Gwendolyn Brooks’ Expansive Signifier


In “Signifying “Afrika”: Gwendolyn Brooks’ Later Poetry,” an article published by the John Hopkins University Press,  Annette Debo focuses on the establishment of African roots as one of the major sentiments of the Black Nationalism that affected Gwendolyn Brooks. Debo pays special attention to Brooks’ use of “Afrika” as an expansive signifier that changes throughout the poet’s work. As an African-American poet, Brooks sought to establish African roots through a linguistic connection to the African language. With this connection, Brooks  confronts the use of her own English, a colonial language, and also the political parallels between Afro Americans in America and Africans in South America during Apartheid.  

The article begins with a quote by Brooks in the introduction (1): “‘ I know now that I am essentially an essential African.” Debo notes the oddness of her phrasing and how it might sound to twenty-first century readers quite odd, given her status as one of the leading African-American poets. Debo argues that this statement is not obscure, but a reflection of “the cultural milieu of the Black Power Movement, which peaked in influence during the mid-1960s and early 1970s”(1). Debo then gives a quote by Brooks, where she notes herself the impression the movement made on her at a conference at Fisk University in 1967: “‘ I had never been, before, in the general presence of such insouciance, such live firmness, such confident vigor, such determination to mold or carve something DEFINITE.”(1) The influence of the Black Power Movement led Brooks to visit Africa twice in order to experience her ancestral land. 

Debo argues that Brooks establishes the linguistic connection to Africa in the adopted spelling: Afrika, which is the Kiswahili spelling(1). She then details in the article that this allows Brooks to engage with a language that would have been hers; a language of the ancestral land that has much more nuance, Brooks believes, than English. And while embracing this language, Brooks is also aligning the African-American struggle against racism with the African struggle against imperialism( 2). Debo notes the lament of Brooks at having lost her ancestral language, being an English speaker all her life, but that she did learn some basic Kiswahili with her travels in East Africa. The influence of which led Brooks to believe that there could still be “Black Styles” carved out in English (2). Swapping the “k” for the “c”, Debo argues, actually introduces an African tenor to an American word. The significance of the Swahili language can also be seen in the fact that it is the only non-tribal language in Africa (3). 

In the second part of the article, Debo argues that Afrika “provides a locus for Blacks all over the world.”(3). Debo uses Brooks’ quotes of her revels to prove this. In them Brooks describes the complete sense of physical belonging, something she hadn’t felt in America, and how she reveled in seeing the uncomfortability of white people for once. Brooks in this register, even goes so far as to condemn a multiracial Afrika, that it is truly only for Black people. Debo then sees the call for unification in poems such as “Another Preachment to Blacks,” where Brooks in a way berates her black readers for how much they do not know their own mother land. This sense of belonging for other Black people is something Brooks wished to convey, and even gave to two students of hers that she personally paid for in another trip to Afrika in 1974(4). 

But on the same page Debo notes a point of tension for Bays in the connection to Afrika in the poem “African Fragment.” She details that while Brooks needs Afrika, Afrika does not need her(4). It seems the sense of kinship and unity Bays sought for was not entirely there, as African locals would constantly see her as Afro-American. Debo details that this is because African locals were suspicious of what Afro-Americans could offer the continent. Debo then offers a conversation Brooks noted between her husband and a local. In it Brooks’ husband stresses to an African lady that African-Americans don’t know who they are, and that they don’t belong. The woman responds, with “‘YOU AmeriCAINE!’”(5) Debo sees this as a moment where Brooks realizes her ideality of a migration back to Africa can’t be realized. 

In part three of the article, Debo investigates the continued significance of Afrika beyond the peak time frame of the Black Power Movement in Brooks’ work. The symbol of Afrika in the later poems had less of stress on the continent as a homeland, but as a battleground against Apartheid in the 1980s(5). The symbol has become less about a sense of belonging for Black people, and more a “dynamic symbol of resistance” in order to renew the civil rights movement, which seemed to be cooling down then(5). Debo argues that this embrace of Africa as a symbol of resistance can be best seen in the poems “Winnie” and “Song of Winnie.” The first poem is a monologue given by Nelson Mandela where he is validating the experiences of his wife Winnie Mandela, and the second is supposed to be Winnie in her voice—the latter being a way to go beyond the male having to authenticate the woman in the first poem(6). Debo details that in taking on Winnie’s voice, Brooks “flattens her persona into a symbol somewhat in imitation of the real Winnie Mandela(6), who herself said she was no longer an individual, but an amalgamation of the concerns of the people. Winnie, although constructed through Brooks, is supposed to serve as a catalyst for African-American readers, who Brooks believes should become more informed about the politics in South Africa.  

 In the fourth part of the article, Debo argues that Brooks’ use of Afrika now goes beyond the physicality of the actual continent, and that Afrikan “is a distinctive title of approbation, bestowed upon all Blacks involved in the just struggle for civil rights and identity”(10). Debo details how in the later poems, the Afrikans are described as rowdy and sick of the status quo, while also moving on from the non-violent tactics of Martin Luther King Jr.. In these poems there is more of a call to the African diaspora to address the failings of the civil rights movement. One way to move on from these failures is to get rid of the religious background behind civil rights: “Brooks calls on Blacks ‘to force through the sludge’ whether they feel God is with them or not”(11). This push to renew civil rights seems to be because Brooks felt that the numbers of the movement were falling short because American culture was corrupting the very vision of what it meant to be black(12).

At the end of the article, Debo states the importance of Brooks finding her Afrikanness as a way of completing herself, and avoiding becoming an imitation of European culture (12). This personal identity could now serve as a center for Blackness for other Black people to follow. 

I enjoyed reading this article because I really liked the idea of connecting with a lost language, an ancestral language. I also feel I became more educated on matters of civil rights, especially all the business with Apartheid. This longing for Afrikan roots, I think serves as a great background to understanding the Black Arts Movement and the role identity plays within their poetry.

Here is a link to Brooks reading “Song of Winnie”:

Question for class: Is poetry still able you think to engage with civil rights in a genuine way?

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