Brooks, Gwendolyn (1917–2000)
Brooks, Gwendolyn (1917–2000)
African-American Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, novelist, and teacher. Born Gwendolyn Brooks on June 7, 1917, in Topeka, Kansas; died on December 3, 2000, in Chicago; daughter of David Anderson Brooks (a mechanic and janitor) and Keziah Corine (Wims) Brooks (a teacher and homemaker); graduated from Wilson Junior College, 1936; married Henry Blakely, 1938; children: Henry Jr. (b. October 10, 1940), Nora (b. September 8, 1951).
Awarded numerous honorary degrees; published A Street in Bronzeville (1945); won Pulitzer Prize for Annie Allen (1950); published In the Mecca (1968); selected poet laureate of Illinois (1968); appointed poetryconsultant to the Library of Congress (1985); received the National Medal of Arts (1995).
Gwendolyn Brooks' literary career spanned more than 50 years and included poetry, a novel, criticism, verse and fiction for children, and an autobiography. She was a teacher of writing and a writer of criticism. Her work has been examined by black and white, male and female commentators. Her writing has been analyzed as "too white" or "too black," as strongly feminist or too conventional in its portrayal of women. She was the recipient of more public honors than any other African-American poet, yet not until late in her career was her work widely included in American literature courses. In many ways, her writing, and the public reactions to it, paralleled developments related to race and gender in the United States during the last half of the 20th century.
Brooks was born in Topeka, Kansas, which was the home of both her parents. David Anderson Brooks, her father, had aspired to study medicine but financial necessity forced him to leave Fisk University after only one year. Her mother
Keziah Wims Brooks graduated from Topeka High School, attended Emporia State Normal School, and worked in her home town as a fifth-grade teacher. One month after Gwendolyn's birth, her mother took her to join her father who was working in Chicago. Brooks has lived there ever since, with remarkable continuity in her place of residence. She and her brother Raymond, who was born in 1918, grew up in a house on the South Side where she remained until she married in 1940. Then Gwendolyn and her husband Henry Blakely lived for four decades in a house they bought early in their marriage.
She fights with semi-folded arms, … And altogether she does Rather Well.
—Gwendolyn Brooks, from "the weaponed woman"
Like many writers, Brooks was raised in a home that valued books and education. She recounts that she always received books as Christmas gifts, and that she spent long and happy hours reading behind the tree with her book lit by the Christmas lights. Singing and storytelling also probably influenced her poetic development. In her autobiography, Brooks remembers her father as a strong and gentle man. From him, she heard family stories about her ancestors' experiences during and after slavery. Her mother encouraged her interest in writing, promising that young Gwendolyn would grow up to be "the lady Paul Laurence Dunbar." As one who organized children's programs at the church, Keziah Brooks persuaded her daughter to write plays for the other children to perform.
Besides her mother, other female relatives were important role models in Brooks' young life. Her Aunt Eppie married well and lived on a farm in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Aunt Gertrude lived in a "good" neighborhood, was fun loving, and taught her niece to dance the Charleston. Another aunt, Ella, was staunch, despite poverty, while Beulah was the family "queen." A single woman with a career, Beulah had graduated from the University of Chicago, was the chair of her department in a high school, and made stylish clothes for herself and for Gwendolyn.
If her family life was happy and secure, Brooks' social life was unsatisfying. During the 1920s and 1930s, when she was growing up, skin color created a definite hierarchy of beauty among black women, with fair skin and straight hair considered the prettiest. Because of her dark skin and what was considered "bad hair," Brooks felt her peers found her unattractive. In addition, she had some difficulty in finding a satisfactory high school. She first attended Hyde Park, a predominantly white school where she felt ignored. Her experiences there inspired a poem of protest she submitted to the black newspaper, the Chicago Defender. At all-black Wendell Phillips High School, Brooks was unpopular for her shyness. She then transferred to integrated Englewood High School. There, things seemed to improve, especially as she received more encouragement for her writing.
During her adolescence, Brooks wrote poems and stories at a prodigious rate. At the age of 13, she published a poem called "Eventide" in American Childhood magazine. While in high school, she contributed to a weekly poetry column in the Chicago Defender, where she ultimately published nearly 80 poems. At the same time, she had the opportunity to meet two major figures in black literature—James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes. Johnson, a poet of the Harlem Renaissance, advised Brooks to become familiar with the writings of modernist poets T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and e.e. cummings. Hughes read and commented on her poetry, as he did with other young poets. He would remain a mentor and promoter of Brooks' work, later dedicating a book of short stories to her.
