On August 28, 1955, a new cultural icon would figure in the history of African-American Civil Rights. On vacation from Chicago to visit relatives in Money, Mississippi, fourteen year old Emmett Till was accused of the unforgivable crime of whistling at a white woman. For this crime, white men in the area shot him in the head, tied a cotton gin fan around his neck and threw him in the river. After a speedy trial, the murderers were acquitted. Sheriff Struder ordered an immediate burial after the killing.
The boy’s mother, Mamie Bradley refused.
Just as she sent her son’s body down South, Emmett Till’s mother would call it back North for his funeral. She would lay him out open casket without any mortuary retouching. She would force the world to confront not just the idea of her son’s lynching, but its physical aftermath, his corpse as a palpable obliteration of body and nation. Incorporating, reinforcing and eclipsing his mother’s position, Till’s corpse would circulate across the nation in open-casket photographs (Whitfield).
Particularly compelling in her formation and transformation of the tragedy is African-American poet Gwendolyn Brooks.
In August 1955, Brooks was already a nationally acclaimed poet and was also the married mother of two teenagers in Chicago, Emmett’s hometown. Regarding the tragedy, Brooks would come to write two classic poems: “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon” and “The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till”. These two poems would appear in Brooks’ seminal third collection The Bean Eaters (1960) where the key figures of the Till tragedy—the grieving mother and the martyred son— would be elaborated, exposed and refigured in a broad national context.
The Bean Eaters comes to represent a particular era of burgeoning Civil Rights, a time of domestic disease (Harper). The Bean Eaters Published in 1960, The Bean Eaters marks a turning point both in Brooks work and in the trajectory of African-American poetry at large. One reason for this is the particular status of its author, easily read as a turning point figure herself. Born in 1917, Brooks came to poetic prominence after World War II.
Along with Robert Hayden and Margaret Walker, Brooks became one of the most well-known black poets writing between the two key aesthetic movements of African-American culture: the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 30s and the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 70s. More than just writing at a transitional time, Brooks herself is best known for embodying two key transitions: in 1950, she became the first African-American ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry; and in 1967, she herself vocally converted to the Black Arts movement, the so-called “sister” or cultural wing of Black Power (Debo 145-9).
Written between the Pulitzer-Prize winning Annie Allen (1949), Brooks’ only novel Maud Martha (1953) and her next full-length poetical work In the Mecca (1968), The Bean Eaters can be read as Brooks’ last attempt to forge an ‘Afro-American poetry’ before the predominance of black nationalism. Chronicling and critiquing the black condition in the United States, The Bean Eaters serves as a lynchpin between the “I, Too, Sing America” social protest poetry of the Harlem Renaissance and the “Nigger can you kill?
” Black Arts nationalist response (Harper). Set against a backdrop of economic injustice, school desegregation and lynching, The Bean Eaters takes many of its subjects from the day’s headlines to create new domestic portraits and character studies. Of the text of thirty-six poems, more than two-thirds are either dramatic monologues (“A Bronzeville Mother Loiters… ,” “The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock,” “Strong Men, Riding Horses”) or third person reports (“Mrs. Small” “Crazy Mary,” “Callie Ford”).
Up till then, in both mind and entrails, body and nation, the position of the black woman in the domestic sphere alienates the white woman from herself and her world. This alienation has been neutralized, if not alleviated, by the American mythology of the mammy. Still insisting on the unlikeliness of black and white women’s bodies, this myth allows for both the desexualization of the black woman (thus the elimination of any sexual competition, threat or admission of white desire for blackness) and the use-value of the domestic black nanny and servant.
Significantly, this alienation takes place in, through and around issues of motherhood (Worsham). The Theme of Motherhood Motherhood has long played a central role in Brooks’ work. Her first collection A Street in Bronzeville (1945) features her famous poem “the mother” with its infamous first line, “Abortions will not let you forget,” and, ruminations such as “What shall I give my children who are poor? ” fill Annie Allen (1945). In The Bean Eaters, in poems such as “Jessie Mitchell’s Mother” and “The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till,” mothers continue to figure greatly.
