By Michael Marsh
“Black Writers Approaching the Millennium” was the theme of last weekend’s Gwendolyn Brooks Writers’ Conference at Chicago State University. But most of the notable participants wanted to acknowledge the past. Nikki Giovanni praised the Pullman porters who watched after her on childhood trips to the south. CSU professor Haki Madhubuti inducted 30 figures into the school’s National Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent, including 12 who are deceased. Among the live honorees were Maya Angelou, Ishmael Reed, Sonia Sanchez, Alice Walker, Vernon Jarrett, and Studs Terkel. The audience buzzed at the mention of Terkel, until Madhubuti pointed out that Studs “is not part of the black community’s genealogical line but its psychological line.” Everyone clapped.
Calmly working behind the scenes was the director of the Gwendolyn Brooks Center, B.J. Bolden. Throughout the three-day affair, she was friendly and diligent, attending to the needs of both speakers and guests. During a poetry contest on Thursday night, she introduced Delores Burwell, an elderly woman who recited a poem in honor of her mother. Burwell’s mother had just died at the age of 100; she recalled taking her to previous conferences. After the reading, Bolden put her arm around Burwell’s shoulder and gave her a commemorative T-shirt. The next morning at 8:15, after only a few hours of sleep, Bolden presented a paper on the critical issues involved in evaluating the work of young black poets. “You have to be good to be the director of the Gwendolyn Brooks Center,” she said.
Bolden was clearly in her element, though it had taken a long time for her to reach that point. She’d spent 19 years at Sears, rising to the job of associate buyer of women’s apparel. But literature was always her passion. As an eight-year-old growing up near Chinatown, she memorized “The Creation,” James Weldon Johnson’s personal spin on the Book of Genesis. While working at Sears, Bolden earned a bachelor’s in English at Columbia College, where she first started reading Brooks’s poetry. Though she counted Shakespeare, Donne, Dickinson, and Frost among her favorite poets, Bolden was attracted to Brooks’s work because of its emphasis on the black community. “She was writing about the people I saw every day—going to work, catching buses. When I read Gwendolyn Brooks’s poetry, I saw myself in it.”
In 1990 Bolden left Sears after taking a buyout. She earned a master’s at CSU and then enrolled at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Four years later she was awarded a doctorate. She chose Brooks for her dissertation topic because she wanted to study a black woman and a Chicagoan. She’d also noticed there were relatively few books about her work. That same year she landed the job of running the Brooks Center. “I was very exhilarated, because my goal had been to come home and teach my people. I had waited a very long time to do that.” This year Bolden completed a book about Brooks’s early work, Urban Rage in Bronzeville: Social Commentary in the Poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, 1945-1960.
Saturday night brought the closing banquet, where more honors were passed out. The last, a “contributor’s arts award,” went to Bolden. After Madhubuti praised her work, she rose from her seat at the far end of the dais, thanked the staff and volunteers, and dismissed the audience. After the banquet, she posed for pictures with other honorees. “To whom much is given,” she reminded the crowd, “much is required.” The calendar for next year’s conference is already complete. Flyers will be mailed out by the end of December. v