The poems of Gwendolyn Brooks can effectively be separated into two distinct and starkly divided epochs. The line which bifurcates these two radically different periods in the life and work of Brooks slices through the year 1967 with the point of the knife stuck into the campus of Fisk University. When Brooks showed up to take part in the Second Black Writers’ Conference she was already the very first African-American poet to win a Pulitzer (for Annie Allen in 1950), Guggenheim Fellowship honoree and had even been chosen by Mademoiselle Magazine as one of its “Ten Young Women of” 1945.
Her poetry offered receptive white audiences a powerful yet accessible glimpse into the everyday life of ordinary city dwellers in sections of cities like Chicago’s Bronzeville trying to navigate their place in white society as typical Americans who happened to have black skin. By the time the conference ended and Brooks left Fisk University behind, she was already on her way to becoming a militant voice speaking about the African-American experience in a way that no longer seemed to be influenced by how white readers would respond and react. After 1967, Brooks became an activist voice for the African-American culture in general while moving inexorably toward becoming a leading figure in the black feminist movement in particular.
This social awakening was realized in her poetry in ways both subtle and obvious. The formal structure and rhythms of her “integrationist and assimilation” period gave way to a jazzier improvisational technique capable of making room for traditional African chants as well as looking forward to the conversational rhyme of rap. While the subjects of her portraits of ghetto life were political in the subtle contextual sense that their struggles resulted directly from political ideology, the poetry that came out of her Fisk experience brought those inequalities and the underlying racism of the policies to the forefront, perhaps forcing white readers to confront them in a way that was no longer as palatable as they had been when existing beneath the surface.
A good example of this is “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi, Meanwhile a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon” form her celebrated 1960 collection The Bean Eaters. This poem retells the infamous story of the lynching of 14-year-old black youth Emmitt Till for the “crime” of leering at a white woman. The title character burning the bacon is, in fact, the white wife the man recent acquitted of the murder of Till. The poem is especially significant in that it reveals that the militancy of Brooks in 1967 was less a revolutionary moment than the culmination of a gradual, but seemingly inevitable revolution. This and other poems in The Bean Eaters reveal that Brooks was already starting to move toward a more direct approach to introducing political themes. At the same time, the choice of exploring the Till tragedy though the eyes of a white character indicates that the 1960’s would be a decade that needed to really pick up momentum as a watershed period for American civil rights before she was quite comfortable to trust herself as a voice of and for American-Africans rather an entertainer for white America.