Social ambivalence about motherhood was not solely directed at black women, particularly during the post-World War II era. According to historian Ruth Feldstein, much popular and scientific attention in the 1950s turned to juvenile delinquency, most often linking it back to bad parenting, i. e. motherhood. At a moment when men were reclaiming the workplace, motherhood was simultaneously elevated as the ideal occupation for women and indicted as a fundamental cause of social ills (Feldstein 264-5).
This ambivalence about motherhood was particularly manifested in the Till tragedy, as coverage focused on “the two mothers” in the case, Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till Bradley and Carolyn Bryant, the alleged victim of Till’s “assault” and the mother of two small children. As Feldstein shows, domestic, regional, and national anxieties and agendas were projected onto these two women by entities as various as the mainstream press, the NAACP and the segregationist South (Feldstein 271-277). Brooks’ “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters…
” complicates Bryant’s motherhood and the connection of motherhood between the two women. As in real life, this connection, invoked in the poem’s title, has been greatly discussed by literary commentators. While Maria K. Mootry suggests that the two women’s shared condition of motherhood expands to a particular sisterhood under the patriarchal oppression of domestic violence (185). However, Phillip Brian Harper argues convincingly that Brooks’ presentation of motherhood in the poem underlines the fundamental alienation between the two womens’ position (98-104).
This alienation, so fundamental to the lynching narrative, projects the proper motherhood of one woman as intimately connected to (if not completely dependent upon) the eradication of motherhood in the other (the murder of the other woman’s son). As it will be shown, Brooks ultimately complicates the situation of motherhood in “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters… ” fusing it with projections of doomed masculinity and unlikely bodies to raise and respond to specific national anxieties (Feldstein 267). A Bronzeville Mother…
Brooks’ poem “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters… ” explores and synthesizes many of the key issues of body and nation prevalent in The Bean Eaters. The longest poem in the collection (142 lines), it is perhaps the most ambitious, drawing on the actual event of Emmett Till’s lynching to comment on race, gender, American society and poetry itself. The poem is rooted in an “unlikely” connection between two women: the Bronzeville mother (black, northern and urban) and the Mississippi mother (white, southern and rural / suburban) (Harper 99).
Both the unlikelihood and the inevitability of their connection is connoted in the poem’s title which insists on a common occupation or identity (“Mother”) and a simultaneous presence in a certain place (“Mississippi,” “Meanwhile”). This commonality is immediately disrupted by the central period which breaks the title into two separate sentences: “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. ” and “Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon” (Harper 100).
This mention of the Bronzeville mother in the title will be the last direct mention of her for quite a while in the poem, so it becomes important to note the black woman’s absent presence (or present absence) as the poem’s true backdrop. Much of the emotional energy of the poem will spring from the white woman’s attempt to distance herself as much as possible from the black woman and her social, national position. Crucial, then, is the verb “loiters” which criminalizes the black woman’s very existence both in Mississippi, and, ultimately, in the domestic space of the poem, the mental space of the white southern woman.
This resonates with another poem in The Bean Eaters, “My Little ‘Bout Town Gal'” in which a black woman outside in the world becomes doomed with punishment “None shall secure her save the late the / Detective ringers of the moon. ” (269). The complete title “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon,” also calls to mind newspaper headlines and the influence of journalism on the current poetic enterprise. This journalistic influence (or intent) will be immediately contrasted with more traditional poetic form in the poem’s opening.
From the first it had been like a Ballad. It had the beat inevitable. It had the blood. A wildness cut up, and tied in little bunches, Like the four line stanzas of the ballads she had never quite Understood—the ballads they had set her to, in school (274). Unlike “The Ballad of Rudolph Reed” which asserts itself in title, meter and rhyme as a ballad, this poem asserts a relationship to the ballad through comparison or likeness (“it had been like a ballad” and the quality of this “like” again calls to mind the connection of the two mothers).
With its surging stanzas, sprawling rhythms and jagged lines, this poem is quite a contrast to “the beat inevitable” of the ballad, its “wildness cut up, and tied in little bunches. ” These are qualities we find in “The Ballad of Rudolph Reed” (or such earlier Brooks ballads as “The Ballad of Chocolate Mabbie” or “of DeWitt Williams on his way to Lincoln Cemetery”). In “A Bronzeville Woman Loiters…,” however, the wildness is unloosed and undomesticated. This contrast between the wildness of the poem’s content and its domestic milieu, the kitchen of “the Mississippi Mother” Carolyn Bryant, merely underlines the poem’s irony.
