Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks was an American poet, author, and teacher who won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry on May 1, 1950, for Annie Allen, making her the first African American to receive a Pulitzer Prize.

Gwendolyn Brooks

Date of birth: 7th June 1917

Place of birth: Kansas, USA

Achievement: First American African to receive a Pulitzer Prize.

Brooks was born in Topeka, Kansas, but her family moved to Chicago when she was young. Her father was a janitor who had hoped to become a doctor; her mother was a schoolteacher and a classically trained pianist; both supported their daughter’s passion for reading and writing. Brooks was 13 when she published her first poem, “Eventide,” in American Childhood; by the time she was 17, she was publishing poems frequently in the Chicago Defender. After attending junior college and working for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), she developed her craft in poetry workshops and completed her first collection, A Street in Bronzeville (Harper & Brothers, 1945).

In the 1950s, Brooks published her only novel, Maud Martha (Harper & Brothers, 1953), which details its title character’s life in short vignettes. Maud suffers prejudice not only from white people but also from lighter-skinned African Americans, something that mirrored Brooks’s experience. 

Her later work took on politics more overtly, displaying what National Observer contributor Bruce Cook termed “an intense awareness of the problems of colour and justice.”

This shift or change is often attributed to Brooks’s attendance at a gathering of Black writers at Fisk University in 1967; however, more recently, scholars such as Evie Shockley and Cheryl Clarke challenge the idea that Brooks’s career can be so neatly divided. Clarke, for example, described In the Mecca as Brooks’s “final seminar on the Western lyric.” Brooks herself noted this shift as quoted in The New York Times: “Those young black writers seemed so proud and committed to their own people. The poets among them felt that black poets should write as blacks, about blacks, and address themselves to blacks.” 

She later wrote, “If it hadn’t been for these young people, these young writers who influenced me, I wouldn’t know what I know about this society. By associating with them I know who I am.” From that time forward, Brooks thought of herself as an African determined not to compromise social comment for the sake of technical proficiency.

As a result of the wide recognition of her service and achievements, several schools were named for her, and she was similarly honored in 1970 by the founding of Western Illinois University’s Gwendolyn Brooks Cultural Center. In 2017, the centenary of Brooks’s birth was celebrated at the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where her papers are held. “Brooks Day” is celebrated annually in her hometown of Chicago.

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