,
Bigger than all magnolias.
The last bleak news of the ballad.
The rest of the rugged music.
The last quatrain.
The Boy Died in My Alley
to Running Boy
The Boy died in my alley
without my Having Known.
Policeman said, next morning,
"Apparently died Alone."
"You heard a shot?" Policeman said.
Shots I hear and Shots I hear.
I never see the Dead.
The Shot that killed him yes I heard
as I heard the Thousand shots before;
careening tinnily down the nights
across my years and arteries.
Policeman pounded on my door.
"Who is it?" "POLICE!" Policeman yelled.
"A Boy was dying in your alley.
A Boy is dead, and in your alley.
And have you known this Boy before?"
I have known this Boy before.
I have known this boy before, who
ornaments my alley.
I never saw his face at all.
I never saw his futurefall.
But I have known this Boy.
I have always heard him deal with death.
I have always heard the shout, the volley.
I have closed my heart-ears late and early.
And I have killed him ever.
I joined the Wild and killed him
with knowledgeable unknowing.
I saw where he was going.
I saw him Crossed. And seeing,
I did not take him down.
He cried not only "Father!"
The cry climbed up the alley.
It went up to the wind.
It hung upon the heaven
for a long
stretch-strain of Moment.
The red floor of my alley
is a special speech to me.