Bitch: A Feminist Response to Pop Culture - - BOOK REVIEWS - An­gela Jack­son { Bea­con Press } —dara mathis

An­gela Jack­son’s new bi­og­ra­phy of Gwen­dolyn Brooks, A Sur­prised Queenhood in the New Black Sun, does more than re­count the iconic poet’s life and legacy: It’s a lov­ingly writ­ten ge­neal­ogy of Black ac­tivism and art. Much of the bi­og­ra­phy cen­ters on the poet’s in­flu­ence on Chicago’s artis­tic move­ments. But this is to be ex­pected: You can­not dis­cuss Brooks with­out con­jur­ing her Bronzeville neigh­bor­hood. Al­ter­nately po­etic and schol­arly in her lan­guage, Jack­son ex­pertly frames se­lected po­ems within the world Brooks in­hab­ited, pro­vid­ing line-by-line ex­pli­ca­tions of land­mark po­ems such as “Kitch­enette Build­ings.”

Like­wise, we grow ac­quainted with “Gwen” through in­ter­views with friends and fam­ily, and ex­cerpts of Brooks’s own jour­nals, po­etry, and let­ters. At times, the ac­counts feel as de­tailed and in­ti­mate as mem­ory—likely be­cause some are Jack­son’s own rec­ol­lec­tions. Two pages into the first chapter, Jack­son sim­ply writes, “Gwen­dolyn was loved.” Although she means that Brooks had a mother and fa­ther who loved her, the phrase becomes a uni­fy­ing chord through­out A Sur­prised Queenhood. Brooks, nour­ished by the love of her par­ents, dis­cov­ered a rad­i­cal love for her­self as a dark-skinned Black wo­man, and re­turned that love to Black peo­ple.

A Sur­prised Queenhood traces the tra­jec­tory of Brooks’s po­lit­i­cal evo­lu­tion from a “Ne­gro poet” to an “unapologetically Black” wo­man writer, which cul­mi­nated in her aban­don­ing pub­lisher Harper & Row in 1968 to pub­lish with a Black-owned press. The book suc­ceeds in mak­ing Brooks seem im­pos­si­bly su­per­hu­man in her kind­ness and ac­com­plish­ments. As Chicago’s poet lau­re­ate from 1968 un­til her death, Brooks of­ten funded prizes for emerg­ing poets. Jack­son gra­ciously num­bers her­self among the many poets and writ­ers that Brooks men­tored, a group that in­cludes Haki R. Mad­hubuti, Toi Der­ri­cotte, Qu­raysh Ali Lansana, and Regi­nald Gib­bons.

But Jack­son also hu­man­izes Brooks by high­light­ing the ob­sta­cles she faced. De­spite what Brooks de­scribed as “three strikes” against her—race, gen­der, and a lack of col­lege de­gree—she be­came the first Black au­thor to win a Pulitzer Prize. She still lived in a tiny kitch­enette in the South Side of Chicago with her hus­band af­ter win­ning the award. Marginal­ized writ­ers will iden­tify with the pres­sure she re­ceived from white edi­tors to make her po­etry more univer­sal—or less Black—even af­ter her na­tion­wide ac­claim.

A Sur­prised Queenhood in­vites us to peer past Brooks’s oft-an­thol­o­gized and cel­e­brated poem, “We Real Cool,” to the warmth of the wo­man who wrote it: Gwen, Queen Mother, a sun in her own right.

A Sur­prised Queenhood traces the tra­jec­tory of Brooks’s po­lit­i­cal evo­lu­tion from a “Ne­gro poet” to an “unapologetically Black” wo­man writer.

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