Gwendolyn Brooks's first book of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville (1945), introduced a group of characters in a segregated urban area unknown to many in America's reading public but closely resembling Chicago's South Side.
Bronzeville was an enigma. There were enough examples of successful enterprises and hardworking people who could serve as true role models that “going to Chicago” made sense even when the rest of the country was facing severe economic and social problems. But, Bronzeville had many unlovely places and spaces: back alleys, street corners, vacant lots, and kitchenette buildings with all of the associated odors.
While they collectively represent an intensity unmatched in much urban poetry, the poems in A Street in Bronzeville are essentially realistic. In celebrating the life in urban streets, Brooks seems to work like others who create celebratory examinations of ordinary places and people. At the same time, she seems to be in the vanguard of those black writers intent upon looking at black city life. Not only does she present compassionate portraits drawn with skill, understanding, and great sensitivity, but she also does not idealize her characters. Despite the despair of most of them, they are not completely victimized by circumstances over which they have little or no control. They take life as it comes to them; and within these parameters, they exercise a degree of free will. This is not to suggest that there are no elements of protest within the collection. Brooks's protest, however, is often muted and ironic.
Her memorable characters range from workers in service-oriented jobs such as maids and beauty shop operators to the professional classes often represented by preachers. There are gamblers and “bad girls” and those who do not seem to have any visible means of support, but all of them are members of the very crowded urban ghetto. Despite their lack of heroism, there is a quiet dignity that comes to all of them predicated upon their humanity that is often unrecognized by the larger society. While many of the people who live in Brooks's Bronzeville are surrounded by failure, they refuse to succumb completely, and their lives frequently offer glimpses of a pitiful hope.
The irony of life in the ghetto is illustrated by “Gay Chaps at the Bar,” consisting of a group of interrelated sonnets dealing with blacks in the military during World War II whose treatment often left much to be desired despite the announced nobility of the cause for which they fought. Like Claude McKay, Brooks uses the sonnet form to prove that what had historically been a lyric form could also be used as a vehicle for protest.
Brooks's social concerns are etched against the universality of the nondemanding dreams of the young, the limited hopes for the future that mothers and fathers exhibit, and the general need shared by all people to seek and receive not only justice but also love. Sometimes—as in the case of Satin-Legs Smith—it is the hope to exist until the following Sunday when he can dress up and strut around the streets.