"The Kindergarten of New Consciousness": Gwendolyn Brooks and the Social Construction of Childhood

Article excerpt

We watch strange moods fill our children, and our hearts swell with pain. The streets, with their noise and flaring lights, the taverns, the automobiles, and the poolrooms claim them, and no voice of ours can call them back.... We cannot keep them in school; more than 1,000,000 of our black boys and girls of high school age are not in school.... It is not their eagerness to fight that makes us afraid, but that they go to death on city pavements faster than even disease and starvation can take them. As the courts and the morgues become crowded with our lost children, the hearts of the officials of the city grow cold toward us. (Wright 136)

I GIVE YOU MY GALLERY.

So many boys. Boys. Lincoln West. Merle. Ulysses. Shabaka. Martin D. The Near- Johannesburg Boy. Diego. Kojo. Seven boys in a poolroom during schooltime. The Pool Players, Seven at The Golden Shovel-

We real cool. We

Left school. We

Lurk late. We

Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We

Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We

Die soon.

Die soon. Today, many such boys--their girl friends, too--EXPECT to "die soon." In Chicago. In New York. In Springfield, in Philadelphia. In Whatalotago, Alabama. In Detroit. (In Washington D.C.?) They do not expect to become twenty-one. They are designing their funerals. Their caskets will be lined with Kente cloth. They choose their music: they want rap, they want Queen Latifah. (Brooks, Rep art from Part Two 123-24)

In Report from Part One, Gwendolyn Brooks gives an account of her "conversion" to Black [1] militancy at the 1967 Fisk Writers' Conference. Impressed by the energy and anger in the work of Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) and others, Brooks recognized that "there is indeed a new black today." Acknowledging that for most of her life "almost secretly [she] had felt that to be black was good," she writes that she had "'gone the gamut' from an almost angry rejection of my dark skin by some of my brainwashed brothers and sisters to a surprised queenhood in the new black sun." "I...am qualified," Brooks proclaims, "to enter at least the kindergarten of new consciousness now" (84). Since In the Mecca (1968), Brooks has published her work exclusively with Black presses such as Broadside, Third World Press, and her own David Company, work characterized by a turn toward free verse as well as increasingly direct political content. Although the "kindergarten of new consciousness" fostered in Brooks a new Black identity an d a new sense of Black people as her primary audience, her poetry, as she insisted in an interview with Claudia Tate, has always been "'politically aware'" (42).

Part of her political project has been a clear-eyed, tough, and compassionate look at the plight of children. From A Street in Bronzeville (1945) to the present, Brooks's work has used the image and voice of the child to negotiate a complex poetic strategy that explores "childhood" as a position from which to critique prevailing constructs of class and race. For Brooks, the subject of childhood represents a means through which she can interrogate and unmask dominant notions of domesticity and child-rearing as part of her own radical social and poetic agenda.

Childhood as a subject would gain force in the '40s and '50s for other American poets, including Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and Randall Jarrell. But for most poets the subject of childhood was steeped in nostalgia, indicative of the growing trend toward introspection among White intellectuals occasioned by the rise of a newly psychologized self. By contrast, Brooks chose to write about "the children of the poor," to borrow the title of her sonnet sequence from Annie Allen. Critic Gary Smith argues that, "if Brooks's poetry about adults is bleak, her poetry about children is even more so" (130): "Her children do not exist in a pastoral world apart from the socioeconomic and psychological problems that beset her adult characters. …