I like my poetry like I like my politics, local. For all the grandeur of the poem that attempts to speak in the broadest, most universal strokes, I prefer my verse at street level. Perhaps no other poet in the American tradition does this like Gwendolyn Brooks.
Brooks was born in 1917 and moved to Chicago soon after. She would become a lifelong Chicagoan and one of the city’s most revered writers. In 2017, her centennial is being celebrated nationwide and particularly in Chicago through an outpouring of public events, dedications, and recent publications inspired by her life and work.
In 1950, Brooks famously became the first black poet to win the Pulitzer Prize for her book, Annie Allen (Harper & Brothers, 1949). Throughout her long, illustrious career, her poetic voice developed and shifted tremendously, but her poetry mostly focused on illustrating the textures and complexities of black life in Chicago. She always remained interested in articulating the lives of the people in her community.
The first poem I encountered by Brooks that made me feel the full weight of this was “Beverly Hills, Chicago” from Annie Allen. I grew up in West Pullman, a neighborhood on the far South Side of Chicago, just southeast of the more affluent neighborhood of “the Beverly,” also called Beverly Hills, which Brooks documents in the poem. Many of my friends from the magnet school I attended lived in Beverly Hills. I passed through it every day on the bus to elementary school. Until I read “Beverly Hills, Chicago,” I had never seen a poem—or any piece of art—mention a place that was a part of my daily world.
In Brooks’s poem, the speaker drives through Beverly Hills, describing the neighborhood and imagining what its residents do with their day (go to tea, as one line suggests) and the ease with which their lives unfurl. This poem showcases the way Brooks handles class in her work. Rather than paint a picture of singular communities that feels monolithic, she takes on a wide-lens view, depicting a blackness that includes both the college-bound girl and the unwed mother (“Sadie and Maud”), the civil rights martyr (“Medgar Evers”) and the notorious street gang (“The Blackstone Rangers”).
The speaker in “Beverly Hills, Chicago” addresses the relative nature of class and social competition with a line like “But it is only natural that we should think we have not enough,” the “we” speaking for those who do not have access to the privileges living in Beverly Hills affords. The sense of longing, perhaps a kind of collective jealousy of the well-off, moves throughout this poem and propels it forward. Brooks masterfully articulates the shame of not-having, something I’ve felt countless times riding through Longwood Drive in Beverly Hills. It’s a feeling that people from my neighborhood feel instinctively, knowing that just west from us, across the tracks, there is so much we can’t touch. Brooks writes in a way that makes the gulf between these two worlds palpable.
The poem, though, has no clear hero. Part of the genius of Brooks’s work is her commitment to a certain democracy of morality. In her world, the poor have no monopoly on criminality just as the rich have no monopoly on virtue. She does the difficult work of considering each player in her poems as fully human and capable of all that being human entails. In this poem (and others) she resists the temptation to stereotype the wealthy (or any other group). The speaker in the poem continually sees and expresses the ways in which the people in Beverly Hills may be the same as the people in the car. By drawing those similarities we are able to feel the disparity in wealth in an even stronger way. Even the most universal moments of our lives, like death, can be altered by money: “They make excellent corpses, among the expensive flowers....”
I will never forget the jolt I felt the first time I read “Beverly Hills, Chicago.” This poem told the story not of that iconic, glamorous Beverly Hills but, instead, of Chicago’s Beverly Hills, the neighborhood I knew, of St. Patrick’s Day parades and wide lawns. For all of Brooks’s awareness and deft depictions of class, her ability to use small details to paint a full picture of a community is her most powerful skill. Her vision allows us to feel like we are along for an intimate ride with both the comfortable folks in the big houses and the plainer folks passing through in their car. Never does Brooks demonize or laud people because of what they have or don’t. She asks us, on her own streets and on her own terms, to consider what inequity might feel like. Like a rapper using neighborhood slang, she doesn’t translate her feelings into a place or a scenario that might be more palatable. She just writes what is, and we are able to experience it.