Double Consciousness, Modernism, and Womanist Themes in Gwendolyn Brooks's "The Anniad"
Jimoh, A. Yemisi, MELUS
Double consciousness in African American literature is the phenomenon whereby a text simultaneously responds to two conflicting definitions of African American identity: a prevailing and debilitating European American definition as well as a more self-determined African American definition. This literary definition of double consciousness parallels Du Bois's description of psycho-philosophical double consciousness in The Souls of Black Folk. In Gwendolyn Brooks's "The Anniad" such double consciousness is perceptible in her poem's many subtle yet searing lines which reveal a prevailing astigmatism concerning race as well as gender in the United States. Gwendolyn Brooks's Janus-like poem--with its simultaneous focus on both gender and race---depicts some of the effects that an emerging media culture has had on standards of beauty among African American women, who often present a contrast to the definitions of beauty that are pervasive in the United States. Through this poet's use of double consciousness in "The Anniad," readers perceive that Brooks is acutely aware of the urban, black Chicago that shapes her aesthetic as well as the prevailing culture in the United States that could shape her success as a poet.
While my discussion does not contribute to the notion (nor do I insist on such regularity) that Brooks's content is incompatible with her form, I do find that the combined impetus of this poet's response to a segregated 1940s black Chicago as well as a segregated artistic and publishing milieu in the United States contributes to a tenuously poised, yet successfully meshed, content and form in "The Anniad." Both the content and the form strain against being silenced, in this poetic struggle against double consciousness. The form strains to contain the content which it must convey, as Brooks often subtly voices her sexual, gender, and racial topics in oblique images, allusions, and equivocal sexual word play that veil the plenitude that is barely contained in the margins of her form--the mock-epic.
Specific instances of Brooks's slant or indirect poetics include veiled allusions to writers whose artistry she appreciates, yet, who--at the time--were not regarded favorably or had lost value in the dominant cultural setting. Brooks opens "The Anniad" with a poet's nod to Paul Laurence Dunbar(1) and his novel Sport of the God when she refers to Annie as a young girl "Whom the higher gods forgot, / Whom the lower gods berate." Other agnatic poetic echoes in "The Anniad" include lines from Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, especially Brooks's apt image of black women in relation to their hair: "Then emotionally aware / Of the black and boisterous hair, / Taming all that anger down." Hughes presents a similar idea concerning black hair in his 1947 poem "Trumpet Player": "Has his head of vibrant hair / Tamed down" (Hughes 338). This image also occurs in Cullen's 1925 poem "Heritage": "Crowned with dark rebellious hair" (Cullen 247). In all three poets the idea of black people's hair collects images of "rebellion," and in the later poems by Hughes and Brooks this sense of revolt is "tamed." In both male poets, however, the emotional angst about hair that angers Annie does not exist for Hughes's trumpet player and Cullen's Jesus. These poets, in fact bring positive connotations to their references to hair, connotations which are not present for Brooks's Annie. This character's negative perception of hair, however, along with other gender-limiting issues are subtly critiqued in this poem.
In terms of her poetic style as well as in her uses of irony as a means through which she presents resistance to traditional gender roles, Brooks suggests enatic(2) poetic echoes of Emily Dickinson's technique. Dickinson's poetic includes images of the secreted or concealed female poet, transformations of traditional form, punctuation, and line rhythms, and her depiction of male-female relations in--often ironic--divine or royal terms. …