Gwendolyn Brooks- Selected Poems


Poet Gwendolyn Brooks was born in Topeka, Kansas, on June 7, 1917. Brooks moved to Chicago at a young age. She began writing and publishing as a teenager, eventually achieving national fame for her 1945 collection A Street in Bronzeville. In 1950 Brooks became the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize, for her book Annie Allen. She died in her Chicago home on December 3, 2000.


Through Brooks beautiful mastery of words and of language in her collection of poetry, A Street of Bronzeville (1945) she demonstrates a version of anguish in the world, and the pain that people often suffer. Brooks created her poetry to reflect the misery of Black-American lives in a racist painted society. In 1967, Brooks felt the need to improve her inspiring art after she attended the Black Writer’s Conference at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Once she was introduced to other black writers like herself, she became strong-minded into turning her poetry towards the political aspects in black communities which she felt necessary to be known. Speaking out loud to others through her poems, she expresses the truth of real heartache and grief that sheds upon the world’s streets.

How does “The Boy Died in My Alley” serve as a kind of commentary on “Of De Witt Williams on his way to Lincoln Cemetery” after the conference at Fisk University? Which of the two poems is more politically charged?

In both poems, Brooks seems to expose individual characters that provide a desolate story. In her first poem, the speaker is attending a funeral of a “plain black boy” named De Witt Williams looking back on his life, while in the second poem the speaker reflects on a boy who has been killed in the alley close to her home. In “of De Witt Williams on his way to Lincoln Cemetery,” Brooks portrays memories and behaviors of the boy who recently became deceased. She includes “47th street, and underneath the L, Chicago’s rail system,” to reveal the boy’s unfortunate livelihood and his constant drinking of his “liquid joy” to ease his suffering. Basically, Brooks depicts the “plain black boy” to come from a dull community in which was obviously hard to escape from, thus, he dies in. Although the boy has passed, he is still recognized even if leaving no mark on the world. Even though his life was filled with plainness, his death conveys an ending of misery. The tone of the poem is simple, gloomy, and slow-paced.

In “The Boy Died in My Alley,” Brooks creates a strong, uprising tone that grabs the attention of the audience to focus on the death of a young boy found in the alley. We assume the young boy was murdered because of the shots the speaker has heard from the streets. The speaker acknowledges the continuous “shots I hear; shots I hear” from her day-to-day experience but can not identify the face of the boy. The police are upfront and forceful with questions but are unable to establish the truth behind the death. The boy whose blood, whose body “ornaments the alley,” remains unmentioned throughout the entire poem. Brooks depicts the boy to have died in a harsh, detested community where young boys die on a daily basis and violence is escalated.  The “knowledgeable unknowing” is the speaker’s failure to act against the intense violence presents fear and despair.

I consider “The Boy Died in My Alley” to be more politically charged because it is directed to the violence associated with African American children on the streets within the city. The poem focuses on the issue of individual transformation and finding one’s identity while tolerating their own loneliness. It is possible young children are generating violence towards one another to establish their individualities. Reality is sometimes heartbreaking, but death is worse. and I believe Brooks wrote this poem to teach us to be aware of violence and to take responsibility into eliminating it from society. She tries encourage a request in making a change for the world, especially for our future generations. If you ignore the issues at hand, the problem will persist and more tragedies will occur.




2 thoughts on “Gwendolyn Brooks- Selected Poems

  1. Wow. You took a much different interpretation of the first poem than I did. At first, being unfamiliar with the quality of the places in Chicago mentioned, I took the lines in of De Witt Williams to be sincere and even heartfelt in their description of the plain black boy’s life, but your mention of “underneath the L, Chicago’s rail system” makes me wonder about the narrators tone. If, as you suggest, the narrator is mentioning these places ironically (i.e. they were not good places to have enjoyed being), then that definitely changes the tone of the poem from a warm recollection of the boy’s life to a sorrowful mourning of it. To complement this theory, the mention of the boy’s bar-visiting habit could very well imply he is “easing his suffering” as you said.

    Aside from that, I agree with you that The Boy Died in My Alley is more politically charged (if it wasn’t obvious from Brooks’ background). The language used in that poem is much stronger and indeed grabbed my attention more. I think, though, that the “knowledgeable unknowing” that the speaker mentions is more than just her burden; I think the community as whole is ignoring this blatant problem and its longevity is more than the purposeful ignorance of just one person, and, as you said, the responsibility of fixing this problem lies on the shoulders of society as a whole.


  2. Your last two paragraphs are what really grabbed me. I think you are right that the second poem grabs the readers attention. I like how you talk about the issue of individual transformation and finding one’s identity. Overall, really great!


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