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Gwendolyn Brooks Made Poetry That Mattered

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The life and career of the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize.

We take a look back at the life and career of poet Gwendolyn Brooks (1917 - 2000), the first African-American to win a Pulitizer Prize.

Born in Topeka, Kansas, June 7, 1917, Gwendolyn Brooks relocated to Chicago’s south side when only six weeks old, and her work would be strongly associated with the city throughout her lifetime. Her mother was a former school teacher and classically trained pianist. Her father, the son of a runaway slave, had gained admittance to medical school but, unable to afford tuition, spent his life working as a janitor. Though her parents were poor, they were educated and loving, encouraging Brooks to pursue her dreams. Her father built her a desk and bookshelves. At age 13, she’d already published her first poem, “Eventide,” which appeared in American Childhood magazine.

When Brooks was still in high school, her mother drove her to meet poet Langston Hughes, an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance, who advised her to study modern poets like Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. By age 17, Brooks was publishing regularly in The Chicago Defender, a newspaper founded by and written for African-Americans. She would eventually publish more than 100 of her poems in its weekly poetry column. Varying in form and theme, most were about life in the poor, black inner city.

Many of these works would appear in her first collection, "A Street in Bronzeville," published in 1945. It was, as they say, an instant success – a misleading phrase if ever there was one, as she had been quietly honing her craft for the previous 15 years. The book helped land her a Guggenheim Fellowship and her next book, 1950’s "Annie Allen," a three-part work about a young African American girl dealing with racism, violence, love and war as she grows into adulthood, would win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, making Brooks the first African-American to take home the award.

Three years later, Brooks published "Maud Martha," a semi-autobiographical novel about the struggles of a dark-skinned black woman with low self-esteem dealing not only with the prejudices of whites, but also with those of lighter-skinned blacks. The book came and went with little critical acclaim outside the black intellectual community (though it still remains in print today), and it would be Brooks’ only published novel. She would return to prose late in life, penning a two-volume autobiography to a similarly lukewarm critical reception.

The next turning point in her career arrived in 1962, when President John F. Kennedy invited her to read at the Library of Congress poetry festival. Her appearance there led to her first job teaching creative writing at Columbia College Chicago. She would enjoy a lengthy academic career, also mentoring students at Northeastern Illinois University, Elmhurst College, Columbia University, Clay College of New York and the University of Madison-Wisconsin.

Her most famous poem, “Seven at the Golden Shovel/The Pool Players” (better known as “We Real Cool”) was inspired by seeing seven young men hanging around a pool hall in the Southside of Chicago. Published in 1963, it remains well-known today and is often included in high school English curricula.

In the latter half of the sixties, as the Civil Rights Movement wore on, Brooks became more actively involved in nurturing the cause of black literature. After participating in the Fisk University Second Black Writers' Conference in Nashville, she said she experienced a kind of awakening. “I had been on tour, I was tired and I wanted to get home, and I just thought I would whiz through Fisk, give my little reading and come home. But what I found there stimulated my life…young people, full of a new spirit. They seemed stronger and taller, ready to take on the challenges.”

Brooks began reading more young black writers like Nikki Giovanni, Amiri Baraka and Haki Madhabuti. She left her New York publishers Harper and Row and instead published her work at smaller, black companies like Detroit’s Broadside Press and Chicago’s Third World Press. She also left behind more traditional forms like sonnets and ballads to focus on more immediate, visceral poetic styles. As she told an interviewer in 1973, “This does not seem to be a sonnet time. It seems to be a free verse time, because this is a raw, ragged, uneven time… I want to reach all manner of black people. That’s my urgent compulsion.”

In order to reach them, she would increasingly find herself reciting her work not just at writer’s conferences and university seminars, but at bars, in taverns, at city parks. She sponsored poetry contests with her own money, gave readings at prisons and hospitals. Her National Book Award-nominated 1968 collection "In the Mecca" was set in the kind of environment many of her intended urban black readers knew all too well: a sprawling, decaying public housing project.

“I want to write poems that will be non-compromising,” she once told an interviewer. “I don't want to stop a concern with words doing good jobs, which has always been a concern of mine, but I want to write poems that will be meaningful.”

Brooks died Dec. 3, 2000, at age 83. Nearly two decades after her death, people are still finding meaning in her poems.