Happy Birthday Gwendolyn Brooks!
On June 7th, 1917 Gwendolyn Brooks was born in Topeka, Kansas. Shortly after Brooks was born her family moved to Chicago, where she would live for the rest of her life. Her parents were very influential in her love of the arts and ambitious nature. Her mother was teacher and classically trained pianist and her father was a janitor who would go on to fulfill his dream of becoming a doctor.
When Brooks was only thirteen she published her first poem, “Eventide,” in American Childhood. By seventeen Brooks was regularly publishing poems in the Chicago Defender, a newspaper that was widely popular with Chicago’s black population.
Brooks bounced around in her education, first attending a predominantly white high school in the city, Hyde Park and later transferring to the all-black Wendell Phillips. Finally, she went to the integrated Englewood High School. After that she attended Wilson Junior College, eventually graduating in 1936. Experience in multiple schools with different populations, “gave her a perspective on racial dynamics in the city that continues to influence her work”.
This coupled with working at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People led her to focus her writing on urban blacks; a focus seen in her first published collection, the 1945 award-winning, A Street in Bronzeville. This work, “which brought her instant critical acclaim…chronicles the everyday lives, aspirations, and disappointments of the ordinary black people in her own neighborhood”. Brook’s second book, Annie Allen, was published in 1949. Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for this publication, making her the first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize.
“A turning point in her career came in 1967 when she attended the Fisk University Second Black Writers’ Conference and decided to become more involved in the Black Arts movement. She became one of the most visible articulators of “the black aesthetic.” Her “awakening” led to a shift away from a major publishing house to smaller black ones. While some critics found an angrier tone in her work, elements of protest had always been present in her writing and her awareness of social issues did not result in diatribes at the expense of her clear commitment to aesthetic principles. Consequently, becoming the leader of one phase of the Black Arts movement in Chicago did not drastically alter her poetry, but there were some subtle changes that become more noticeable when one examines her total canon to date.” – Kenny Jackson Williams
In the 1960’s Brooks began a teacher career in creative writing. She would go on to teach at Columbia College in Chicago, Chicago State University, Northeastern Illinois University, Columbia University and the University of Wisconsin. All while teaching Brooks continued to write, publishing “In the Mecca” in 1968. Brooks lived a life full of writing, teaching and mentoring until she passed at the age of 83 from Cancer in 2000.
If you are a poetry lover, (or if you aren’t – branch out!) I highly recommend checking out some of Brooks’ work. A list of selected works and publication can be found at the bottom of this link.
In my research about Brooks I came across a quote that resonated with me, a quote I could not stop thinking about. I will leave you all with it, “I felt I had to write. Even if I had never been published, I knew that I would go on writing, enjoying it and experiencing the challenge”.