The portrait of black urban life that emerges from the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks is a very mixed one. On the one hand, she uses colloquial language to describe the lives and destinies of black youth in urban areas, although she also mixes very informal language with highly ornate expression as if to show how barren their lives are. Elsewhere she presents a largely pessimistic view of the black experience of urban life, but manages, at the same time, to demonstrate signs of hope.
In “We Real Cool” she uses the language of young black men to comment on their self-centredness and their likely fate, but she gives them their own voice:
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Their opinion of themselves is very high, but the education system has nothing to offer them and they sink into crime and violence. Note how Brooks uses rhyme to structure her poem, but the final word of each line shows there young men’s lack of self-awareness. The fate of such young men is poignantly expressed in the final line of the poem: “We/Die soon.” It is so poignant because the casualness of the language expresses the idea that their deaths will be seen as unimportant by society.
“The Blackstone Rangers” deals with a similar subject – black street crime based on gang rivalry. In The first section we are shown how they are seen by the authorities. They are “black, raw, ready,” –ready for crime and violence we assume, but the city refuses to acknowledge any responsibility for them: they are “sores in the city/that do not want to heal.” The second section of the poem uses highly elevated language to show what the gang leaders are like. It seems, however, that Brooks is mocking them slightly through this very high-flown language and she admits that they are not really importnat:
Hardly Belafonte, King,
Black Jesus, Stokely, Malcolm X or Rap.
Their lives are meaningless and they make no contribution to African American culture or politics – they are merely the leaders of a street gang. As Madhubuti writes, “the boys have no accented sense of themselves, yet they are aware of a semi-defined personal importance.” (127). The third section deals with their girlfriends who are similarly obsessed with the trivial and who Brooks presents as wasting their lives.
“the vacant lot” describes urban decay, but also can be seen for the decline of urban life amongst black people. Mrs. Coley’s brick house has been demolished. We are not told why, but it clear from the rest of the poem that her daughter was used by Mrs. Coley’s son-in-law as a prostitute; he was a pimp and the poem shows the moral degeneration that black Americans suffer as a result of limited opportunities for work.
However, “kitchenette building” is slightly more positive in its overall message. It is filed with the ordinary, everyday necessities of urban life: ‘”rent’” and ‘”feeding a wife’”; waiting for the shared toilet in a tenement to be free; “yesterday’s garbage rotting in the hall”; the smell of 2fried potatoes.” However, in this poem the poor urban black still have a “dream” – not a very strong one, but a dream nevertheless – a dream of a better life. As Melhem writes, “the poem poses the question of dreams deferred,” (23) – deferred because of the remaining racism in the United States.
Madhubuti, Haki R. ‘Gwendolyn Brooks: beyond the Wordmaker – The Making of an African Poet.’ pages 121 – 136. Bloom, Harold (Ed.). Gwendolyn Brooks. 2005. New York: Infobase Publishing. Print.
Melham, D.H. Gwendolyn Brooks: Poetry and the Heroic Voice. 1988. University of Kentucky Press. Print.