Happy Black History Month! This is the tenth blog of a series of blogs called “Black History Month Heroes You Should Know”. This series will be a collection of my research into little-known Black Americans who have made history in one way or another (or multiple ways!).
The focus of today’s blog is Gwendolyn Brooks, named the poet laureate of Illinois in 1968. On top of being one of the most revered poets of the 20th century, she was also the first Black poet to receive a Pulitzer Prize.
This is her story.
Passionate for Writing Early
According to poetryfoundation.org, right after being born in Topeka, Kansas, Gwendolyn Brooks and her two parents moved north to Chicago during the Great Migration of 1917. Her mother worked as a schoolteacher and her father as a janitor for a music company. Early on, Brooks found a great passion for reading and writing, a passion her parents happily supported. She published her first poem called “Eventide” in American Childhood at age 13.
Start of Career Publishing in The Chicago Defender
By age 17, Brooks had several works published in Robert Abbott’s The Chicago Defender. In 1936, she graduated from Wilson Junior College. Shortly after, she landed a job with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) which gave her time to work on her writings. In 1945, her first collection of poems called A Street In Bronzeville focused on detailing the urban Black experience. This collection of poems is known for showcasing her talent as a writer, as it makes everyday life seem extraordinary.
Annie Allen Wins Brooks a Pulitzer
In 1945, Brooks published the collection she is most known for: Annie Allen. The collection focuses on the story of a young Black girl growing up into adulthood. Critics as well as the rest of the writing community lauded Brooks on the collection. Langston Hughes even wrote, “the people and poems in Gwendolyn Brooks’ book are alive, reaching, and very much of today” (poetryfoundation.org). Brooks received the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for her work and she kept writing.
Brooks’s Writing Takes on Politics
Over the next three decades, Brooks wrote many collections and novels including Maud Martha (1953), The Bean Eaters (1960), Selected Poems (1963), In The Mecca (1968), Riot (1969), Family Pictures (1970), Aloneness (1971), Aurora (1972), Beckonings (1975), and Report from Part One (1972). Within these collections, Brooks wrote about racial injustices and poverty among other things. In the 1970s, she chose to leave her current publisher, Harper & Row, to join a Black-owned publishing company called Broadside Press.
Poetry Consultant for the Library of Congress
After over 50 years of writing, Brooks worked for the Library of Congress as a poetry consultant, making her the first Black woman to hold the position. The role allowed her to give back to the community. She visited schools, drug rehabilitation centers, prisons, hospitals, and universities to talk and read poetry. In 1990, she became an English professor at Chicago State University until she passed in 2000. Read more about Gwendolyn Brooks here and here.
Read another article from the “Black History Month Heroes You Should Know” blog series here.