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Jun 5, 2017

Magnitude and Bond: Remembering Gwendolyn Brooks

by Joanne Gabbin

Joanne Gabbin, Gwendolyn Brooks (1994), photo by Willie Williams

One of my fondest memories of the 1994 Furious Flower Poetry Conference is of the moment when Gwendolyn Brooks announced that she planned to honor me as a “creator, builder, and extender” by giving me the George Kent Award at the annual Gwendolyn Brooks Conference to be held the following month at Chicago State University. 

Shocked, I stood up and started toward the stage, and she instructed with motherly firmness, “Sit down, Joanne.”

As I tried to understand what was happening, I realized that two major pieces of my life were colliding in a gesture of generosity by this woman, whose middle name should have been Kindness. George Kent was the teacher who’d introduced me to Black poetry 25 years earlier, the scholar who’d guided my graduate work at the University of Chicago, and the critic who’d helped me to see the world of Black literature as an adventure in culture. Gwen Brooks, a woman who did not make frivolous gestures, thought that I was worthy. I was thrilled that over 1300 people crowded in this auditorium at James Madison University were getting to meet a woman who was a model for younger poets and had made it her career’s signature to give awards and scholarships to encourage their creativity.  All of this cemented this moment in my consciousness.

When I arrived at Chicago State University to receive the award three weeks later, I found that I was one of four to receive a plaque and check from the hands of Gwendolyn Brooks. On the podium with me were Dolores Kendrick, author of The Women of Plums; Ishmael Reed, poet, playwright, and novelist; and Ossie Davis, renowned actor, director and poet.  When it came time for Ossie Davis to accept his own award, he echoed Brooks’ words from her poem “Paul Robeson”:

Warning, in music-words
devout and large,
that we are each other’s
harvest:
we are each other’s
business:
we are each other’s
magnitude and bond. 

In reality Ossie Davis, like so many of us gathered, saw Brooks’s own commitment to the community distilled in these powerful words. When I had met her in 1969, she had been conducting writers’ workshops for the Blackstone Rangers in a church in Hyde Park, the guiding spirit behind the poets of the Organization of Black American Culture, more commonly known as OBAC. She affectionately called them “Jump Badders”: poets such as Carolyn Rodgers, Johari Amini, Mike Cook, Angela Jackson, Walter Bradford, and Don L. Lee (Haki Madhubuti) revered her and recognized her “queenhood in the new black sun.”  Other poets like Sonia Sanchez, Etheridge Knight, and Amiri Baraka, who were the stalwarts of the Black Arts Movement, had also embraced her as an essential mover. In her role as Poet Laureate of Illinois, her support of children with poetry prizes and scholarships became legend.

For this reason, I am so pleased that the Furious Flower Poetry Center offered the Gwendolyn Brooks Centennial Poetry Prize this past April during National Poetry Month. This national prize for emerging poets, which was the capstone of a full month in celebration of the 100th anniversary of her birth, sought to continue her legacy of generosity; she believed unceasingly in the harvest that our young writers could reap if cultivated well. The prize was such a success that we at Furious Flower have decided to make it an annual award, and we are so pleased that it will stand as another testament that Gwen’s spirit is still alive in the world.

Joanne Gabbin, Ph.D. is the founder and executive director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University. She is pictured above with Gwendolyn Brooks (born June 7, 1917) at the 1994 Furious Flower Poetry Conference. Photo courtesy Willie Williams. To see a clip of Gabbin talking at more length about her friendship with Brooks, visit https://youtu.be/bRrBci3mi24

 








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