Gwendolyn Brooks was a pretty awesome poet if we do say so ourselves. She was born in 1917 in Topeka, Kansas, and moved to Chicago at a young age. She was a pretty precocious kid; she published her first poem at the age of 13. (Seriously: it was called "Eventide.") She went to junior college in Chicago, then started working for the NAACP, all before publishing A Street in Bronzeville, her first book of poems, in 1945. Brooks went on to have the type of career that poets dream of. She wrote a whole lot of poetry, she taught creative writing, she lectured. She was the first African American to ever win the Pulitzer Prize (in 1950), and she was appointed the Poet Laureate of Illinois (in 1968).
From her first book of poetry onward, our gal Gwendolyn was interested in giving voice to people who had been voiceless or marginalized; she wrote particularly about African Americans and the working class. As she grew older, her poems became more and more overtly political, and she became very involved with the Black Arts Movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, through which she became a fierce advocate for African American writers and artists. Brooks died of cancer in 2000 in her home on the south side of Chicago after a long life and a pretty sweet career.
Brooks's poem "the mother," is one of her most well-known poems. We love it for its emotional complexity and sensitivity on a really difficult topic: abortion. The poem is an intricate portrait of a woman who has had an abortion, and it manages to ask political questions without taking an obvious for-against stand in the abortion rights debates.
Something important to consider: "the mother" was first published in 1945, almost thirty years before the landmark court decision Roe v. Wade (which guaranteed women the right to have an abortion). By writing the poem, Brooks was taking on some heavy-duty political issues, and doing that awesome thing that feminists are known for: making the personal political. And she was doing it all in a time and place where feminism wasn't exactly the norm. In short: she totally rocked.
Why Should I Care?
Whether you're female or male, young or old, rich or poor, Democrat or Republican, wizard or muggle, chances are, you've got an opinion about abortion. Some think it's a fundamental human right. Some think it's a crime. Wherever you fall on the abortion rights spectrum, you can't deny that abortion's a controversial issue.
Well, more exactly, enter Gwendolyn Brooks's poetry. In "the mother," Brooks imagines the thoughts-feelings-dreams-pains-love-grief-hope-heartbreak that one woman experiences after having an abortion. Terminating a fetus is a huge decision, and Brooks lets us in on the complexities of the post-abortion emotional experience.
The really fascinating thing about "the mother" is that you really can't categorize it as a pro- or anti-abortion rights poem. The poem refuses to choose, and instead offers an incredibly sensitive, subtle, and non-judgmental portrait of a woman who has had an abortion. "the mother" reminds us that the abortion debate is more complicated than the terms "pro life" and "pro choice" lead us to believe. Every abortion involves a woman with thoughts, emotions and loves—and "the mother" gives this woman a chance to speak. Listen up.