The Last Quatrain… Certainly, the “Other Woman” must also be directly read as the Bronzeville mother whose perpetual presence in the mind of the Mississippi mother causes the psychic shift for which the paper is arguing. It is essential here to stress the relationship between the two women in the poem whose unlikeness and dislike for one another (“Decapitated exclamation points”) must always cede to their simultaneous existence in the “meanness” of the “Meanwhile. ” To the contrary, the two mothers come to decompose and eradicate each other in the space and logic of the poem.
Just as the Mississippi mother endangers and ultimately disallows the motherhood of the Bronzeville woman by actively participating in a system in which her son is murdered without justice, so the Bronzeville mother becomes a pervasive psychic presence that undoes the stability of the Mississippi woman’s subjectivity (and identity) as wife and mother. Moreover, the Bronzeville mother represents a kind of premonition or vision of judgment and condemnation (“that Other Woman’s eyes” that “would not go away”).
She signals the literal miscarriage of justice that becomes figuratively enacted on the white woman’s body (“then a sickness heaved within her … /… She wanted to bear it”). The poem ends ambiguously as the white woman stands in mute impotence and hatred. This hatred becomes related to prized Southern flora (“a hatred for him burst into glorious flower/ … Bigger than all magnolias”) and she becomes in her alienation a kind of antithesis to the black maid who embodies love in “Bronzeville Woman with a Red Hat.
” This hatred does not, however, embody her but “enclasps them” suggesting that this hatred, like the white man’s hands (which kill the black son, slap the white son, violate both women), somehow surrounds, encompasses, possesses their bodies. This Southern stench of hatred leads to the last stanza of the poem: “The last bleak news of the ballad. / The rest of the rugged music. / The last quatrain. ” Both an end and a continuation (the “last” and the “rest”), this hatred completes the disintegration and decomposition of the ballad romance.
The word “news” again highlights the currency (and immediacy) of the tragedy, perhaps presaging “the last quatrain,” the demise of (traditional) poetry in such dire circumstances. This last stanza also marks a kind of transition to the complementary poem, “The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till. ” A mere eight lines long, “The Last Quatrain” is a poem of restraint and subtlety, most often considered as a kind of envoy to the longer poem, the final word. Subtitled “AFTER THE MURDER, AFTER THE BURIAL,” the poem uses the figure of the black woman to make a comment on the larger situation of body and nation in the United States.
Emmett’s mother is a pretty-faced thing; / the tint of pulled taffy. She sits in a red room / drinking black coffee. She kisses her killed boy. / And she is sorry. Chaos in windy grays / through a red prairie (280). Here indeed, the “wildness” of the tragedy “is tied up in little bunches. ” Unlike the former poem, “The Last Quatrain” insists on small, measured lines, and slant rhymes which suggest a bittersweetness. The line “the tint of pulled taffy” suggests both Mamie Bradley’s fatigue and weeping, and the obliteration of her son’s face. Both are contrasted with the strength and color of “black coffee,” that eponymous beverage for “a wake.
” The poem’s turning point again takes place with a kiss, here the mother’s kiss of her dead boy. Her sadness and disappointment at her son’s treatment is immediately placed in a national context in the last couplet: “Chaos in windy grays / through a red prairie. ” The open space of the prairie is connected to the interiority of mourning by the adjective “red,” a key color of both blood and patriotism. This red contrasts violently with the windy “grays,” a drab mingling of black and white that is both noun and verb in this strange final sentence.
Instead of the decomposition of “A Bronzeville Woman Loiters,” the stately form of the “Last Quatrain” becomes a distinct composition of the American landscape. The events of the Till tragedy all become a part of a national chaos that disembodies and decomposes young black boys and turns mothers to grief (Feldstein). Although the motherhood of Mamie Till Bradley was actually critiqued and contested, Brooks’ illustration of black motherhood is a brilliant intervention in poetry and in public imagination.
