It is perhaps ironic that In the Mecca (1968), Gwendolyn Brooks's first overt attack on Chicago, appeared in the same year that she was appointed poet laureate of Illinois. The Mecca was one of the earliest examples in the United States of a multifamily dwelling for the wealthy. Located a few blocks from Prairie Avenue (the city's original “gold coast”), no luxury was spared in its construction. During the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 it was a tourist attraction. Enclosed courtways served as entrances to the elaborate apartments of the few elite families who lived in the much-visited Mecca, but in time the neighborhood changed and the Mecca fell into disrepair. Before it was finally torn down, all that remained was an-unbelievably squalid tenement where thousands actually lived, and it became a symbol for a failure in urban living patterns. Furthermore, the building was a symbol for much that was wrong in the city.
Linguistically, In the Mecca juxtaposes standard English with the vernacular and the language of the streets. This collection of primarily free verse poems is dominated by the long title poem, “In the Mecca”, which begins with biblical overtones: “Now the way of the Mecca was on this wise.” On one level, the narrative poem is relatively simple. Mrs. Sallie, after a hard day as a domestic worker, comes home and finds one of her children missing. She begins to search for Pepita only to eventually discover that the child has been murdered by a fellow resident. Mrs. Sallie's life is filled with unpleasantness, and her discovery is just one more adversity that she must face.
Mrs. Sallie's search for Pepita is a framework by which Brooks is able to recount the stories of some of the fragmented lives in an overcrowded building in a city that does not particularly care about what happens to the dispossessed. Many of her characters recognize their predicament but are powerless to do little more than lash out at each other. Brooks captures the pervasive misery of the place and implicitly contrasts what is with what was, demonstrating that class and race do make a difference.
Following the title poem are other predominantly free verse selections that appear under the heading “After the Mecca.” They include not only the ode to Chicago's famous outdoor Picasso sculpture but also the dedicatory poem to the Wall of Respect, a wall painted with likenesses of role models and heroes of various persuasions. Of special interest in this section is the three-part poem entitled “The Blackstone Rangers” concerning the Blackstone P. Nation, a ghetto gang. The group is so highly organized that simply its name creates terror in those who hear it; yet, this is a gang whose “country is a Nation on no map”. In the final analysis, black on black crime is explained as a result of the futility that often accompanies the barrenness of urban life.
Maria K. Mootry and Gary Smith, eds., A Life Distilled: Gwendolyn Brooks, Her Poetry and Fiction, 1987.