Excerpted from A Surprised Queenhood in the New Black Sun: The Life & Legacy of Gwendolyn Brooks by Angela Jackson (Beacon Press, 2017). Repainted with Permission from Beacon Press.
A tremor shook Gwendolyn as she made her way to higher ground: she was misquoted by a newspaperman from the San Jose Mercury News who said that she “admits she had to turn down requests from civil rights groups to save her literary integrity. ‘They wanted me to write marching songs,’ Miss Brooks said. ‘I just couldn’t do that.’” Gwendolyn had said no such thing. In fact, she considered what the reporter claimed she had said as traitorous to her race.
In Negro Digest, Gwendolyn denounced the misrepresentation of herself as an artist divorced from the pulse of the people, too elevated to write “marching songs.” To her mind, she would have been proud to have penned “We Shall Overcome.” She did not relish being counted out of the struggle. She wanted to be at the heart of it. Something in her was open for the disruption of a move to higher ground and the people who dwelled there. She liked to be where the action was. She told her biographer, George E. Kent, that she “liked people who did things.” It would seem she was ready to do things, whether she said so or not.
She had thought it would be a writers’ conference like any other, in spite of the contentious flare-ups over race at conferences in recent years. She had thought she would do her part and that the audience would be appropriately responsive to her reading.
Gwendolyn arrived at the Second Annual Fisk Writers Conference, organized by the novelist John Oliver Killens, in the spring of 1967 in Nashville, Tennessee, thinking she would be as warmly received as she had been at her previous reading in cold, all-white South Dakota. At Fisk she was to read with her old friend from the Visionaries workshop, Margaret Danner Cunningham. Poet Amiri Baraka—formerly known as LeRoi Jones—was there as a playwright, speaking with Detroit’s Ron Milner; Chicago novelist Ronald Fair presented with John Oliver Killens; and Chicago historian Lerone Bennett Jr. spoke with New York’s John Henrik Clarke. These participants addressed the conference theme, “The Black Writer and Human Rights.”
John Henrik Clarke noted the change in names, that Negroes were calling themselves Afro-Americans. They had been “black” people for some time now. But Gwendolyn Brooks was still calling herself and her people “Negroes.” Lerone Bennett spoke of the black writer’s role as a revolutionary, of the necessity to redefine himself outside the realm of white supremacist values and to cast the civil rights struggle in the realm of revolution, beginning with black writers addressing black people instead of their oppressors. These were radical messages.
Gwendolyn felt the electricity in the air. The young people who attended the workshops were different. They were self-confident, awe-inspiring. They would impress Gwendolyn Brooks as black and beautiful. They were on fire with the fever of a proud sense of heritage and mission. They were the children of Malcolm X—independent of the need for white approval or acceptance, bold and clamoring to knock down American customs that denied them fullness as human beings.
Yet when Gwendolyn and Margaret Danner Cunningham were set to read, Cunningham began with a preamble, chastising the young man who had introduced them. He had zealously called for a poetry like that of the Harlem Renaissance, politically engaged and in touch with the black man’s struggle. Cunningham informed him that he had not read the black poetry that was available to him. She instructed him to read their work. Then she read.
Gwendolyn followed with her own brief reprimand and begged off from “wring[ing] the neck of the introducer.” She gave a brief speech on heritage and the need for human variety. She left them with these words: “Poetry . . . must be the result of involvement with emotions and idea and ink and paper.” Then she read her poems “Malcolm X,” “Boy Breaking Glass,” “kitchenette building,” “the mother,” “Negro Hero,” the second sonnet from “children of the poor,” “Beverly Hills, Chicago,” and “We Real Cool,” which was deeply appreciated. She rounded off her program with “The Ballad of Rudolph Reed” and the last stanza of “Riders to the Blood-Red Wrath.” Finally, she read the prose version of “The Life of Lincoln West.” She admitted that she was “a Lincoln West” and laughed at this “Ugliest little boy that everyone ever saw.” She laughed just as the audience had laughed.
