Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks, the Pulitzer-prize winning poet from the Midwest, is one name that needs no introduction. Revered as the ‘patron saints’ among African-American poets, this ‘Chicagoan’ poet holds credit for dissenting racial discrimination and poverty in her expansive body of literary works. With a career spanning across five decades, Gwendolyn Brooks works mainly revolved around the turbulent lives of ordinary African-American and their unending struggle against racism and poverty. Her intense responsiveness towards racism and her extensive range of work made her one of the most distinguished 20th Century American poets. She had authored more than 20 books of poetry and had penned numerous books including a novel. Her works sprung from a deep perception of her own personal racial encounters and the misery of other African-Americans living in the state. Her mastery of techniques to conquer hearts through phrases and her true commitment towards racial identity bagged her several honors including the position of Poet Laureate of Illinois.
Born in Topeka, Kansas to David and Keziah Brooks, Gwendolyn Brooks was the eldest of the three kids. Her mother, Keziah Wims, was a schoolteacher and a classically trained pianist, who quit her job post-marriage to bring up her family. Her father, David Anderson Brooks, was a janitor who aspired to be a doctor, but had to forego his dreams, as he could not afford to attend the medical school. When ‘Gwendie’ (as Gwendolyn Brooks was known among her close friends) was just six weeks old, the family moved to Chicago, Illinois, where she grew up.
Gwendolyn Brooks was enrolled into Hyde Park High School, one of the leading schools in Illinois, before she was moved to all-black Wendell Phillips School. During her term in Hyde Park, she encountered racism that left her deeply disturbed. However, at home, she was dearly loved and cared for, and it was from her parents that she drew her passion for reading and writing. She began to live in a world of her own by finding solace in writing. Later, she was sent to Englewood High School. She graduated from Wilson Junior College in 1936. These four schools gave her a deep perspective on racial dynamics in the city that was reflected in her work.
She started churning out poetries at the tender age of seven. Her mother had already proclaimed her as a poet and Brook’s father rendered a desk and bookshelf all to herself so that she could continue reading and writing. Her family and friends fondly dubbed her as “the female Paul Lawrence Dunbar” because of her expansive literary collections. By the age of 16, she had written over 75 poems. During her high school years, she had the chance to meet popular Harlem Renaissance poets like James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes, who inspired her to read modern poems.
At the age of 13, she published her first poem in the American Childhood magazine. Her initial collection of poetry revealed her fondness for poets like William Wordsworth, John Keats, Emily Dickinson, William Cullen Bryant and Percy Bysshe Shelly.
Soon after completing her graduation, she joined as a secretary and house cleaner for a spiritual charlatan, who dealt with a huge tenement named Mecca. She was not happy with the job and expressed her pain in her poems. In 1934, her initial works were published in the daily column “Lights and Shadows” in Chicago Defender, a newspaper that was meant exclusively for the city’s African-American community. However, she failed to get a job with the newspaper and had to do various odd jobs to fend a living. During 1941-1942, Brooks attended Inez Cunningham Stark’s workshop on poetry, which helped hone her technical abilities and inspired her to take up writing as a profession. After that, there was no looking back for this radical poet.
In 1962, John F. Kennedy invited Gwendolyn at a Library of Congress festival of poetry to read. In the year 1963, Brooks took up her first teaching job at Chicago’s Columbia College. In 1970s, Brooks took up the job of a poetry instructor and taught in Northeastern Illinois State College (now Northeastern Illinois University), University of Wisconsin at Madison, and the City College of the City University of New York. In the year 1985, Brooks was appointed as the poetry consultant for the Library of Congress, which was a one-year position that changed to the title of ‘Poet Laureate’.
In the year 1939, Brook tied the knot with Henry Blakely and gave birth to two children — Henry Blakely Junior in 1940 and Nora Blakely in 1951. However, household obligations and the responsibility of bringing up two kids did not deter her from pursuing her literary career. During this period, she published several collections of her poems and brought out a novel in 1953. In 1994, she returned to her place of origin, Topeka, Kansas.
