Gwendolyn Brooks

The first black woman to be appointed Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1985, Gwendolyn Brooks was also the first black author to win the Pulitzer Prize. Her works are extraordinary in bridging poetic technics and academic writing with political activism and social awareness during the Civil Rights movement in America.

Photo: Gwendolyn Brooks, holding her book "A Street in Bronzeville," circa 1945, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

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    Born in Topeka, Kansas, Brooks began writing at a young age thanks to the encouragement of her parents. Her first publication came at the age of 13 (“Eventide” in American Childhood). After attending junior college and working for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Brooks’s first volume of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville (1945) was published. Her first volume already reveals her awareness of urban black life combined with a mastery of poetics. She won the Pulitzer Prize for her 1949 volume Annie Allen. Langston Hughes commented that “the people and poems in Gwendolyn Brooks’ book [Annie Allen] are alive, reaching, and very much of today.”

    Labeling her own verses as “folksy narrative,” Brooks’s work combines free verse poems with strict forms, such as the sonnet. Throughout her life, Brooks published several books of poetry. In 1967, at the age of 50, Brooks’s work became tersely political, as she worked with other writers at Fisk University and published her volume In the Mecca. Though the social and political commentary of her poems (of this volume and in subsequent volumes) has power and rawness, the poems seek to address bitterness in society instead of being bitter themselves.

    A promoter of independent black publishers, Brooks was the first poet to read in Broadside’s Poet’s Theatre series. She also addressed international civil rights issues in her poetry, including the work of South African activist Winnie Mandela. While serving as Poet Laureate, Brooks visited schools, prisons, hospitals and drug rehabilitation centers often to share poetry. Her final volume was published in 1991 (Children Coming Home).

    –Christie Finn

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