The Gwendolyn portion of the program ended with Oscar Brown Jr. singing his arrangement of her poem “of DeWitt Williams on his way to Lincoln Cemetery.” As the song was ending, Amiri Baraka walked in and Gwendolyn called attention to his entrance. The audience hailed him as a brilliant and beloved crown prince.
After Gwendolyn and Cunningham gave their readings to obliging and sometimes appreciative applause, they wandered through the conference in a state of wonder and befuddlement. Gwendolyn said, “In my cartoon-basket I keep a cartoon of a dowager-furred Helen Hokinson woman. She is on parade in the world. She is a sign-carrier in the wild world. Her sign says, ‘Will someone please tell me what is going on?.’ . . . In 1967’s Nashville, however, the somewhat dotty expression in the eyes of the cartoon-woman, the agapeness, [was] certainly mine. I was in some inscrutable and uncomfortable wonderland.” She had never before encountered such young black people, who were so casually confident, so fiery, focused, and determined to remake the world.
Baraka, their hero, shouted, “Up against the wall, white man!” Gwendolyn describes drums and “underhumming” at his and Ron Milner’s theater presentation. “Up against the wall. And a pensive (until that moment) white man of thirty or thirty-three abruptly shot himself into the heavy air, screaming ‘Yeah! Yeah! Up against the wall, Brother! KILL ‘EM ALL! KILL ‘EM ALL!’”
Gwendolyn watched with interest as the young white man yelled excitedly for his own extermination.
She was as moved in her own way by Baraka and these children of Malcolm X with their fierce pride, great sense of purpose, and powerful sense of dignity and self-definition. She felt that she had walked to a high ground, and she wanted to see more of what was going on.
When Gwendolyn, in a state of high excitement, returned home after her revelation at Fisk, she found waiting for her a telegram inviting her to the preview of a play by Oscar Brown Jr. This play was Opportunity Please Knock. Brown was a singer, playwright, poet, composer, activist, and actor. He was noted for songs like “Brown Baby,” sung by Mahalia Jackson, and “Work Song” and “Bid ’Em In,” sung by Nina Simone. He collaborated with Max Roach on the album We Insist! As an affirmation of the freedom struggle of black America. Of course, he had set at least one of Gwendolyn’s poems to music.
Gwendolyn had been acquainted with Brown as early as 1949, when he was one of the actors in the radio play about her. Brown was anxious for her to see Opportunity Please Knock, so Gwendolyn went to the preview with her teenaged daughter, Nora, and one of Nora’s friends.
The musical generated more excitement in Gwendolyn, still energized by her adventure at Fisk. In addition, for some time she had wanted to do something for the youth who appeared in Brown’s play. They were Blackstone Rangers, members of an increasingly notorious teenage street gang. Perhaps they caused Gwendolyn to think of her own words, “We real cool. We die soon.” And she wanted to do something to forestall empty fate, not simply to write about it but to, in some way, stop it.
After viewing Opportunity Please Knock, she praised the show to Brown and asked, “Are there any writers among them? Because I’d like to have a workshop for them, if any of them are interested.”
As it turned out, certain of the gang members had expressed an interest in writing and wanted to know if Gwendolyn would like to read their manuscripts. Brown contacted Walter Bradford, a student at Wilson Junior College, where Gwendolyn had studied. Walter was in his twenties and worked with teens. He assembled seven or eight young people for a workshop that met in First Presbyterian Church in Woodlawn. They—members of the Blackstone Rangers gang and Gwendolyn—met every Friday downstairs. The cast of Opportunity Please Knock was upstairs rehearsing.
In that first meeting and in others thereafter, workshop members read their poems. “They used to laugh at me to beat the band for being interested in the sonnet and trying to teach them iambic pentameter,” Gwendolyn said.
