Marcellus Blount: On "Gay Chaps at the Bar"

When Brooks began to write her famous sonnet sequence in her first volume, A Street in Bronzeville (1945), she must have had McKay's poetry in mind. Brooks plays her role in the mutual engendering of black men and women by providing a revision of McKay that becomes for black men a place to enter into gendered status without the trappings of rigid codes of masculinity. In "Gay Chaps at the Bar," Brooks challenges the gender assumptions of McKay's call to male arms by subverting the male ideal of war, only to breathe life into the actual letters of black soldiers in World War II written to Brooks from the front. By re-engendering male racial discourse, she brings herself and other black women into Afro-American political identity, ironically, by speaking honestly about what it means to be black men. Brooks begins:

[quotes "We know how to order..."--the first sonnet of the sequence]

Although Brooks’ male speaker, writing about the war zones, begins with McKay's masculine bravado, his voice crinkles with anxiety, even from the beginning. Yes, the black soldiers could order drinks from the bar, thereby demonstrating their sens of power and control, but as black men they could not order other troops. Instead, they were ordered. Yet order is precisely what their world now lacks, and within the dislocation of battle, its hierarchies of gender have begun to erode as they fret over their identities as men. For while these troops may be adept at female seduction, war has rendered superfluous this point of masculine reference. However "stout" the lessons of their maleness, they have no language for conquering death with their flirtations. They do not want to die nobly, like McKay's speaker; they simply, understandably, do not want to die. The martial accents of the octave, along with its self-confident assertions and blustering swagger, give way in the poem's final lines to the incompatibility of dominant heroic male ideals and the real experience of war. In this sense, Brooks takes McKay to the Front and back as a way of showing him that the battle for male gendered selfhood must be waged with black women against the patriarchal imperatives of other men.

Just as Brooks insinuates her own female voice within the confines of the male "Gay Chaps" sonnets, she struggles to assert a coherent Afro-American identity within the destructive forces of American racism. By revising previous Afro-American sonnets, she does indeed find a vehicle for expressing the particular experience of black men and women. Within the subjective terms of her lyric "I"/"eye," Brooks witnesses and gives voice to the shared perspective of black men and women, setting it against the hypocrisy of a decidedly white male order. Brooks feminizes her black male subjects as a way of distinguishing and rescuing them from the authority of the social and political realm that generates both racism and sexism. By giving voice to their private desires, she pits their individuality against the public, patriarchal orders that her poems work to unsettle in devious ways. Rather than having black men imitate the problematic gender codes of white heterosexual men, Brooks liberates them from the phallocentric conventions of the heroic sonnet. In the process, her representations of black men refine and clarify the terms of their masculinity within a community bound by race and gender.

By embodying the male voices of her soldiers within the tiny boundaries of her feminized sonnets, Brooks clears a space for her later poems on womanhood and the female struggle for identity. She writes herself into the canon of Western literary history by "seizing" a poetic form steeped in male conquest and political struggle, then progressively remakes its racial and gender associations as her career as a poet develops. In "Gay Chaps at the Bar," Brooks demonstrates that she can speak about men directly, without hesitation. In her sonnets published in Annie Allen (1949) and The Bean Eaters (1960), she stakes her claim to female authority based upon female subjectivity. Yet she makes it clear that black men are included within her discourse on womanhood. Ironically, Brooks reveals that the liberation of black woman is the secret to achieving a more realistic, democratic notion of black masculinity.

From "Caged Birds: Race and Gender in the Sonnet." In Engendering Men, ed. Joseph Boone and Michael Cadden. New York: Routledge, 1990. Copyright © 1990 by Routledge, Chapman & Hall, Inc.


Title Marcellus Blount: On "Gay Chaps at the Bar" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Marcellus Blount Criticism Target Gwendolyn Brooks
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 04 Jun 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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