On the occasion of Gwendolyn Brooks’s 100th birthday in 2017, in an essay titled “Against Miracles” the poet Evie Shockley wrote, “I urge poets, lovers of poetry, and teachers of poetry to keep Gwendolyn Brooks’s name and work alive for the next hundred years and the hundred years after that. May it still be read, memorized, recited, and shared in that future time, when life—black life—is no miracle, but as quotidian as the revolution of the earth.”
So it is with some measure of sadness to realize that many of the individual books on display in Gwendolyn Brooks: A Poet’s Work in Community, currently on view at the Morgan Library, are out of print. Instead, any post-exhibition thirst to read works such as Annie Allen, for which Brooks received the Pulitzer Prize in 1950 — the first Black author to do so — Blacks, Family Pictures, Riot, In the Mecca and other volumes can only be slaked by her Selected Poems (HarperCollins).
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However, A Poet’s Work also points the way toward the reissuing of these volumes and powerfully conveys the continuing resonance of Brooks’s work, which through her life became increasingly entwined with her activism, mentorship, and support of Black poets, artists, and publishers. These figures include Dudley Randall, who founded Broadside Press (now known as Broadside Lotus Press) in 1965 to publish Black authors and artists, author Sonia Sanchez, and Keorapetse Kgositsile, for whom Brooks wrote the introduction to his book, My Name Is Afrika; correspondence between the two is on view in the exhibition. Works by them and many other poets connected to Brooks are displayed in the exhibition, establishing how central Brooks was as essential community builder in the face of overwhelming oppression and during a time of rapid societal change.
In Report from Part One, published in 1972, after Brooks had left Harper & Row to move to Broadside Press (and in the exhibition), the author recalls how she was inspired to “write poems that will somehow successfully ‘call’ … all black people: black people in taverns, black people in alleys, black people in gutters, schools, offices, factories, prisons, the consulate; I wish to reach black people in pulpits, black people in mines, on farms, on thrones.” A Poet’s Work demonstrates how her art and activism became truly inextricable, the one informing and catalyzing the other. The exhibition includes an early poem, “People Protest in Sprawling Lightless Ways,” for which Brooks received First Prize in the Poetry Workshop Award in 1945. Signed by Brooks in 1988, this suggests that her artistic life may be more cohesive than usually thought — the older poet would still gift a copy of an early poem.
Many Brooks scholars have often identified a dramatic turn toward activism when she turned 50 in 1967, and published In the Mecca the following year (also on view, along with typed and handwritten excerpts). However, that supposed divide is not so prominent here: the earlier works instead seem to build toward the later, and the sense of the importance of building Black community, a network for Black artists, mentorships, and support, is evident from the first inscriptions to the later children’s books—it makes sense that such work, produced amid an entire white supremacist system stacked against the author’s success, would take time to build momentum and become fully visible.
The exhibition also features a newly acquired portion of Brooks’s own personal library, purchased by the Morgan in 2020 through the Edwin V. Erbe Jr. Acquisitions Fund; this archive is added to the Morgan’s holdings from the Carter Burden Collection of American Literature, donated in 1988. A typescript of the poem “Malcolm X” dedicated to Randall and signed by Brooks, is likely on public view for the first time, positioned next to a copy of the anthology Malcolm X: Poems on the Life and the Death of Malcolm X, edited by Randall and Margaret G. Burroughs and published by Broadside Press after Malcolm X’s assassination. Another typeset poem, “Black Love,” signed by Brooks, is beautiful to read and perhaps the foundation for today’s concept of Black Joy: “Black love, prepare us all for interruptions;/ assaults, unwanted pauses, furnish for leavings and for losses.// Just come out Blackly glowing!”
Riot, a three-part poem, was Brooks’s first book published with Broadside Press in 1970, with a frontispiece by Black artist Jeff Donaldson, whose work is also exhibited. “Everyone who’s black ought to have a black publisher,” wrote Brooks and, recognizing the importance of financial support, she donated all royalties from Riot back to the press. Another letter in the exhibition, written by students from “John Stanger’s 8th Grade English Class” to Brooks asks her “what book(s) had the greatest influence on your life.” In response, she circled “book(s)” with an arrow pointing to “Hundreds!” and added toward the bottom of the page in all caps, “HUNDREDS of others,” and, “If you’re influencing children, please advise them to read many kinds of books.”
The exhibition’s non-hierarchical arrangement groups items together almost like good friends, which in many cases they were created by. While several works are by Brooks, there are also works for Brooks, such as the anthology To Gwen with Love, edited by Hoyt Fuller and inspired by a 1969 tribute to her at the Afro-Arts Theater in Chicago. Each item seems to exist equally in context with the next; that said, a stunning broadside of “We Real Cool: The Pool Players Seven at the Golden Shovel” somehow captures all of the warmth, camaraderie, and activism of the entire exhibition within itself. Published by the Broadside Press in December 1966, it was designed by Cledie Taylor, who now directs Arts Extended Gallery in Detroit.
As for me, a public school parent, the poem is beautifully familiar: my son learned to recite it by heart in the fourth grade. However, seeing it here, white letters against graphic black background, its full contextual and cultural force is apparent: it was and is a revolutionary poem whose impact extends across many generations. Poet Terrence Hayes was moved enough by it to invent a poetic form in its honor, the Golden Shovel, in which the last words of each line are often taken from a Brooks poem. The Golden Shovel continues on, as poets further explore the form, and through it, the continuing strength and resilience of the community Brooks worked her entire life—as evidenced by A Poet’s Work—to nourish.
Gwendolyn Brooks: A Poet’s Work in Community continues at the Morgan Library (225 Madison Avenue, Midtown, Manhattan) through June 5. The exhibition was organized by Nicholas Caldwell, Belle da Costa Greene Curatorial Fellow at the Department of Printed Books & Bindings.