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Gwendolyn Brooks

In the Mecca

Harper & Row

1969 Fiction

In the Mecca
Gwendolyn Brooks was born in Topeka, Kansas. As an infant she moved with her parents, David and Keziah Wims Brooks, to the South Side of Chicago, Illinois, where she has resided ever since. Brooks was educated at Chicago public schools and Wilson Junior College. The major early influence on Brooks's literary career was her mother, who encouraged Brooks to give dramatic recitals when she was just four years old. Largely through her mother's urging, the teenage Brooks met leading black writers James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes, who encouraged her to write poetry. By age 16, Brooks had already published poetry in the Chicago Defender, the leading African American newspaper of that time.

Brooks's writing further developed as she participated in the vibrant literary scene of the South Side during the late 1930s and early 1940s. The literary scene included important black writers Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, Theodore Ward, Margaret Danner, Arna Bontemps, and Frank Marshall Davis. In the early 1940s Brooks also developed her writing skills at Inez Cunningham Stark's poetry workshop at the South Side Community Art Center. Brooks's poems began to appear in leading journals and anthologies of the time, such as Negro Story and Edward Seaver's Cross Section series. During this period Brooks won many prizes and fellowships, including two Guggenheim Fellowships. Her first collection of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville, appeared in 1945. A second book of poetry, Annie Allen, was published in 1949, earning Brooks the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1950. This marked the first time an African American had won the award.

Brooks's early collections are exciting mixtures of modernist treatments of traditional literary forms. Her early works include the sonnet and ballad—heavily influenced by T. S. Eliot—and popular African American forms after the manner of Langston Hughes. Despite these and other influences, Brooks created a unique poetic voice that grappled with issues of art, identity, race, gender, and the relation between literature and popular culture. She wrote on these issues perhaps more powerfully than any other poet in the immediate post-World War II era. Brooks further investigated these concerns in her novel Maud Martha (1953), a series of loosely connected sketches about a young African American woman from the South Side.

With the upsurge of the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1950s, Brooks's work became increasingly engaged with events of the African American struggle for freedom. Her 1960 collection of poems, The Bean Eaters, contains poems about lynching, the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi, and the integration of schools in Little Rock, Arkansas. While retaining much of her early style, Brooks's poetry became much more direct during this period. This overt focus on the immediate conditions and events of the African American community became even more pronounced after Brooks attended a black writer's conference at Fisk University in 1967. At this conference, Brooks encountered leading Black Arts Movement writers, such as Amiri Baraka, who greatly influenced her. After the conference, Brooks became prominently identified with the Black Arts Movement. This affiliation was seen almost immediately in the 1968 collection In the Mecca ("the Mecca" referring to a South Side apartment building). The collection includes poems to Black Nationalist Malcolm X, slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, and the Blackstone Rangers, a politicized Chicago street gang that became part of the Black Power Movement.

Brooks has retained this political engagement in her work to the present. This can be seen not only in her poetry but also in her decision to use African American-run publishing houses rather than larger commercial publishers. In addition to her poetry and her novel, Brooks has also written two autobiographical works, Report from Part One (1972) and Report from Part Two (1997).

Contributed By: James Smethurst

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Blog Posts about Gwendolyn Brooks

New Poetry Anthology Moves Grown Men To Tears -- And That Is Precisely The Point

Anthologies are tricky – and a new one called “Poems That Make Grown Men Cry” might seem like a gimmick. But readers who venture here will find that London editors Anthony and Ben Holden, a father and son, have come up with an engaging conversation-starter and a new angle on some marvelous work. They asked 100 men to write a brief introduction to a poem that choked them up. The “vast majority are public figures not prone to tears,” writes Anthony Holden, “as is supposedly the manly way, but here prepared to admit to caving in when... Read More →

Huffington Post Reveals 50 Books Every African American Should Read - How Many AW Winners Made The List?

Gwendolyn Brooks Huffington Post's Black Voices rounded up 50 books the editors think every African American should read (they added on Twitter that of course the list has value to everyone, but these books focus primarily on the black experience in America). We were thrilled to see how many Anisfield-Wolf winners were on the list, proving to us once again that our winners stand out in the crowded literary field.  Gwendolyn Brooks "Annie Allen" (1949) Edwidge Danticat "Breath, Eyes, Memory" (1999) Chimamanda Adichie "Half Of A Yellow Sun... Read More →

VIDEO: Gwendolyn Brooks Reads Her Poem, "We Real Cool"

Gwendolyn Brooks It's a short poem but it's also one of Gwendolyn Brooks' (pardon the pun) coolest. "We Real Cool," published in her 1960 book The Bean Eaters, is a 1959 poem by our 1969 winner for fiction. (Got all that?) In this quick clip she explains why she wrote it.  "I wrote it because I was passing by a poll hall in my community one afternoon during school time and I saw therein a bunch of boys...and they were shooting pool," Brooks said. "Instead of asking myself, "Why aren't they in school?" I asked myself, I wonder how they feel about... Read More →
  • Gwendolyn Brooks

    Gwendolyn Brooks

    1917-2000

    Other Works

    • A Street in Bronzeville (1945)
    • Annie Allen (1950)
    • Maud Martha (1953)
    • The Bean Eaters (1961)
    • Report from Part One (1972)

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