A SURPRISED QUEENHOOD IN THE NEW BLACK SUN: THE LIFE & LEGACY OF GWENDOLYN BROOKS
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.