Gwendolyn Brooks, 1917–2000
Gwendolyn Brooks was a highly regarded, much-honored poet, with the distinction of being the first black author to win the Pulitzer Prize. She also was poetry consultant to the Library of Congress—the first black woman to hold that position—and poet laureate of the State of Illinois. Many of Brooks’s works display a political consciousness, especially those from the 1960s and later, with several of her poems reflecting the civil rights activism of that period. Her body of work gave her, according to Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor George E. Kent, “a unique position in American letters. Not only has she combined a strong commitment to racial identity and equality with a mastery of poetic techniques, but she has also managed to bridge the gap between the academic poets of her generation in the 1940s and the young black militant writers of the 1960s.”
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 classically trained pianist. They were supportive of their daughter’s passion for reading and writing. Brooks was thirteen when her first published poem, “Eventide,” appeared in American Childhood; by the time she was seventeen she was publishing poems frequently in the Chicago Defender, a newspaper serving Chicago’s black population. After such formative experiences as attending junior college and working for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, she developed her craft in poetry workshops and began writing the poems, focusing on urban blacks, that would be published in her first collection, A Street in Bronzeville.
Her poems in A Street in Bronzeville and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Annie Allen were “devoted to small, carefully cerebrated, terse portraits of the Black urban poor,” commented Richard K. Barksdale in Modern Black Poets: A Collection of Critical Essays. Brooks once described her style as “folksy narrative,” but she varied her forms, using free verse, sonnets, and other models. Several critics welcomed Brooks as a new voice in poetry; fellow poet Rolfe Humphries wrote in the New York Times Book Review that “we have, in A Street in Bronzeville, a good book and a real poet,” while Saturday Review of Literature contributor Starr Nelson called that volume “a work of art and a poignant social document.” In Annie Allen, which follows the experiences of a black girl as she grows into adulthood, Brooks deals further with social issues, especially the role of women, and experimented with her poetry, with one section of the book being an epic poem, “The Anniad”—a play on The Aeneid. Langston Hughes, in a review of Annie Allen for Voices, remarked that “the people and poems in Gwendolyn Brooks’ book are alive, reaching, and very much of today.”
In the 1950s Brooks published her first and only novel, Maud Martha, which details a black woman’s life in short vignettes. It is “a story of a woman with doubts about herself and where and how she fits into the world. Maud’s concern is not so much that she is inferior but that she is perceived as being ugly,” related Harry B. Shaw in Gwendolyn Brooks. Maud suffers prejudice not only from whites but also from blacks who have lighter skin than hers, something that mirrors Brooks’s experience. Eventually, Maud takes a stand for her own dignity by turning her back on a patronizing, racist store clerk. “The book is . . . about the triumph of the lowly,” commented Shaw. “Brooks shows what they go through and exposes the shallowness of the popular, beautiful white people with ‘good’ hair. One way of looking at the book, then, is as a war with . . . people’s concepts of beauty.” Its other themes, Shaw added, include “the importance of spiritual and physical death,” disillusionment with a marriage that amounts to “a step down” in living conditions, and the discovery “that even through disillusionment and spiritual death life will prevail.”