Black History 365, National Poetry Month edition: Gwendolyn Brooks

Since there are so many facets of the history that people of African descent have made in this country, I’ve decided to continue my “Black History 365″ series from my poetry blog here on my AfrocentriqueAZ blog. In honor of National Poetry Month, I’ll be posting a new Black poet every day this month. Every Wednesday for the months after that I will post other Black history figures (I’ll go back to my “first Black” series). 

Today’s poet is Gwendolyn Brooks (video at the end of the post)

Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks

 

From Famous Poets and Poems and Wikipedia:

Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks (June 7, 1917 – December 3, 2000) was an American poet. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1950 and was appointed Poet Laureate of Illinois in 1968 and Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1985.

Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks was born on June 7, 1917, in Topeka, Kansas, the first child of David Anderson Brooks and Keziah Wims. Her mother was a former school teacher who had chosen that field because she could not afford to attend medical school. (Family lore held that her paternal grandfather had escaped slavery to join Union forces during the American Civil War.) When Brooks was six weeks old, her family moved to Chicago, Illinois during the Great Migration; from then on, Chicago was her hometown. She went by the nickname “Gwendie” among her close friends. Each school she was in suspended her for being black; they were heavy on racism.

She was abused during her childhood and her father died when she was 16 from a drug overdose. She attended Hyde Park High School, the leading white high school in the city, before transferring to the all-black Wendell Phillips. Brooks eventually attended an integrated schoolEnglewood High School. In 1936 she graduated from Wilson Junior College. These four schools gave her a perspective on racial dynamics in the city that continued to influence her work.

Brooks published her first poem in a children’s life box at the age of thirteen. By the time she was sixteen, she had compiled a portfolio of around 75 published poems. At seventeen, she started submitting her work to “Lights and Shadows”, the poetry column of the Chicago Defender, an African-American newspaper. Her poems, many published while she attended Wilson Junior College, ranged in style from traditional ballads and sonnets to poems using blues rhythms in free verse. Her characters were often drawn from the poor of the inner city. After failing to obtain a position with theChicago Defender, Brooks took a series of secretarial jobs.

By 1941, Brooks was taking part in poetry workshops. A particularly influential one was organized by Inez Cunningham Stark, an affluent white woman with a strong literary background. The group dynamic of Stark’s workshop, all of whose participants were African American, energized Brooks. Her poetry began to be taken seriously. In 1943 she received an award for poetry from the Midwestern Writers’ Conference.

Brooks’ first book of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville (1945), published by Harper and Row, earned instant critical acclaim. She received her first Guggenheim Fellowship and was included as one of the “Ten Young Women of the Year” in Mademoiselle magazine. With her second book of poetry, Annie Allen (1950), she became the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry; she also was awarded Poetry magazine’s Eunice Tietjens Prize.

After President John F. Kennedy invited Brooks to read at a Library of Congress poetry festival in 1962, she began a second career teaching creative writing. She taught at Columbia College ChicagoNortheastern Illinois UniversityChicago State UniversityElmhurst CollegeColumbia University, Clay College of New York, and the University of Wisconsin–Madison. In 1967 she attended a writers’ conference at Fisk University where, she said, she rediscovered her blackness. This rediscovery is reflected in her work In The Mecca (1968), a long poem about a mother searching for her lost child in a Chicago apartment buildingIn The Mecca was nominated for the National Book Award for poetry.

On May 1, 1996, Brooks returned to her birthplace of Topeka, Kansas. She was invited as the keynote speaker for the Third Annual Kaw Valley Girl Scout Council’s “Women of Distinction Banquet and String of Pearls Auction.” A ceremony was held in her honor at a local park at 37th and Topeka Boulevard.

The University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) Rare Book and Manuscript Library acquired Brooks’ archives from her daughter Nora.

~~~

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One thought on “Black History 365, National Poetry Month edition: Gwendolyn Brooks

  1. Pingback: Black History 365, National Poetry Month edition: Gwendolyn Brooks | As Things Go & As I Go

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