‘A Street in Bronzeville’ by Gwendolyn Brooks

A Street in Bronzeville (1945) was Gwendolyn Brooks‘s first poetry collection, published by Harper & Brothers in New York on August 18, 1945, when Brooks was only 28 years old. The poems are based on her own experiences and observations of daily life in the Bronzeville neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, where she spent most of her life.

The book was an instant success and lauded by the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Defender, Negro Times, and the New York Times, all of which heralded the arrival of a great poet. The collection includes some of Brooks’s most anthologized poems, such as “kitchenette building,” which was inspired by her own living conditions in Chicago’s kitchenette apartments, where white landlords carved single family apartments up into tiny, multiple-family homes for Black tenants.

Brooks composed many of the poems in A Street in Bronzeville during her time in Inez Cunningham Stark’s poetry workshop at the South Side Community Art Center in the 1940s. Several poems, including “Gay Chaps at the Bar,” won poetry contests at Northwestern University’s Midwestern Writers Conference, which brought Brooks to the attention of an editor at Knopf in New York, Emily Morrison, in 1943. At Morrison’s request, Brooks sent Knopf 40 poems, which they rejected.

Brooks then submitted 19 poems to Harper & Brothers in New York, where editor Elizabeth Lawrence asked Richard Wright to evaluate her work. Harper had published Wright’s first two works of fiction, Uncle Tom’s Children (1939) and Native Son (1940), and though he had left Bronzeville for New York in 1937, he still corresponded with Chicago colleagues from his days in the South Side Writers Group.

“They are hard and real, right out of the central core of Black Belt Negro life in urban areas,” Wright wrote of Brooks’s poems in a letter to Harper. “Miss Brooks is real and so are her poems.” He suggested cutting the poem about abortion, “the mother,” and thought the title was too Chicago-centric for a national audience, but his support convinced Elizabeth Lawrence to accept Brooks’s manuscript and ask her to write more poems.

Many poems from A Street in Bronzeville were republished by Harper in Selected Poems (1963).

Table of Contents

A Street in Bronzeville
the old-marrieds
kitchenette building
the mother
southeast corner
when Mrs. Martin’s Booker T
the soft man
the funeral
hunchback girl: she thinks of heaven
a song in the front yard
patent leather
the ballad of chocolate Mabbie
the preacher: ruminates behind the sermon
Sadie and Maud
the independent man
obituary for a living lady
when you have forgotten Sunday: the love story
the murder
of De Witt Williams on his way to Lincoln Cemetery
Matthew Cole
the vacant lot

The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith

Negro Hero

Hattie Scott
the end of the day
the date
at the hairdresser’s
when I die
the battle

Queen of the Blues

Ballad of Pearl May Lee

Gay Chaps at The Bar
gay chaps at the bar
“still do I keep my look, my identity . . .”
my dreams, my works, must wait till after hell
looking
piano after war
mentors
the white troops had their orders but the Negroes looked like men
firstly inclined to take what it is told
“God works in a mysterious way”
love note I: surely
love note II: flags
the progress

Contemporary Reviews

“As the title indicates, many of the poems in Miss Brooks’ first collection of verse seal with matters that have a local habitation and a name. Here are poems of a contemporary Negro life; how accurately that life is reflected would be very hard for anyone who has not lived on the streets of Bronzeville to tell. The five poems that make up the Hattie Scott sequence seem to me, for example, rather flat, ordinary versification; I am not quite as sure as the jacket writer that Miss Brooks is never sentimental, never obvious; and some items, ‘The Queen of the Blues,’ perhaps, strike me as a little theatrical. It is difficult, when contemplating A Street in Bronzeville, not to be suspicious, occasionally, that a block, or a corner building, has been rigged out to catch the eye of the prowler in search of the quaint. Most of Miss Brooks’ work, however, is above the reach of this suspicion… The idiom may be local but the language is universal; Miss Brooks has a command over both the colloquial and the more austere rhythms… We have, in A Street in Bronzeville, a good book, and a real poet.” —Rolfe Humphries, The New York Times, Sunday, November 4, 1945

Editions

  • First edition (1945), Harper & Brothers, New York.
  • eBook edition (2014), Library of America eBook Classics, New York. Purchase link.

Links

  • “Subversive Parody in the Early Poems of Gwendolyn Brooks” by John Gery at JSTOR

Sources

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