Chicago is all abuzz about the Centennial of Gwendolyn Brooks’ birthday. One of the most highly regarded, highly influential, and widely read poets of 20th-century American poetry, Brooks was a much-honored poet, even in her lifetime, with the distinction of being the first black author to win the Pulitzer Prize.
Born in Topeka Kansas in 1917, she was six weeks old when her parents moved to Chicago. She would remain here until the end of her life. She sounds like many of today’s Chicagoans when she said “I am an organic Chicagoan. Living there has given me a multiplicity of characters to aspire for. I hope to live there the rest of my days. That’s my headquarters.”
Her parents encouraged her writing skills and by the young age of 13 she had published her first poem, Eventide, in a popular children’s magazine, American Childhood. By the time she was 17, the Chicago Defender would be publishing her work regularly.
George E. Kent, critic, and Professor of English at the University of Chicago, said it best when he commented that Brooks occupied “a unique position in American letters. Not only has she combined a strong commitment to racial identity and equality with a mastery of poetic techniques, but she has also managed to bridge the gap between the academic poets of her generation in the 1940s and the young black militant writers of the 1960s.”
Brooks once described her style as “folksy narrative,” but she varied her forms, using free verse, sonnets, and other models. Brooks first collection of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville captures the spirit and the essence of the Bronzeville neighborhood perfectly. A destination for many African-American people during the Great Migration, the neighborhood today includes the Black-Metropolis-Bronzeville District. The heart of the Chicago blues and jazz scene in the early 20th Century, this area includes many buildings included on the National Register of Historic Places, and nine buildings that appear on the Chicago Landmarks list, including the Chicago Defender Building. It is a neighborhood rich with African-American history and culture.
In 1950, Brooks received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for her book Annie Allen. The poem traces the changes a young woman experiences as she moves from youthful dreams to the reality of married life. We see Annie Allen grow from childhood to womanhood in an atmosphere conditioned by poverty, racial discrimination, parental expectations, and unhappiness.
In 1953, her only novel, Maud Martha was published. It has been called a “fragmented, poetic narrative;” it again traces the life of a woman as she navigates the passage from childhood to adulthood in black Chicago neighbourhoods.
Just as her first poems reflected the mood of their era, her later works mirrored their time and the horror that racism, sexism and indifference brought to the community. The title poem of her book, In The Mecca is a heart-wrenching work that details a woman’s search for her lost child through Chicago’s Mecca Flats. The Mecca Flats was originally a posh hotel for visitors to the World Columbian Exposition, but by 1940 it had become a crowded and dangerous place; that many still called home. A victim of urban renewal, the building was demolished in 1952 to make way for the expansion of IIT.
In 1967, Brooks was commissioned to write a poem for the dedication of Chicago’s Picasso Sculpture, another Chicago institution that is enjoying an anniversary this year.
Brooks continued to work for the rest of her life. Her work matured in the direction of a stronger political stance. Brooks’ poems featured political subjects and figures, such as South African activist Winnie Mandela, the onetime wife of anti-apartheid leader—and later president of the country—Nelson Mandela.
Not just a poet, Brooks was an educator who took her mission seriously. She taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, City College of New York, Columbia College of Chicago, Northeastern Illinois University, and Elmhurst College. She was awarded over 75 honorary doctorates during her lifetime and won numerous literary awards.
At the time of her death in late 2000, Ms. Brooks was the Distinguished Professor of English at Chicago State University and the Poet Laureate of Illinois, a position she had held since 1968.
There are many Gwendolyn Brooks Centennial events planned throughout the city this year. The Poetry Foundation has a comprehensive exhibit that includes Brooks’ scrapbooks, personal writings (she was a chronicler of her own life) as well and much correspondence from other African-American poets and publishing houses. Additionally, The Poetry Foundation has commissioned a play on Brooks’ life. Titled No Blue Memories: The Life of Gwendolyn Brooks, it debuts at The Harold Washington Library Center in November. Produced by Manual Cinema-a creative endeavor that is part design studio, part theatre company-the performance combines intricate paper puppetry, live actors working in shadow, and an original score. Other Chicago venues celebrating Brooks include include the Art Institute, The Newberry Library and Harold Washington Chicago Public Library. You can learn more at Our Miss Brooks 100.
Our Author’s Voice network contributed to the celebration. LadyBird & Friends featured a just released version of Brooks’ poem, We Are Shining. This powerful picture book is a celebration of the diversity of our world. Illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrist (our guest on the program, below), this life-affirming poem reminds all of us that “Life is for us, and it is shining. We have a right to sing.” We have a very few signed, first edition copies of this fine book available. Order at AuthorsVoice.net.
Watch the program below: