Speech to the Young. Speech to the Progress-Toward.
Say to them, say to the down-keepers,
the self-soilers, the harmony-hushers,
"even if you are not ready for day it cannot always be night."
You will be right.
For that is the hard home-run.
Live not for battles won.
Live not for the-end-of-the-song.
Live in the along.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Gwendolin Brooks was one of the few black poets and writers to become part of the white literary establishment, with poems that she later denounced as too timid and apolitical. In the 1960s and 1970s, she was inspired by militant young blacks in Chicago and other cities to take a more radical, nationalistic line in support of the black revolution. Given that she was part of the older generation, and had even received a Pulitzer Prize in 1950, this change would seem somewhat surprising. Her poem "Speech to the Young" was part of this radical turn in her social and political philosophy, in which she urged the young to go out and lead the revolution, using any means necessary, including violence. Brooks explicitly rejected the Christian pacifism, nonviolence and integration of Martin Luther King and the early civil rights movement of 1954-65. She urged young blacks to visit Africa and become familiar with it rich history, culture and traditions, and also supported anticolonial revolutions there. Harold Bloom and other white critics were uncomfortable with this radical turn in her work, and preferred her earlier poems that Bloom described as more enigmatic and "imaginatively richer." In contrast, she "became more direct, and doubtless a literacy force" in her later career (Bloom 11). She broke with the mainstream Harper and Row Publishers and had her later work published in small, independent presses controlled by blacks. This was part of a broader effort by Brooks and other black writers, artists and intellectuals to separate from white society and establish their own independent institutions in education, the economy and culture. Like Langston Hughes and Robert Frost, she believed in writing poems for the common people using plain, ordinary language and strongly disliked academic poetry. She explicitly called poems like "Speech to the Young" the Poems of the Negro Revolt (Melhen 191).
For a brief moment in the late-1960s and early-1970s, Brooks and many other black artists and writers really imagined that the revolution had finally arrived. In her "Speech to the Young," she encouraged them to "live their lives even while fully participating in bringing about the necessary changes" (Hansell 112). She admitted that her life had been "radically changed by a younger generation of poets and writers," and that her poetry become far more militant and political in the 1960s and 1970s (Fisher 50). Brooks' poetry was part of a "heroic/epic tradition of literature in English," blending black and Anglo-Saxon styles of alliteration and sermons, and "Speech to the Young" is written in the plain heroic style "with a more conversational and personal tone," with use of Old English kenning in terms like "sun-slappers" and "harmony-hushers," meaning those who are trying to suppress that black revolution. Her writing was very direct and showed musical and ballad influences, but much less use of symbolism than in her earlier work and more "semiotic and phonetic elements" (Shaw 72). The use of alliteration and repeated words also reflected the gospel and spiritual tradition of call -- and response, and her advice to the young was to expect a life of struggle today, rather than settling for gains made in the past or some idealized future. Brooks' concept of "the along' is crucial to her stalwart philosophy" along with images of combat, struggle and revolution (Melhem 225). She combined sermons, blues and gospel influences and used them in sonnet and ballad forms of poetry, and alliteration and syncopated rhythm is a common feature of her work. In "Speech to the Young," the narrator speaks in a personal and conversational tone, giving advive to the young about the need for revolutionary struggle. Brooks also shared the "idealistic strains of the culture, notably…in the early Emerson, Whitman, and in Thoreau," although she believed that the black revolution would put into practice what for them had been only (or mostly) theoretical (Melhem 239). Above all else, "Speech to the Young" reflected Brooks' opinion that poetry was always a "social act" that created "an art of utilty and beauty at home in the world" (Melhem 241).
African-American writers before the 1960s were vaguely aware of the revolutions that were taking place in the former colonies, which were still known as the Third World at that time, but for the most part African colonies did not achieve their independence until the next decade. To be sure, signs of the future were already clear for all to see, with the independence of India in 1947, the Chinese Revolution two years later, and anti-colonial wars in Algeria and Vietnam. For the most part, though, black writers and intellectuals like Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright and James Baldwin "maintained always reserved and, in some cases, a passionate attachment to the West" (Baker 116). Like Martin Luther King, they hoped for integration and equality within Western societies rather than a revolution that would radically reshape those societies and their institutions. All of this would change in the 1960s and 1970s when many militant blacks would become increasingly frustrated with the slow rate of change toward equality and civil rights for blacks and other minorities, and by the intense white resistance to any type of integration, capitalized upon by conservative politicians like Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon.
In 1954, the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education declared segregation unconstitutional, reversing the 1896 ruling in Plessey v. Ferguson that had allowed separate but equal facilities. In large part, the justices of the Court wished to send a message in the Cold War competition with the Soviet Union that the U.S. was not as racist a society as portrayed in Soviet propaganda and would guarantee full equality to all its citizens. In the South, public officials, White Citizens Councils and Ku Klux Klan blocked desegregation efforts in schools for many years, as in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957, when federal troops were sent into the city to enforce a court order mandating that the schools be integrated. Another Supreme Court order was necessary in 1956 to ensure that the city buses in Montgomery, Alabama were desegregated. In the end, segregation would only be abolished by campaigns of massive civil disobedience led by Martin Luther King and many others in the 1950s and 1960s, culminating in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. Even then, many whites across the country continued to resist school integration and fled from the inner cities to the suburbs or set up new private schools that remained all-white. From Boston to Detroit, they also resisted court orders that mandated busing to achieve integration, sometimes violently.
By this time, many African-American writers and intellectuals had already given up on Martin Luther King's idea of peaceful integration and equality within American society in favor of national, separatism and Black Power. Gwendolyn Brooks was one these, which at first glance might have been unexpected since she was most definitely part of the older generation. She had first come to national prominence in the 1940s, taught at white universities like Columbia, won a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1950. Black women had been "nonexistent" and invisible as poets before Brooks, and she had few models to study in her early years. Her sources and inspirations were "multiple, complex and not easily categorizable," and she could be considered a modernist, feminist or black nationalist poet (Khela 185). Race, gender and social class were a vital part of all her later work, and she regarded language "as a form of social action -- of guns and ammunition -- in the making of African-American poetics" (Khela 186).
In addition to being influenced by the classical romantic poets like Byron, Keats and Shelley, she also agreed with Langston Hughes and the need to write about the everyday lives of blacks. In fact, she wrote that Hughes had "held high and kept warm the weapons until the youngsters could cut the caul, could wipe away the webs of birth and get to work" (Khela 191). Another important source of her poetry, also reflected in "Speech to the Young" was the tradition of black women's singing and the "oral culture of chants and hollers, gospels and spirituals" (Khela 193). Brooks was one of the very few African-American writers "who had made their way in the white literary establishment," even if it was simply a case of tokenism. By 1967 she had come to realize that "there is definitely a new black today" that had never existed before (Baker 118).
She celebrated all this in her work, praising new black leaders like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. By the 1970s, however, she had…