In “The Last Quatrain,” the black woman becomes an almost allegorical figure to stand in for the average American in a plea for social justice. In “A Bronzeville Woman Loiters,” Brooks uses the figure of the black mother to re-position the black woman in the lynching narrative (Mootry). While Mootry suggests that Brooks’ treatment of the two mothers in the poem is a sign of modernist technique and “slanted intentionality,” it can be seen as an elaboration of the root of the tragedy, the lynchpin of difference between black and white women that undergirds the terror of racial violence (185).
To this end, both Till poems connect back to the poems of doomed masculinity in The Bean Eaters, particularly such poems as “Strong Men, Riding Horses,” “The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to little Rock” and especially “The Ballad of Rudolph Reed” with its whimpering daughter and “oak-eyed mother. ” Conclusion Significantly, The Bean Eaters marks the last appearance of ballads in Brooks work; and, the language of “Last Quatrain” particularly calls to mind the stanzas of her mock-epic “The Anniad” in Annie Allen. There the rhyme royale of the long poem reveals, conceals and transforms a neglected and dejected black female subject.
As Mary Helen Washington has observed, the relentless form in Brooks’ early work was often a mark of irony and social commentary (32). As the The Bean Eaters would end the first phase of Brooks’ work, she would come to experiment with new expressions of irony and social commentary (composition and decomposition) in the Black Arts Movement. In yet another way, then, The Bean Eaters marks a turning point, a beginning and an end. A stunning negotiation of body and nation, composition and decomposition, The Bean Eaters emerges as a key articulation of African-American national poetry, an elaboration of unlikely bodies.
Works Cited Primary Texts Brooks, Gwendolyn. Blacks. Chicago: Third World Press, 1991. Brooks, Gwendolyn. “The Ballad of Chocolate Mabbie” in A Street in Bronzeville. Selected Poems. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 1999. 7 Brooks, Gwendolyn. “of DeWitt Williams on his way to Lincoln Cemetery” in A Street in Bronzeville. Selected Poems. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 1999. 10 Brooks, Gwendolyn. “The Anniad. ” Selected Poems. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 1999. 37 Brooks, Gwendolyn. “The Children Of The Poor. ” Part I of “The Womanhood.
” The Poetry Center at the Smiths College, 2008 <http://www. smith. edu/poetrycenter/poets/thechildren. html> Brooks, Gwendolyn. “the mother. ” Poetry Archive, 2008 <http://www. poetryfoundation. org/archive/poem. html? id=172081> Brooks, Gwendolyn. The Ballad of Rudolph Reed Poetry Archive, 2008 <http://www. poetryfoundation. org/archive/poem. html? id=172092> Secondary Texts Debo, Annette. “Reflecting Violence in the Warpland: Gwendolyn Brooks’s Riot. ” African American Review 39, 1-2 (Spring/Summer 2005): 143-52 Feldstein, Ruth.
“‘I Wanted the Whole World to See:’ Race, Gender, and Constructions of Motherhood in the Death of Emmett Till” in Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945-1960, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1994. Harper, Phillip Brian. “Gwendolyn Brooks and the Vicissitudes of Black Female Subjectivity” in Framing the Margins: The Social Logic of Postmodern Culture. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. Mootry, Maria K. “Tell it Slant: Disguise and Discovery as Revisionist Poetic Discourse in The Bean Eaters” in A Life Distilled: Gwendolyn Brooks, Her Poetry and Fiction. Ed. Maria K.
Mootry and Gary Smith, Urbana and Chicago; University of Illinois Press, 1987. Washington, Mary Helen. ‘Taming All that Anger Down” in Reading Black, Reading Feminist. New York: Meridian (Penguin), 1990. Whitfield, Stephen J. Death in the Delta: The Story of Emmett Till. New York: Free Press; London: Collier MacMillan, 1989. Worsham, Fabian Clements. “The Poetics of Matrilineage: Mothers and Daughters in the Poetry of African American Women, 1965-1985” in Women of Color: Mother-Daughter Relationships in Twentieth Century Literature. Ed. Elizabeth Brown-Guillory. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996.