Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2001)
graduated from Wilson Junior College in 1936. Early on she won prizes
for her poetry, including the Poetry Workshop awards at the summer Midwestern
Writers conference at Northwestern University in 1943 and 1944. That same
year, she won the annual Writers Conference prize in Chicago. She began
publishing in 1945 in Poetry magazine, and soon her work appeared in a
variety of other publications. Other prizes followed, including a creative
writing award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1946 and
Guggenheim fellowship in 1946 and 1947. In 1950 she became the first African
American to win the Pulitzer Prize, for Annie Allen (1949). She also wrote
a novel, Maud Martha in 1953, and several other volumes of poetry. Throughout
her life, she also helped black youth by funding writing and poetry workshops.
Later in life, she was the recipient of the National Endowment for the
Arts Senior Fellowship for Literature (1989), followed by the National
Book Foundation’s medal for Distinguished Contribution to American
The two poems below
were written in 1960. The first, “A Bronzeville Mother,” was
originally published in The Bean Eaters in 1960, and, was recently published
in Christopher Metress, ed., The Lynching of Emmett Till: A Documentary
History (Charlottseville: University of Virginia Press, 2002, 313-317).
According to Metress, “Brooks imagines the murder [of Emmett Till]
from the perspective of Carolyn Bryant. It remains, more than forty-years
later, one of her most anthologized works.”
The second poem, “The
Last Quatrain,” was written as a companion to the first, and was
published in the same book originally, and is included in Metress, 317-318.
“In it,” writes Metress, “Brooks explores further the
idea that the Till murder violates all narrative conventions and expectations,
possessing s it does a kind of surreal quality that moves toward ambiguity
rather than understanding” (317).
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
a 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 breadth, undisputed height,
And a harsh kind of vice.
And best of all, when his 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
Waited the baby full of tantrums.
It occurred to her that there may have been something
Ridiculous in 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 one thing in the world that she did now and knew
With terrifying clarity was that her composition
Had disintegrated. That, although the pattern prevailed,
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 stuttering
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
He must never conclude
That she had not been worth It.
He sat down, the Fine
Began buttering a biscuit. He looked at his hands.
He twisted in his chair, he scratched his nose.
He glanced again, almost secretly, at his hands.
More papers were in from the North, he mumbled. More meddling headlines.
With their pepper-words, “beastiality,” and “barbarism,”
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
He knew that. Big Fella
And, what was so good, Mississippi knew that.
Nothing and nothing could stop Mississippi.
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 head. 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
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, 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 those 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 Last Quatrain
of the Balled of Emmett Till (1960)
after the murder,
after the burial
Emmett’s mother is a pretty-faced thing;
the tint of pulled taffy.
She sits in a red room,
drinking black coffee.
She kisses her killed boy.
And she is sorry.
Chaos in windy grays
through a red prairie.