Gwendolyn Brooks: Poetry, poverty, and a Pulitzer prize
What Brooks taught the world about the beauty of community and being a black woman in America
Gwendolyn Brooks is an earthy, plainspoken, unpretentious American legend. She won countless awards including a Pulitzer prize and is known around the globe as Chicago’s First Lady of Poetry. She is a big deal. But more valuable than that, she was a teacher who shared her love of poetry with anyone — especially any child — who asked.
Let’s learn more about what made this poet so extraordinary.
A young poet
Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks was born on June 7, 1917 in Topeka, Kansas. At just six weeks old, her mother Keziah, who was a school teacher, and her father, David, who was a janitor and aspiring doctor moved the family to Chicago. They settled in Chicago’s South Side, in what is now known as the Black Metropolis–Bronzeville Historic District.
The following year, Gwendolyn’s younger brother Raymond was born. Both children had a strong relationship with their parents. Brooks said her father would often sing to them and her mother would play the piano. Art was greatly encouraged in the Brooks house. Her parents nurtured the creativity that she and her brother expressed at early ages — Gwendolyn with writing and Raymond with painting.
Brooks started writing when she was seven years old. She said it was her parents who encouraged her the most, as there just wasn’t an interest in creative writing in schools at the time.
Brooks ended up publishing her first poem at age 13. The poem was called “Eventide” and it was published in a popular kids magazine called American Childhood.
By age 16, she had written more than 70 poems.
Her mother pushed Brooks to share her work with well-known writers. At one of his speaking events, Langston Hughes, world famous poet and father of the Harlem Renaissance, read some of her work. He said, “You’re talented, keep writing, someday you’ll have a book published.” Brooks said that was all the encouragement she needed as a teenager.
She said, “I knew I would just write and keep writing as long as I was here.”
She was so inspired that she kept in touch with Hughes, often exchanging letters and poetry. Hughes had great love and respect for Brooks, helping her get published, recommending her work for awards, and even writing a column about her first book in the Chicago Defender.
Bronzeville and beyond
Brooks graduated from Wilson Junior College in 1936 and then went on to work for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
It was at the NAACP where she met her husband, Henry Blakely. He, too, was an aspiring writer. They were married in September of 1939.
Brooks said in her autobiography that poetry wasn’t everything and that parties were a big part of her early life in Bronzeville.
“My husband and I knew writers, knew painters, knew pianists and dancers and actresses, knew photographers galore. There were always weekend parties to be attended, where we merry Bronzevillians could find each other and earnestly philosophize sometimes on into the dawn, over martinis and Scotch and coffee, and an ample buffet. Of course, in that time, it was believed, still, that the society could be prettied, quieted, cradled, sweetened, if only people talked enough, glared at each other yearningly enough, waited enough.”
Life started changing fast for Brooks. In 1940, she gave birth to her first child, her son Henry Blakely III. A year later, she started participating in local poetry workshops.
In 1944, two of her poems were published in Poetry magazine, which was a goal of hers since she was a teenager.
In 1945, she published her first book of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville. It was like a love letter to her beloved neighbor. The book received great reviews from literary critics and became a catalyst for more success.
The following year, she received a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship. She was also named one of the Ten Young Women of the Year in Mademoiselle magazine.
She published her second book of poetry, Annie Allen, in 1949. Less than a year later, she became the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize. The prize recognized Annie Allen as a distinguished volume of original verse by an American poet.
In 1951, she gave birth to her daughter Nora.
So here she is, a Pulitzer Prize winner, an established force in the literary world. What could she possibly do next? You guessed it: try fiction.
In 1953, Brooks tried her hand at pose, publishing her only novel, Maud Martha. According to critics, it wasn’t a bad book. But it was really just eclipsed by the popularity of her poems
She followed that with two poetry collections, Bronzeville Boys and Girls in 1956 and The Bean Eaters in 1960.
In 1962, she was invited by President John Kennedy to read at a Library of Congress poetry festival.
She taught her first poetry workshop in 1963. Teaching became a great love of hers. She found great joy in sharing her love of poetry with adults and children alike. She said of teaching that she enjoyed talking with children because they were amazing. Throughout her lifetime, she taught poetry and creative writing at several universities, including Northeastern Illinois University, Elmhurst College, Columbia University, Clay College of New York, and the University of Wisconsin.