Awards & Recognitions
· Midwestern Writers Conference prize for the “Gay Chaps at the Bar” (1944)
· The Progress (1945)
· Referred to as one of the ten most outstanding women of the year by “Mademoiselle Magazine” (1945)
· National Institute of Arts and Letters grant in the year (1946)
· American Academy of Arts and Letters Award (1946)
· Guggenheim Fellowship (1946 and 1947)
· Poetry Magazine Award (1949)
· Pulitzer Prize, the first African American to be granted this honor (1950)
· “Robert F. Ferguson Memorial Award” for Selected Poems,(1963).
· Friend of Literature Award (1963)
· Thormod Monsen Literature Award” (1964)
· National Book Award nomination for Mecca in (1968) -succeeded Carl Sandburg as poet laureate of Illinois.
· Named poet laureate of Illinois (1969)
· Black Academy of Arts and Letters Award (1971),
· Shelley Memorial Award (1976),
· Library of Congress consultant (1985-1986)
· Essence Award (1988)
· Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America (1989),
· Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Endowment for the Arts (1989)
· Jefferson Award from the National Endowment for the Humanities (1994)
· National Book Foundation Medal for lifetime achievement in 1994
· National Medal of Arts (1995)
· The First Women Award from the National First Ladies' Library (1999)
· 49 honorary degrees from universities and colleges, including Columbia College (1964)
· Lake Forest College in 1965 and Brown University in 1974
· National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1988
· The poetry consultant at the Library of Congress, the second African American and the first African American woman to hold that position, 1985.
· Conferred fifty honorary doctorates from prestigious universities and institutions from all over the world.
Her poems were purely the upshot of her acute responsiveness towards the society. She was not bothered about the form and style of the poem, as much as the theme. She spent early half of her career writing traditional verses, while she boldly experimented with free verse towards the later half. Her thematic focus, however, remained the same — the painful lives of ordinary African-Americans and their battle against poverty and racism.
Gwendolyn Brooks has a substantial amount of work to her credit, including extremely popular ones like ‘A Street in Bronzeville’ (1945), ‘Maud Martha’ (1953), ‘The Bean Eaters’ (1960), and the Pulitzer-prize winning work ‘Annie Allen’ (1949). In ‘A Street in Bronzeville’, Brooks relates the frustrated hopes, economy deprived situations, acts of violence and racial prejudices that the ordinary men and women come across in their daily lives. Her novel ‘Maud Martha’ has autobiographic undertones and consists of 34 sketches that explain the racial discrimination and poverty-ridden childhood of unhappy black women, in search of self-respect and confidence. ‘The Bean Eaters’ comprises of some of her best verses and addresses the desperations and the raising differences of the African-Americans in the late 1950s. ‘Annie Allen’ includes a series of poems that are related to the story of an African-American girl being bought up in Chicago.
Other Major Works
· Bronzeville Boys and Girls (1956)
· Selected Poems (1963)
· We Real Cool (1966)
· The Wall (1967)
· In the Mecca (1968)
· Family Pictures (1970)
· Riot (1970)
· Black Steel: Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali (1971)
· The World of Gwendolyn Brooks (1971)
· Aloneness (1971)
· Aurora (1972)
· Beckonings (1975)
· Black Love (1981)
· To Disembark (1981)
· The Near-Johannesburg Boy and Other Poems (1986)
· Blacks (1987)
· Winnie (1988)
· Gottschalk and the Grande Tarantelle (1989)
· Children Coming Home (1991)
· In Montgomery and Other Poems (2003)
· Report from Part One: An Autobiography (1972)
· Report from Part Two: Autobiography
· A Capsule Course in Black Poetry Writing (1975)
· Primer for Blacks (1981)
· Young Poet's Primer (1981)
· Very Young Poets (1983)
· Maud Martha (1953)
Gwendolyn Brooks passed away on 3 December 2000 at the age of 83 at her residence in Southside Chicago, after battling a terminal illness. She is buried at Lincoln Cemetery in Blue Island, Illinois.
· Gwendolyn Brooks Cultural Center, Macomb, Illinois, 1970
· Gwendolyn Brooks Elementary School, Aurora, Illinois, 1995
· Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy, Chicago, Illinois, 2000
· Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School, Harvey, Illinois, 2001
· Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School, Oak Park, Illinois, 2002
· Gwendolyn Brooks Illinois State Library, Springfield, Illinois, 2003
· 100 Greatest African Americans, 2002
· Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School, Bolingbrook, Illinois, 2005