Gwendolyn Brooks was a poet, biographer, editor, Poet Laureate and the first black author to win the Pulitzer Prize. Over a life that spanned most of the twentieth century, Brooks created a large body of work – as well as poetry, Brooks wrote a novella, Maud Martha, and a two-part autobiography.
Born in 1917 in Topeca, Kansas, Brooks moved to Chicago when she was barely six weeks old. She was to live in the city for the rest of her life, and to consider it not only the backdrop but an essential component of her work. A voracious reader and writer, Brooks was only thirteen when her poem Eventide was published in the children’s magazine American Childhood.
A few years later, her mother took her to hear Langston Hughes read his work at Chicago’s Metropolitan church. Brooks approached Hughes and watched while he intently read her work. He told her that she had talent and that if she kept writing, she would have her books published. That encouragement was everything that the sixteen-year-old needed to persevere. As she said in an interview sixty years later: “I just knew that I would write and keep writing as long as I was here, whether my writing was published or not.”
But published she was: by her late teens, she had become a regular contributor to the poetry column of the Chicago Defender, a newspaper by and for African Americans. In 1945, she published her first book of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville, which earned her praise by the critics, a Guggenheim fellowship and an appointment as fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
However, it was the publication of Annie Allen in 1949 that made her name as a writer. For this collection of poems, which focused on a young girl growing up in the Bronzeville neighbourhood in South Chicago, Brooks was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1950. At the time, she and her husband Henry Blakely had a young son and were struggling to the point that they had been unable to pay the bills and had no electricity. Upon the announcement of the award, Brooks was mortified at the possibility of having the photographers and cameramen around to her home with no electricity. However, someone (she was never to find out who), quietly paid her bills and thus spared her the embarrassment.
In 1967 Brook’s writing took on a sharper political edge, after she attended the Second Black Writers’ Conference at Nashville’s Fisk University. Here she was exposed to new black cultural nationalism and, consequently, became more aware of her role within the black community.
In 1968, she published In the Mecca, which marked a shift not only in focus (this being her most political work) but also in tone. Her style became more energetic and essential, infused with a new urge – that of connecting black people’s perspectives and experiences all over the world, starting from her surroundings in South Chicago to the people she met on her travels through Kenya, Tanzania and Ghana.
As her success grew, so did her involvement with her beloved South Side community, for whom she taught and held workshops. Brooks taught creative writing to members of violent gangs, to the poor, the uneducated, to children. She encouraged her students to see beauty in their surroundings and to believe themselves just as special as the writers they looked up to. She hosted and sponsored varied literary events and awards.
In 1968 she was appointed Poet Laureate of the state of Illinois: a role she held until her death. Its duties included visits to hospitals, prisons, drugs rehabilitation centres and schools. By 1995, when Brooks was finishing the second volume of her autobiography, she had been serving as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress for ten years. She had been 68 years of age when she was appointed – and had been the first black woman to be given the role. In 1994, she was chosen by the National Endowment for the Humanities as ‘Jefferson Lecturer’, the highest award in the humanities, and given by the federal government.
She died in 2000, then aged 83, in her Chicago home. She once said in an interview: “I want to write poems that will be non-compromising… poems that will be meaningful.” Her work proves, time and again, that she succeeded.