Annie Allen by Gwendolyn Brooks is a Pulitzer Prize winning poetry collection, winning the prestigious award after publication in 1949. Since then the work has become somewhat forgotten and mislabeled; for decades Brooks’ legend has always stated that her rhythmically simplistic poem We Real Cool was the poem that brought her to Pulitzer status. Nothing could be further from the truth, as We Real Cool appears in her later work The Bean Eaters, was released to little fanfare and has languished in obscurity since its release in 1960.
Reviewing this piece has been quite a challenge. For starters, Annie Allen languishes in virtual obscurity, never having been reprinted on its own since release. Since Brooks’ death most, if not all of her work sans We Real Cool as a standalone piece are virtually absent from any critical review, comparison, or poetic conversation. It took me nine days to find a copy, and unfortunately, it was in a massive compilation with three of Brooks’ other works, so I have no idea whether or not it had been edited from its initial release. From what I have read, Annie Allen is less of a jewel in Brooks’ cap more so than a quintessential what the fuck moment for poetic lovers.
From my understanding Annie Allen is a sequel to Brooks’ A Street Called Bronzeville, where our main protagonist Annie Allen takes us around her perspective of Chicago and her experiences in it. She’s been through hell; she lives in a very segregationist and discriminative Chicago. Her husband has come home from World War II but he’s a head case after suffering post-traumatic stress during combat and systemic racism being an enlisted Black man during the time. All Annie wants to do is make it through today and hopes the world gets better tomorrow.
Her homelife is also questionable. There are troubles with the young folks, old folks are getting up in age and are sick or dying. She’s trying to find herself in the world, which is 1949 and doesn’t leave a woman like her with many options other than being a wife. Even that fails Annie as her husband runs out on her and doesn’t come back. For all intent and purpose, Annie Allen is in a war and is fatigued and battle worn.
Being seventy-two years old Annie Allen hasn’t aged well. The world’s a different place and women can say and do what they feel without censorship. Annie Allen feels very self-censored and watered down even for the era, as if the source material was tailored for a white audience on what they felt a Black female poet should write versus what Brooks may have wanted to say without judgment. For all of Annie’s struggles, many of the poems seems fundamentally elementary, with shorter stanzas and the middle section entitled The Anniad more suited for a Dr. Seuss collaboration than an independent adult themed Pulitzer prize winning book.
The biggest mystery is why Annie Allen has been lost to obscurity all these years and it not only won a Pulitzer, but it also led Brooks to become the Illinois Poet Laureate until her death. I also do not understand why history has miscategorized one of Brooks’ more simple pieces that reads like Humpty Dumpty (being We Real Cool) into somehow being the crowning achievement of a book it’s not even in. It seems as if the poetry world has conspired and has been trying to hide Gwendolyn Brooks’ legacy of works and somehow succeeded.
Anytime anyone wins a Pulitzer, it’s a crowning achievement. It’s just too bad not even they thought enough of preserving a book they felt was deserving of their organization. If you can find it, Annie Allen is worth a read just for its sheer importance of being a crowning achievement of black poetics. No other black poet before or since has amassed the accolades of Brooks’ work, and that in itself is a testament to her selective genius.