In 1934, Brooks graduated from Englewood High School and enrolled in Wilson Junior College. There she became active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). At one of their meetings, she encountered Henry Blakely, another aspiring writer. Brooks remembered that when she first saw him standing in a doorway, she confided to a friend, "There is the man I am going to marry."
Married in 1938, Brooks and Blakely shared an interest in writing and their life together included frequent visits with friends, discussing social issues, philosophy, and literature. As Brooks recalled, it sometimes seemed that everyone believed society could be changed and improved if they just talked enough. Meanwhile, Gwendolyn enrolled in a poetry workshop for young black writers organized by Inez Cunningham Stark . Stark, who had been a reader for Poetry magazine, brought books to class from her affluent home and made them available to the students. She introduced them to modern poets and encouraged them to critique each other's work, as well as that of the recognized masters of the genre. How much Brooks' own poetry was influenced by the modernists, such as Eliot and Pound, is debatable. It does seem clear that at that time she began to write more economically and that her work during the 1940s and early 1950s reflects the techniques of the modernists. In addition, Stark was a role model in her devotion to teaching poetry to non-traditional students.
Not long after the workshop, Brooks won the first significant recognition of her work when she received the Midwestern Writers' Conference poetry award in 1943. Several major publishing houses expressed interest in her poetry, and Elizabeth Lawrence of Harper and Brothers invited Brooks to submit her work in two years when she would have enough "Negro" poems for a book. Rather than use the time allotted, Brooks wrote feverishly until she had produced the collection, A Street in Bronzeville, which was published in 1945. The author recalled when she received the first editions, "I took out the first copy. I turned the pages of the little thing, over and over, My Book."
"Bronzeville" was a sort of generic term for a black urban ghetto, and Brooks used that setting for those poems. As with most of her later writing, the author described average, sometimes anonymous, African-Americans, their struggles, the indignities of racial injustice, and the particular concerns of women. Brooks knew the territory well. She recalled to an interviewer that she wrote about what she saw and heard in the street. "I lived in a small second-floor apartment at the corner; and I could look first on one side and then on the other. That was my material."
During the year that A Street in Bronzeville was published, Brooks received recognition from a number of sources. She won four awards at the Midwestern Writers' Conference; she was selected one of the "Ten Young Women of the Year" by Mademoiselle magazine, and she received the Society of Midland Authors' "Patron Saint" award. The following year, she won a Guggenheim fellowship and was made a fellow of the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters.
In 1949, Brooks published Annie Allen. She received the Eunice Tietjens Memorial Award from Poetry magazine, recognition from an internationally influential journal. The next year, Annie Allen was named the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Gwendolyn Brooks became the first African-American to win the impressive literary honor, and she did so for a collection that was notable for its technical brilliance. Annie Allen is arranged in three sections, "Notes from the Childhood and the Girlhood," "The Anniad," and "The Womanhood." The poet was delighted with her achievement, "What a pleasure it was to write that poem!" she recalled. "I was just very conscious of every word; I wanted every phrase to be beautiful, and yet to contribute to the whole effect."
Three years after her Pulitzer, Brooks published her only novel Maud Martha. It may be that Brooks the fiction writer was overshadowed by Brooks the poet or it may be that the novel was ahead of its time. In any event, it did not achieve great sales or success. Later critics, however, writing from the black feminist viewpoint, found it a turning point in African-American fiction. Maud Martha was the story of a black woman, not portrayed as a mammy, a sexual object, a mulatto, or a downtrodden heroine, but an ordinary person, growing up to womanhood in all its complexity.
During the decade of the 1950s, Brooks wrote reviews for a number of Chicago newspapers, devoted a great deal of time to raising her two children, and published a book of poetry for children, Bronzeville Boys and Girls. Written from the perspective of children, each short poem describes a moment in a child's life. Although developed in a simpler manner, Brooks portrays children facing the same fundamental question that confronts adults. They too consider how to find meaning in a world that seems to ignore or deny their existence as human beings.
Her next major volume of verse, The Bean Eaters, appeared in 1960 in the midst of the civil-rights movement in the United States. The collection includes a number of timely poems. One discusses the lynching of black youth Emmett Till in 1955, another focuses on the struggle over the integration of the Arkansas public schools. Some reviewers found the work too strong in its social emphasis. Others thought Brooks' skill with the craft of poetry overshadowed the book's message about racial justice. Unlike her earlier work, The Bean Eaters seems to contain a stronger message linking whites with responsibility for the oppression of black Americans. Similarly, Brooks' next publication, Selected Poems (1964), continues her concern with racial injustice. A long poem, "Riders to the Blood-Red Wrath," treats black history from its African roots, through the slave trade, to the contemporary protests against segregation by the freedom riders.
