The poem, “Truth,” by Gwendolyn Brooks, was written in 1949, during a continuing era of black oppression in America. Brooks was born June 7, 1917 in Topeka, Kansas but her family moved to Chicago shortly after her birth, according to her biographer, Georg Kent (2). The Poetry Foundation biography of Gwendolyn Brooks says her father was a janitor who had dreamt of becoming a doctor and her mother was a schoolteacher and classically trained pianist (Halley).
Both of her parents had dreamt about living the “American Dream” and both suffered hard times and disappointment instead. Brooks’ parents were very supportive of her passion for reading and writing and first sensed her talent at age seven, when she started writing two-line verses and then four within a couple years (Kent 1). “By the time she was seventeen she was publishing poems frequently in the Chicago Defender, a newspaper serving Chicago’s black population,” (Halley).
At age 32, Brooks had written her second book of poems, Annie Allen, published in 1949 and in 1950, “Gwendolyn Brooks was a highly regarded … poet, with the distinction of being the first black author to win the Pulitzer Prize,” (Halley), for her poems Annie Allen including “Truth”. Brooks uses metaphors, personification, hyperbole, imagery and irony in this poem to illustrate the darkness of the unknown or accepted and the illumination of the truth and all it takes to uphold it. The speaker in “Truth,” has an earnest and reflective voice, yet there is also an inflammatory overtone to the poem.
Brooks lived in a time of many atrocities for African-Americans and women and her poems reflected her views on these social and political times. Thom Rosenblum discusses the struggle for segregation by the white population and against segregation by the black population in the Topeka, Kansas public school system from 1879 to 1951. Several court cases such as Brown V. Board of Education, involved black citizens challenging the constitutionality of the state’s segregation laws by the fourteenth amendment, but all were overturned (Rosenblum).
Brooks was in the public school system further north in Chicago during this time but she still experienced the ugliness of prejudice first hand. Once she started Forrestville Elementary School she was no longer protected by the shelter of her parents. Her biographer says, “The children ignored her or, seeing her wallflower-like withdrawal, called her ol’ stuck-up heifer and declared that they wanted nothin’ t’ do with no rich people’s sp’iled chirren,” (Kent 5).
Brooks’ family was not actually rich but her aunt had bought her some nice dresses for school and since she was shy and kept to herself, the children labeled her a snob and cast her aside. “But her main deficiency, others believed, was the absence of light skin and good grade hair,” (Kent 5). All across the United States, but especially in the Southern states, blacks suffered tremendously from racism. In the South lynching was still widely practiced and many states had Jim Crow laws that greatly restricted the civil liberties of African-Americans to keep them from voting, segregated in public places and uneducated.
This lead to the “Great Migration” to the Northern states and “Between 1910 and 1930, cities such as New York, Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland saw their African-American populations grow by about 40 percent, and the number of African-Americans employed in industrial jobs nearly doubled,” says Terry Gross of National Public Radio in a written interview with Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. Brooks’ family was one of the many to make that migration north.
As an oppressed black women witnessing the everyday struggles of her fellow man, Brooks wrote “Truth,” with the hope of helping people become aware of just how blissfully unaware they have been. In a filmed interview with the Library of Congress, Brooks says, “We are lost without the understanding that if we don’t pull together we won’t be here to pull at all,” (Matrix Media). She does not write to put anyone down but only to lift the black communities up. In an autobiography, Brooks wrote a passage that the Poetry Foundation quoted from stating, “I know that the Black emphasis must be not against white but for Black…” (Halley).
Brooks feels strongly that blacks should take more pride in themselves and their heritage and take positive actions to make things better for themselves. Brooks’ views show through the tone or voice of the speaker in her poem “Truth”. Poets use tone to convey to the readers much more than what is plainly written on the page. Kirszner explains in Portable Literature: Reading Writing Reacting, “The tone of a poem conveys the speaker’s attitude toward his or her subject or audience,” (436). The tone or attitude of the speaker is earnest about how human it is to want to run and hide from that which we fear.
