Killing John Cabot and Publishing Black: Gwendolyn Brooks's Riot

Article excerpt

In the late 1960s, at the height of her career, Gwendolyn Brooks .changed publishers, switching from Harper & Row, a major press that could give her widespread distribution and publicity, to small, new, African American-run Broadside Press. Harper & Row had just published arguably her most accomplished book, In the Mecca. in 1968. Sloughing off, the very next year, great stretches of her mainstream-poetry-buying public was a profoundly anti-economic move. Many who had bought her work in the past would now have significant difficulty finding it--indeed, even learning it existed--given the considerably smaller resources of poet Dudley Randall's then-recently founded press. Riot would be among the first books (granted, a small one--a chapbook, really) published by, essentially, a one-man operation that had, until that year, 1969, published only broadsides.

This move has usually been interpreted as a sign of Brooks's commitment to African American cultural nationalism. In fact, she said so herself: "I've been telling everyone who's black, 'You ought to have a black publisher,' and of course that was easy for me to say. I have left Harper not because of any difficulty therewith, but simply because my first duty is to the estimable, developing black publishing companies" (qtd. in Israel 104). And after she started publishing with Haki R. Madhubuti's Third World Press, she told an interviewer:

I couldn't possibly think of going back to any white publisher. I'll always be with a black publisher and if Third World Press discontinues its operations, though it doesn't seem to have any prospects of that, I shall publish my own work. I will never go back to a white press. But I left them, as you probably know, because I wanted to encourage the Black publishers who at that time needed clients. (Brown and Zorn 54)

Not only, in fact, did Brooks forgo the greater royalties she might have received through Harper & Row, but she donated her royalties from Riot back to Broadside Press, thus extending Randall's small resources so that he could afford to publish other African American poets (Melhem 190).

An admirable commitment--the poet withdraws her considerable cultural capital from one institution and deposits it in another otherwise undercapitalized venture, shoring up its finances and thus encouraging it to flourish. All this cultural finance and politics, however, has seemed to some commentators external to the poetry. Kenny J. Williams, for one, regarding Brooks's overt identification with all things cultural nationalist, charges, "Changing one's hairstyle and refusing certain amenities from a white reading public, while perhaps significant political statements, are ultimately far more cosmetic than substantive" (63). That is, such moves do not much affect the poetry or the way we read it.

But Riot, Brooks's first Broadside Press book, just like any other literary text, depends on a specific material form to reach its audience. Poems reach their audiences not as abstract linguistic constructs that are pretty much the same whatever their material published form, but either as performance or as printed artifacts. As performance, the venue and occasion of the recitation, as well as the delivery and gestures of the reciter, inflect the poem for the audience. As for Riot, the material qualities and the provenance of the artifact--as Jerome McGann has argued in his call for a "materialist hermeneutics" (11)--emphasize and create, inflect and deflect the text's meanings. Since Brooks chose to publish Riot with Broadside, readers had to approach the book through a specifically African American context. That context was tied to the artifact that bore the text. Readers of her earlier Harper & Row books had, famously, not always considered it necessary to allow significance to the racial context of the po ems' composition. But with Riot, not only the poet, but also the publisher, the retailers (primarily African American-run businesses), and crucially the target market of presumed readers were black. …

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