- "My Newish Voice":Rethinking Black Power in Gwendolyn Brooks's Whirlwind
In his influential essay "Nationalism and Social Division in Black Arts Poetry of the 1960s," Phillip Brian Harper defines late sixties' black epistemology through opposing structures of unity and discord. Using Amiri Baraka's "SOS" and "Black Art" as models, he argues that the latter, divisive poem trumps its predecessor's general call for racial solidarity, and that this act of superseding necessitates a reexamination of the common conceptions of Black Nationalism within the Black Aesthetic. "[S]ocial division within the black community," he contends, "is fundamentally constitutive of Black Arts nationalism"; Baraka's work, serving as a synecdoche for all subsequent Black Arts poetry, performs these divisions with manifold ferocity (248).
Harper modifies this claim with an eye towards sexual and epistemological concerns in his revision of the essay within the collection Are We Not Men? Following a long line of previous critics,1 Harper defines Black Nationalism as an essentially male project, and writes that "insofar as black identity [. . .] depends upon identification specifically as man [. . .] blackness will partake of the very uncertainty, tentativeness, and burden of proof that [. . .] characterize conventional masculinity" (40). Within this patriarchal orientation, Harper establishes two female archetypes: older poets such as Gwendolyn Brooks who make "Baraka's [initial unifying] enterprise [their] own," and younger counterparts such as Sonia Sanchez and Nikki Giovanni who "[wrote] beyond the 'call' manifested in [. . .] 'SOS,'" and espoused the later, polemical Barakan ideals (46). Thus, he divides the movement along sexually encoded ideological lines, with those who simply repeat Baraka's "call" and therefore "succumb to the rhetoric" on one side, and those who incorporate a "phallic standard of political engagement" to actively challenge such rhetoric on the other (43, 52). Harper's comments leave little doubt as to where his aesthetic interests lie, and he dismisses Brooks from the remainder of the essay after providing an oft-quoted passage from her 1972 autobiography, Report from Part One:
My aim, in my next future, is to write poems that will somehow successfully "call" (see Imamu Baraka's "SOS") all black people, black people in taverns, black people in alleys, black people in gutters, schools, offices, factories, prisons, the consulate; I wish to reach black people in pulpits, black people in mines, on farms, on thrones[.]2
Curiously, Harper's quotation omits the final sentence of Brooks's statement: "My newish voice will not be an imitation of the contemporary young black voice, which I [End Page 531] so admire, but an extending adaptation of today's G.B. voice" (RPO 183). This omission and other comparable lacunae are problems endemic to the scholarship concerning both Brooks's relationship to the Black Arts movement and, more generally, the position of black women within the patriarchal organizations of Black Power. Houston Baker, for example, uses the same elided quotation to argue that Brooks "cast[s] her lot with the new generation" (108), while Arthur Davis insists that "like many young and middle-aged writers, she [came] under the influence of the Black Aesthetics Movement" (100). In each of these cases, Brooks is figured as a passive agent with respect to Black Arts; she "submits" to its rhetoric, where alternative figures such as Baraka and Giovanni construct and reconstruct its epistemology.
The purpose of this essay is to interrogate (and finally to challenge) such suppositions and to recover what "newish voice" Brooks brings to her poetry upon exposure to the younger poets. Examining her three "Sermons on the Warpland," I argue that Brooks actively resists both the simplistic unitary rhetoric of Black Nationalism and the ideologically polemical stance that Harper describes. Shifting her poetry away from the performative (and ultimately coercive) aspects of both positions, Brooks instead employs a rhetoric of ambivalence in her representation of the nascent Black Aesthetic. In so doing, she situates the Black Nationalist movement, and, concomitantly, the black community from which it sprung, as highly contested hermeneutical spaces of inquiry, locations where previously irreconcilable social divisions can be negotiated and redefined. By examining this alternative response to the question of Black Nationalism, we can begin to see Brooks not only as a figure influenced...