Did you know that the lyrics to the Children of Bronzeville collection were written in 1956? Did you realize the song cycle’s connection to poet laureate Gwendolyn Brooks? After the release of our first look at Children of Bronzeville, we’d like to take a deeper look at the series inspiration.
Image still of Savage Content's Children of Bronzeville
The Woman Behind the Poetry
In 1917, Gwendolyn Brooks was born to David Anderson Brooks, an Oklahoma-born man who was the son of a freedom seeker and an enslaved houseworker of mixed parentage, and Keziah Corinne (née Wims), a schoolteacher and aspiring concert pianist. David Brooks studied at Fisk University with the intent to become a medical doctor. However, he dropped out of school after one year so that he could move his family to Chicago and begin to make a living. Gwendolyn was only a few months old at this time. Gwendolyn grew up in the South Side neighborhood called Bronzeville, where she began to observe the life around her.
Brooks began stringing couplets together at just seven years old. Gwendolyn’s mother predicted that she was going “to be the lady Paul Laurence Dunbar” because her father often read and recited Dunbar’s work while he was with his children (Source). Brooks grew up as an outcast among her peers but thrived in the creativity her parents fostered at home. She wrote line after line of poetry, seemingly around the clock, something writing as many as three poems per day. At 11, Brooks published four poems in the local newspaper, Hyde Parker. At 13, her poem “Eventide” was published in American Childhood magazine. At 16, she became a regular contributor to the poetry section of Chicago Defender magazine (Source).
Into adulthood, Brooks enrolled in junior college (due to financial constraints), dove into the works of literary giants, and joined the NAACP Youth Council. During this time, the nature of her poetry leaned more heavily into racial injustice, racial violence, poverty, and the stripping of women’s rights that was so prevalent in the 1930s and 40s. In many of her poems, she married these radical inequalities of life with the nature of childhood. These poems were not to praise childhood or working memory of her early home in an idyllic manner. They were not created with the intent to cover up any less-than-savory aspects of Chicago. They were simply, honestly, and undeniably created to stand as the portraits of a life she knew. In 1945, she released this collection. It was titled, A Street in Bronzeville. Langston Hughes said about A Street in Bronzeville, “This book is just about the biggest little two-dollar worth of intriguing reading found in bookshops these atomic days.” She was given a full-page feature in the Chicago Defender and an outstanding review in the Chicago Tribune for this work.
The Story Behind Bronzeville Boys and Girls
When looking into the background of this collection it’s been said that it’s partly thanks to the legendary children’s book editor Ursula Nordstrom that this book was created. Nordstrom fought censorship and stood up for the creative integrity of her authors in moments when publishing was too cowardly to publish essential work.
Looking for a new place for publication, Brooks submitted twenty-five of her children’s poems to Nordstrom in 1955. After receiving amazing reception and a request for more poetry, Brooks put herself on a rigorous writing regimen to produce more work. She wrote a poem a day for fifteen days. By the end, she had 40 poems, of which Nordstrom selected 34. This collection became what we know today as Bronzeville Boys and Girls (1956). Given that her two children, Henry and Nora, grew up in the Bronzeville themselves, Brooks dedicated the collection to them (Source).
Bronzeville Boys and Girls reminds us that whether we live right next door to Brooks’ childhood home in the 1950s, or we live 10,000 miles away in the 21st century, the wonder of childhood is universal (Source).
She won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry on May 1, 1950, for her poetry collection Annie Allen, making her the first African American to be honored with one. Her first and only novel, Maud Martha, was released in 1953. She became the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1985. In 1997, she was awarded the Order of Lincoln, the highest honor in the state of Illinois. Much of her work is still taught in literature classes.
After winning the Pulitzer, she was asked what made her begin writing, she said, “to prove to others (by implication, not by shouting) and to such among themselves who have yet to discover it, that they are merely human beings, not exotics.” (Source).
If you are interested in learning more at this captivating woman, I suggest the book, Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks. And if you are interested in a sneak peek of our Jazz song cycle, check out the sizzle reel for Children of Bronzeville below. make sure you’re following our YouTube channel and social media pages to stay up to date with this project and others!
A special thanks to the other sources that helped put this blog post together...
A Surprised Queenhood in the New Black Sun: The Life & Legacy of Gwendolyn Brooks – By Angela Jackson
African American Poetry: https://www.africanamericanpoetry.org/gwendolyn-brooks
Feature image via Poetry Foundation
Written by Kristen Petronio