The speaker says, “Shall we not flee / Into the shelter / Of the familiar,” (15-17). In this case people fear the truth because it is unfamiliar. It has been observed by many reviewers that Brooks’ work has remained objective about human nature (Halley). The speaker also has a reflective attitude asking thoughtful questions such as, “How shall we greet him? / Shall we not dread him / Shall we not fear him,” (2-4), to invoke thought in the reader about what their actions might be if they were face to face with a devastating truth.
The speaker is suggestive but rather than confronting or scolding the reader by telling them they are wrong to be afraid of the bright unfamiliar, the speaker is understanding of the reality of human nature by realizing at the end of the poem that most people will choose to remain in the dark, away from the light of the truth. The speaker makes this point in the last few lines saying, “Sweet is it, sweet is it / To sleep in the coolness / Of snug unawareness / The dark hangs heavily / Over the eyes,” (19-23).
Although the speaker is calm and somewhat objective, there is a subtle inflammatory attitude conveyed, meaning to arouse passion or strong emotion. While the speaker is suggestive that we should not flee or fear the truth, a sense of self-awareness occurs. The readers may realize that they have been hiding from the truth all these years, “Though we have wept for him, / Though we have prayed,” (7-8), and fill with enough emotion to decide now is the time to put a stop to it.
This inflammatory tone is met with a bit of irony because although people have prayed and craved the truth, when it actually comes to them, they are afraid and deny the truth instead. Many figures of speech are used to interpret the tone of a poem such as metaphors, personification, hyperbole and imagery, so that “the poet can suggest a wide variety of feelings and associations in very few words,” (Kirszner 505). Plato proposed an idea of the mind representing a cave of chained men facing the back wall and all they saw their entire lives were shadows created by a fire behind them.
This narrow prospective of reality is mirrored in the image of darkness and shade in Brooks’ poem. Only once truth has been accepted do the people break free of the cave and see the reality of the world. Jill Parrot writes, in her analyses of this same poem that “alluding to Plato allows her to condemn those who would glorify the pursuit of truth and fulfillment for themselves while systematically denying it for others” (27). This relates back to the idea of an inflammatory tone.
Brooks also uses the image of the sun to invoke the enlightening power of the truth, “What if we wake one shimmering morning to / Hear the fierce hammering / Of his firm knuckles / Hard on the door” (10-13). The shimmering morning is a metaphor for the truth shedding light on the people. The sun has been personified with the use of him, which is not only a metaphor for truth but also for God because for many, especially during the time the poem was written, God is truth.
The personified sun then comes knocking hard on the door in a frightening way illustrated by Brooks’ word choice of “fierce hammering” and “firm knuckles,” because like the cliché says, “the truth hurts,” and people innately try to avoid pain, be it physical or mental. The use of hyperbole, an intentional exaggeration (Kirszner 517), is nicely demonstrated by, “Shall we not flee / Into the shelter, the dear thick shelter / Of the familiar / Propitious haze? ” (15-18).
The reader knows that people do not usually run into the dense thick woods to hide from the truth and there is no actual haze to take shelter under but the images that spring to mind provide deeper emotional meaning to the words. “Truth” is light that may shine painfully into the eyes and burn the skin and unawareness is comfortable, cool and soothing like shade. So as humans we avoid truth that is harsh and painful in an attempt for self-preservation. The speaker presents this idea as understandable yet unacceptable. In order for our minds to be free, we must all embrace truth and see the reality of the world we live in.
To know what is happening around you and think beyond your own selfish desires and understand when change must occur is to be enlightened. Sometimes the light can be blinding but in the dark you are always blinded, meaning the truth can hurt and stun you for a while but in the dark you are oppressed and may be hurting all the while not knowing. All this meaning behind just a few words has been made possible by the tone, which has been set by the speaker’s figures of speech in the poem, which are earnest, reflective, and inflammatory.