114th Annual Conference - Pasadena, California
Friday, November 11 - Sunday, November 13, 2016

“Perhaps just not too swarthy?”: Black Power in Gwendolyn Brooks’ “The Lovers of the Poor”

Destiny Crockett, Princeton University

Gwendolyn Brooks’ pre-1967 literary career has been deemed racially ambivalent by activists of the time and contemporary scholars, yet close readings of her 1960 collection, The Bean Eaters, and archival materials reveal that Gwendolyn Brooks’ poetry helped lay the groundwork for “Black Power,” prior to Stokley Carmichael’s call in 1966.

Proposal: 

Key terms: Gwendolyn Brooks, Black cultural space, Black Power

In 1966, activist Stokley Carmichael delivered a speech in which he used the phrase “Black Power” to promote Black self-determination and Black control over their spaces for social and political organizing. Later, he spoke at the University of California Berkeley, among predominately white students, in which he expressed that there were some spaces for white solidarity in the liberation struggle, but that the overarching goal should be Black hegemony over their own freedom. Some scholars take for granted that this phrase catalyzed what is known as the Black Power movement and its artistic sister, the Black Arts Movement. This assumption overlooks Gwendolyn Brooks’ assertion of the idea of Black Power before it became a popular slogan. Despite the pre-1967 part of her literary career being deemed ambivalent and indubitable by activists of the time and contemporary scholars, Gwendolyn Brooks laid the groundwork for the slogan Stokley is credited for.

In her 1960 volume titled The Bean Eaters, Gwendolyn Brooks observes and privileges Black spaces present in the quotidian, and this paper focuses on a narrative poem in the volume titled “The Lovers of the Poor.” In “The Lovers of the Poor,” Brooks illustrated a unitary Black cultural space that is impoverished, but further frustrated by the invasive white gaze. Brooks takes a Black space (a soup kitchen) and illustrates its particular and unique norms—norms that the white interlopers do not understand and, in fact, dismiss. This paper expands our notion of who made Black Power what it was by arguing that Brooks’ seemingly subtle and uncontroversial literary contributions are paramount to this perceived militant way of thought.

Literary critics claim Brooks either rejected Black politics altogether or did not invoke them until later in her career, but “The Lovers of the Poor” proves otherwise. Scholar Raymond Malewitz claimed Brooks resisted the “unitary” way of grappling with race that other Black Arts Movement poets invoked. In the UC Berkeley Brooks archive, for instance, we can find a telegram to Brooks from Jesse Jackson asking that she write more to uplift Black people. Saber Yomna argued that once the Black Arts Movement began, Brooks transformed and wrote poetry that was more racially controversial and uplifting for the Black race. Margo Crawford acknowledged that during the Black Arts Movement, Brooks’s poetry became an “all-Black space.” Yet, “The Lovers of the Poor” was published in 1960, before the Black Arts Movement’s heyday, and it is in this poem that Brooks highlights Black Power through a conceptual Black cultural space.

In this paper, I include an analysis of light vs. dark imagery, satire, juxtaposition of voice, and Brooks’ emphasis on Black cultural norms in a space that is foreign to the white benefactors in the poem. I put some of my close readings in conversation with archival materials from the Gwendolyn Brooks papers at the University of California Berkeley’s as well as the recently available items in the University of Illinois Urbana Champagne collection of Gwendolyn Brooks papers.