One participant in that first meeting, Don L. Lee (later known as Haki Madhubuti), had already self-published a book, Think Black. Lee was a young Army veteran, self-educated from extensive reading, and now in college. He was mentored by Gwendolyn’s old friend Margaret Burroughs and her husband, Charles. Lee liked what he saw at that first workshop with the Blackstone Rangers, so he came back for the second. He met Walter Bradford at the second session, and the two of them would prove to have a long-standing, family-like relationship with Gwendolyn. Gwendolyn recalled of the workshop that after “about six or eight months after we started, I quit and we just became friends.” Having given all that she could to the expressive Blackstone Rangers, Gwendolyn turned the writing group over to Walter Bradford. She provided Bradford with guides and literature to help him sustain the group, and she supported their literary needs financially. Bradford, in turn, developed a workshop of twenty members that thrived.
Whereas Bradford continued with the most serious high school-age writers, Gwendolyn opened her home once a month to a group of college students with literary aspirations, including the aforementioned Don Lee. This group of older writers came from teen organizers and Wilson Junior College students to whomWalter introduced her. These were Alicia Johnson, Jim Taylor, Mike Cook, Peggy Susberry, Sharon Scott (the one high schooler), Kharlos Tucker, later Sigemonde Wimberli, Ronda Davis, Jewel Latimore, later Johari Amini, Jim Cunningham, Carolyn Rodgers, Doris Turner, and Carol Clark.
Nothing was the same for Gwendolyn once she had opened her door for these purveyors of the new blackness. What had struck her at Fisk was now sitting in her living room commanding her attention. It was a mutual love affair.
Don Lee, now Haki Madhubuti, remembers, “It was an honor to be in her house. She lived like us. A small wood frame house, small kitchen, small living room packed with books.”
She taught them craft; they had no interest in writing for white people, or in hearing what white people had to say about their work. They taught Gwendolyn the way the world now worked. She had some understanding, but it was limited in their eyes. They wanted her to see things from a black position, without equivocation. They wanted her to understand the systemic nature of racism, how it was rooted in white hegemony, a rock-hearted white supremacy, and that supremacy was undergirded by economic exploitation and inequity. Gwendolyn was standing on a mountaintop and could now see in all directions.
Slowly, they influenced her. Without their telling her to, she let her hair be in its natural state, an Afro, and so announced that she was standing up for being black.
Gwendolyn did not readily fall in step with the young blacks. There were rich arguments at the Blakely home between Gwendolyn and the trailblazers. They were powerfully anti-white people, whereas Gwendolyn believed in the intrinsic goodness of all humanity; hers was an integrationist point of view. When she protested the blanket denunciation of all white persons, they disputed her. Gwendolyn and Henry still had trusted white friends like Bob and Alice Cromie, he a journalist and broadcaster, with whom they had traveled, lecturing and vacationing; and Beryl and Gene Zitch of Contemporary Forum, which served as Gwendolyn’s booking agency.
The workshop participants condemned the history of white extermination of indigenous peoples, enslavement, the exploitation and degradation of black people, brutality and murderous acts in the civil rights struggle, and mass destructiveness. The young poets moved into a strict Black Nationalist position, focusing on a love of black folks, a call for the development of black people, believing in the inevitable need for independence and autonomy from white people. That undertaking not being immediate, they focused on literary concerns. The belief was and is that nommo—a Bantu word for the power of language to make change—preceded and precipitated action.
They argued about the creation of a body of literature designed to wake up black people to blackness and the need for black unity and liberation. How best to do that in words was the question. Val Gray Ward, a talented actress and interpreter of Afro-American literature, and a friend of Gwendolyn’s, objected to the unnecessary use of profanity in the new black poetry. She found the use of curse words, especially the most profane “motherfucker” off-putting to a good portion of the black audience. Lee objected to the objection.
The group debated this furiously, as they did many issues. They embarked on a quest to determine if their works were “black.” Gwendolyn mediated these literary arguments. She was in the quest with them. Somewhere along the way, they had begun to refer to her as Gwen, indicating their affection for her and sense of familial regard.