If some were troubled by the social concerns expressed in Brooks' poetry, she nonetheless continued to receive recognition at the highest levels. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy invited her to read at the Library of Congress Poetry Festival, and in 1964 she was awarded her first honorary degree, the Doctor of Humane Letters from Columbia College. Brooks would later accept more than 40 honorary degrees from colleges and universities around the country.
She developed other associations with institutions of higher learning during the 1960s. In 1963, she was asked by the president of Columbia College in Chicago to organize a poetry workshop. She also taught creative writing at Elmhurst College, at Northeastern Illinois State, and at the University of Wisconsin. In 1969, she took a position at the City University of New York as Distinguished Professor of the Arts. Although she gave up formal teaching in 1971 after a minor heart attack, she continued to teach informally, especially in settings available to disadvantaged youths.
When Brooks attended the Second Black Writers' Conference at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1967, she experienced an "awakening." There, for the first time, she heard readings by militant young black poets, playwrights, and fiction writers. Their behavior and language were unconventional, and they talked openly about revolution and black power. These artists promoted a "black aesthetic," where art would be at the service of politics. Brooks credited her experience at the Fisk conference with making her more aware of her connection with a black audience. Her subsequent poetry would reflect a stronger racial focus and less concern with intricate form and technique.
The changes in Brooks' perspective would be manifested both in her writings and in her activities. Her next collection, In the Mecca, is often labeled a "transitional text." A tribute to the value of the lives of African-Americans, it includes one long poem set in an enormous, labyrinthine tenement building on Chicago's South Side. Although she had always depicted the lives of "common people" in her poetry, the later works, Riot (1969), Family Pictures (1971), and Beckonings (1975), deal more with the black experience while the earlier work seemed to focus more on individuals. This development has been called a passage from egocentric to ethnocentric themes.
In 1968, the same year that In the Mecca was published, Brooks was named poet laureate of Illinois. What had been largely a ceremonial position became for Brooks an opportunity to become an advocate for poetry, especially among young people. She gave readings in schools, prisons, colleges, and halfway houses. She sponsored, with her own money, writing contests in penal institutions, drug treatment centers, and homeless shelters as well as in the public schools. After Brooks was appointed poetry consultant for the Library of Congress in 1985, she also used that position to take poetry to the people.
Brooks not only modified the style and content of her poetry to be more reflective of her African-American identity, she also changed publishers. Although Harper and Row had brought out all of her work since A Street in Bronzeville in 1945, she decided in 1969 to shift to a new black publisher, Broadside Press of Detroit. No doubt having a bestselling author such as Brooks under contract gave the struggling press the ability to publish the work of many unknown black writers.
In 1972, Brooks published Report from Part One, her autobiography. She remained a working poet, even into her 80s. Asked when she would stop writing, she commented, "Every day there's something exciting or disturbing to write about. With all that going on, how could I stop?" Some of her later poems reflect an international focus. For example, in the 1988 collection Gottschalk and the Grande Tarantelle, the poem "Winnie" is an imaginary speech by South African Winnie Mandela .
In 1995, President Bill Clinton named Gwendolyn Brooks one of 12 Americans to receive the National Medal of Arts. She was among those the president described as "the brightest beacons in American arts and culture … people who lift our spirits and illuminate our lives." Brooks died at the age of 83 on December 3, 2000.
Mootry, Maria K., and Gary Smith, eds. A Life Distilled: Gwendolyn Brooks, Her Poetry and Fiction. Urbana: University of Illinois, 1987.
Shaw, Harry B. Gwendolyn Brooks. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1980.
Taylor, Henry. "Gwendolyn Brooks: An Essential Sanity," in The Kenyon Review. Vol. 13. Fall, 1991, pp. 115–131.
Whitaker, Charles. "Gwendolyn Brooks: A Poet for the Ages," in Ebony. June 1987, pp. 154–158.
Brooks, Gwendolyn. Report from Part One. Detroit, MI: Broadside Press, 1972.
Perry, Margaret. "Gwendolyn Brooks," in Epic Lives: One Hundred Black Women Who Made a Difference. Edited by Jessie Carney Smith. Detroit, MI: Visible Ink Press, 1993.
Mary Welek Atwell , Associate Professor of Criminal Justice, Radford University, Radford, Virginia