Brooks became a prominent voice in the black literary community. She said, “I like for blacks to be proud of what they have come from. They need to learn they have much to be proud of.”
Her work also became increasingly political as she met and worked with black activists and other outspoken artists in the 1960s. She commented more directly on social issues and reflected the struggles of civil rights. She once remarked about the importance of black activism, “If we don’t pull together, well, we won’t be here to pull at all.”
In 1968 , Brooks was named Poet Laureate of Illinois. Also in that year, she published one of her most famous works, In the Mecca. It was nominated for the National Book Award for poetry.
An incredible legacy
Brooks would go on to write more than 10 additional collections of poetry, a two-part autobiography, and become one of the most highly decorated poets in American history. Her achievements were extraordinary.
She held more than 50 honorary degrees.
In 1976, she became the first African American woman to be inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters
In 1985, she served as Poet Laureate of the United States and poetry consultant to the Library of Congress.
The National Endowment for the Arts honored her with a lifetime achievement award in 1989 and the National Book Foundation did the same in 1994.
There is a junior high in Chicago named after Brooks, a center for African American Literature at Western Illinois University named after her, and there is even a Gwendolyn Brooks Chair in Black Literature and Creative Writing at Chicago State University. Her honors stretch on and on. Seriously, there are too many to list!
Brooks continued writing, teaching, giving lectures, and interviewing late into her life. She died at age 83 in her South Side Chicago home on December 3, 2000.
Gwendolyn Brooks was real. She was down to earth. She was honest and observant.
Social historian Lerone Bennett Jr. once said that Gwendolyn Brooks’s poems celebrate the truth. He said, “They celebrate the truth of blackness, which is also the truth of man. They reflect the wholeness of a person with deep roots in the soil of her people.”
Her voice amplified the ordinary, showing us the beauty in the small.
Brooks said it best herself: “If you wanted a poem you only had to look out a window. There was material always walking, running, screaming, or signing.”
A closer look at the work & words of Gwendolyn Brooks
my dreams, my works, must wait till after hell
By Gwendolyn Brooks
I hold my honey and I store my bread
In little jars and cabinets of my will.
I label clearly, and each latch and lid
I bid, Be firm till I return from hell.
I am very hungry. I am incomplete.
And none can tell when I may dine again.
No man can give me any word but Wait,
The puny light. I keep eyes pointed in;
Hoping that, when the devil days of my hurt
Drag out to their last dregs and I resume
On such legs as are left me, in such heart
As I can manage, remember to go home,
My taste will not have turned insensitive
To honey and bread old purity could love.
The hope was real
There are some fascinating discoveries you make while listening to and watching interviews with Gwendolyn Brooks. She often told the story of the day she learned she had won the Pulitzer. She couldn’t afford the electricity bill, so they didn’t have lights or power at her house. A reporter called her with the news and said that it would be officially announced the next day. She was nervous because she knew reporters would show up at her house and they wouldn’t be able to plug in their cameras or microphones. She said the next day came and when the reporters showed up, somehow the electricity was on. She never figured out who had paid the bill.
That story and many others reminded me of times in my childhood when money was tight and choices had to be made. Her stories made this incredible literary figure, this titan of poetry more real to me, more relatable.
I can’t understand what it was like to be a black woman in the mid-20th century, in the midst of cultural revolution and civil rights. Honestly, I can’t even begin to fathom it.
But I believe there is something in, “my dreams, my works, must wait till after hell” that speaks to a core experience.
I think we can all understand a certain type of hell wrapped up in holding still. As a woman who longs — for better society, for peace, or more personal things. For a family, for a home, for belonging, for purpose — I know how excruciating it is to wait.
I read the poem as a painful yet hopeful admittance that the world around Brooks wasn’t right. It wasn’t ready for Gwendolyn as a woman, for Gwendolyn as a black person, for Gwendolyn as a poor person.
That hope she tucked away in jars and cabinets.
The hope she spoke about, if people only talked enough, glared at each other yearningly enough, waited enough.
That hope was real. And Gwendolyn Brooks was, above all, real.
In fact, she was real cool.
That’s why I love Gwendolyn Brooks and that’s why I love her words.
Thanks for reading.