Reflecting Violence in the Warpland: Gwendolyn Brooks's Riot

By Debo, Annette | African American Review, Spring-Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Reflecting Violence in the Warpland: Gwendolyn Brooks's Riot


Debo, Annette, African American Review


Gwendolyn Brooks opens the second part of Riot with the following lines:

   The earth is a beautiful place.
   Watermirrors and things to be reflected.
   Goldenrod across the little lagoon. (lines 1-3)

Besides affirming the unorthodox beauty of the urban setting, in these lines Brooks provides the metaphor of mirroring for the events chronicled in Riot, a series of three poems about the 1968 Chicago riots, which directly followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1) These poems refuse the restrictive poetic forms for which Brooks's early poetry is well known and critically rewarded--they are post-1967, that is, after Brooks attended the Second Black Writers' Conference at Fisk University (2)--and in their sweeping verse, they encompass the white John Cabot who is killed in the riots, the young African Americans who are consumed in the energy and fire of the riot (but who like the phoenix will rise again), the outside white viewers who cannot understand, the "Black Philosopher" who analyzes the events, and the African American lovers who rise like the phoenix. The violence and apparent chaos of this riot are, significantly, caused by African Americans; it is, as Dr. King wrote and Brooks herself quoted in her epigraph, "the language of the unheard." However, if riots are indeed a language, to return to Brooks's metaphor of mirroring, then it is a language learned from white lynchers.

This language of violence and Brooks's implicit condoning of violence in Riot provide a probable explanation for the scant attention this poem has received from literary critics outside of three thorough and insightful readings from D. H. Melhem, William H. Hansell, and James D. Sullivan. (3) Alternatively, Riot has received little critical attention perhaps because it falls in the post-1967 section of Brooks's career. Too often Brooks's poetry is divided into discrete sections rather than considered a continually developing, cohesive body of work. Most frequently, her early poetry, with its intense experimentation in traditional poetic forms, is the material anthologized and critically explored, and her poetry written after 1967, a line Brooks herself drew and critics reinforced, is neglected. However, there are also critics who prefer her later poetry and who call the early poetry "traditional," "accommodationist," or "white" (Clark 85). In contrast, as I read Brooks's early poetry, I find that it, like her later poetry, responds to what she sees happening in the arts and in politics--it is all politically informed. (4) Like the poems of Langston Hughes, Brooks's work evolves, and her interest in the connection between race and violence is clear both before and after 1967, as is her continual experimentation with form. Her poetry develops; it does not suddenly become "black" after the Fisk Conference, nor does the latter half of her work lack integrity by becoming too simplistic in its form.

In this article, I extend the discussion of violence in Riot through a socio-historical analysis that allows the 1960's violence inscribed in this poem and advocated by the Black Aesthetic its proper position in the long history of American violence. My argument opens with the contention that Brooks's metaphor of mirroring is pivotal in Riot because it connects the 1968 riots to the violence aimed at African Americans since their arrival in the Americas in the sixteenth century. The 1960's riots were caused by white racism, and mirror the white-initiated violence. Following that point, I place the 1968 riots in the continuum of violent protest in American history. For many oppressed groups, riots have been a way of achieving political power. The 1968 riots were part of an American protest tradition that began when English settlers refused to pay their taxes to an oppressive power. Instead of constituting un-Americanness, African Americans were also rejecting political powerlessness in a particularly American way. …

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