Somehow I let the 100th anniversary of the birth of Gwendolyn Brooks, the first Black recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the Poet Laureate of Illinois and of the Library of Congress. More than that, she stands shoulder to shoulder with Carl Sandburg as iconic Chicago poets and was perhaps the city’s best loved literary figure of the post World War II era.
Brooks was born in Topeka, Kansas on June 7. 1917. But she didn’t stay long. Within the first six weeks of her life her parents joined the Great Migration to Chicago in search of jobs in the booming war time economy of the city.
She grew up in the historic Bronzeville neighborhood on the South Side, the center of a lively Black community often compared to New York’s Harlem. Her family was warm and supportive. She was bright and accomplished.
First sent to attend Hyde Park High School, the top White school on the South Side, she encountered bitter prejudice and transferred to all Black Wendell Phillips. She finished up at integrated—sometimes troubledly so—Englewood. In 1936 she graduated from the city’s Wilson Jr. College. At these schools she saw and experienced the range of race relations in the divided city. The experiences profoundly moved and changed her.
By her later high school and college years Brooks was writing and sometimes getting her poetry published. 75 had been published by the time she was 16 and the following year she became a regular contributor to Lights and Shadows, the poetry column of the Chicago Defender.
She had hoped that the connection would win her a job on the staff of the nation’s leading Black newspaper upon graduation. But it was not to be. Instead she took up a series of secretarial jobs to support herself while still chronicling the Black experience in the city in her poems.
|Brooks as a youthful poet.|
In 1939 she married Henry Lowington Blakely, Jr. They would have two children, Henry Lowington Blakely III in 1940 and Nora Blakely in 1951. But she continued to write under her birth name.
Slowly, after taking part in important and integrated poetry workshops, her work began to receive wider attention. In 1943 she won a poetry prize from the Midwestern Writers’ Conference. Those credentials and a bulging portfolio of published work led to Harper and Row, a top publishing house accepting her first collection.
A Street in Bronzeville was published in 1945 to critical and commercial success. She was awarded her first Guggenheim Fellowship and was included as one of the Ten Young Women of the Year in Mademoiselle magazine.
|The dust jacket for the original edition of A Street in Bronzeville which catapulted Brooks to national acclaim.|
Her second book of poetry, Annie Allen in 1950, garnered her that Pulitzer Prize she became the first African American to win the award for poetry; she also was awarded Poetry magazine’s Eunice Tietjens Prize.
In the 1950’s and ‘60’s Brooks had unprecedented attention for a female Black writer. Despite being popular with White as well as Black audiences, she refused to tone down the harsh realities of Black life in the cities and was an outspoken supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, which also earned her a backlash.
After John F. Kennedy publicly and personally invited her to read at a major Library of Congress event, new possibilities opened up for her as a teacher and mentor. She taught at Columbia College Chicago, Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago State University, Elmhurst College, Columbia University, Clay College of New York, and the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
She enjoyed the experience, but felt teaching largely white students took the edge off of her Blackness, which she rediscovered at a writer’s conference at historically Black Fisk University in Nashville. The result was a creative renaissance for her as poet. Her long narrative poem The Mecca about a mother searching for her lost child in an apartment building published in 1968 and was nominated for a National Book Award.
|Brooks and Langston Hughes--Bronzevill and Harlem--titans of Black culture and poetry at a Chicago Public Library event.|
Brooks continued to write and to teach. She made a special mission of personally mentoring young Black women writers, the most noted of which was Nikki Giovanitti.
She was honored with many prestigious awards and honors and more than 75 honorary degrees, making her one of the most popular commencement speakers ever. After her death at age 83 on December 3, 2000 her adopted hometown honored were with Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy and Gwendolyn Brooks Park near her long-time South Side home.
This year Our Miss Brooks: A Centennial Celebration, across her adopted city will include events sponsored by the City of Chicago’s Dempartment of Cultural Affairs, the Chicago Humanities Festival, Chicago Ideas Week, the Park District, University of Chicago, the DuSable Museum of African American History, and the Joffrey Ballet. The Poetry Foundation will bring together all five living Black Pulitzer Prize winning poets—Rita Dove, Yusef Komunyakaa, Natasha Trethewey, Tracy K. Smith, and Gregory Pardlo.
Here is a sample of what the hoopla is all about.
Boy Breaking Glass
To Marc Crawford
from whom the commission
Whose broken window is a cry of art
(success, that winks aware
as elegance, as a treasonable faith)
is raw: is sonic: is old-eyed première.
Our beautiful flaw and terrible ornament.
Our barbarous and metal little man.
“I shall create! If not a note, a hole.
If not an overture, a desecration.”
Full of pepper and light
and Salt and night and cargoes.
“Don’t go down the plank
if you see there’s no extension.
Each to his grief, each to
his loneliness and fidgety revenge.
Nobody knew where I was and now I am no longer there.”
The only sanity is a cup of tea.
The music is in minors.
Each one other
is having different weather.
“It was you, it was you who threw away my name!
And this is everything I have for me.”
Who has not Congress, lobster, love, luau,
the Regency Room, the Statue of Liberty,
runs. A sloppy amalgamation.
A hymn, a snare, and an exceeding sun.