Chicago Remembers Gwendolyn Brooks, the first African-American to win a Pulitzer
Chicago’s front yards, pool halls, bungalows and back alleys were the poetic landscapes in Gwendolyn Brooks’ words. She wrote about the people she passed on the streets or in grocery stores, colloquial experiences like the elderly couples eating beans off chipped dinnerware. Through her poetry, Brooks offered a precise and compassionate look into life in the city’s South Side.
“Her quote was ‘poetry is life distilled.’ She was doing a lot of distilling. She looked at things very carefully,” her daughter Nora Brooks Blakely says. “She observed well. She recorded life back to its livers.”
The poet would have turned 100 on June 7. Born in Topeka, Kan., Chicago was her adopted city, becoming both her home and inspiration. Seventeen years after her death, many here still fondly refer to her as “Our Miss Brooks.”
She opened for white America a window into African-American culture.
Brooks’ gift was giving voice to people whose voices were at best muffled, and at worst muzzled. She opened for white America a window into African-American culture. Her poems followed the advice she gave to many young writers over the years: “Tell the truth as you know it. Don’t try to force your poem to be nice or proper or normal and happy if it doesn’t want to be.”
“We Real Cool,” about a group of young men congregating in a pool hall, is one of the most anthologized American poems of all time. It begins with the lines, “We real cool/ We /left school.”
It ends, “We die soon.”
Words that still today, almost 60 years after the poem’s publication, fall hard as a tombstone.
Brooks’ poems about the urban scene of the 1950s, 60s and 70s remain as true today as when they were written. As a “devotee” of newspapers and television news, as Ms. Blakely describes her, she wrote another poem called “Patrick Bouie of Cabrini Green.” It eulogizes a young man shot and killed in the Cabrini Green high-rise housing project that once towered above Chicago’s near north side.
She calls Mr. Bouie “Our splendor/ Our creative spirit/ Our sparkling contribution … Our interrupted man.”
“When she talks about Patrick Bouie and uses the phrase ‘our interrupted man,’ that speaks to everything that is happening today, all these young men and women whose lives are interrupted. When you read that to a teenager today, it means something to them,” Ms. Blakely says.
Brooks was no stranger to personal hardship. Her family was frequently in danger of losing the house at 7424 S. Evans Avenue (now a Chicago landmark) that she and her husband, Henry Blakely, had purchased for $8,000. Mr. Blakely was also a poet who supported the family by working in a steel mill and later as an insurance adjuster.
Growing up, Ms. Blakely recalls, “I was eating far more beans and chicken wings than I would have liked. When my mother wrote about people in tight circumstances, she was living it.”
On the day Brooks won the Pulitzer, the electricity was off because she hadn’t been able to pay the bill. Reporters showed up the next day with their notebooks and cameras. “She didn’t want to tell the people who were coming that nothing was going to happen” when they plugged in, Blakely recalls, laughing. But by the time the camera crews had set up, the power had come back on.
“We don’t know whether somebody sitting up at Com Ed (Commonwealth Edison) saw the news about my mother and said, ‘Oh my God.’ Or someone who heard about it paid the bil,” Blakely says. “We never knew. It was one of life’s little miracles in the world.”
Brooks was a woman of firsts. She was the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize and the first black woman inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She served as a poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, a post now known as the U.S. Poet Laureate, and she was Illinois’ second poet laureate, following Carl Sandburg. It was a post she held for more than 30 years.
She was the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize.
But it wasn’t only the honors and accolades that distinguish Brooks’ legacy. “Her religion was kindness,” says her longtime friend, the Chicago poet and publisher Haki Madhubuti.
“It was her commitment to helping other people and being there for other people,” her daughter says. “There are stories of writers and artists she helped with a kind note, who said they put the note up on their walls and framed it. It might have been help with groceries, or a rent check. It was her willingness to go to readings and stay until every last person who wanted to talk to her had a chance to speak with her.”
Faith was important to her, but religion was not, Ms. Blakely says. “When called upon, she went to Metropolitan Community Church at my grandmother’s request. But she didn’t have a particular religious identity.”
Her kindness spilled over into her role as Illinois’ poet laureate. “When Governor Otto Kerner asked her to be poet laureate, one of the questions she asked was what are the responsibilities,” her daughter recalls. “And I always remember he told her that her responsibilities would be commensurate with her pay. And there was no pay.”
Having a title with no responsibility wasn’t Brooks’ way. One of her first acts was to create the Poet Laureate Award for students from elementary school through high school.
“She alone read the poems, she alone paid for the awards out of her own pocket,” Ms. Blakely says. “As a result, we have over 30 years of children’s writings from kindergarten to first grade that might not have existed if she did not have that award program.” Today, the annual Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Competition in Chicago for emerging poets draws hundreds of participants.
Brooks’ influence on later poets is immeasurable. She personally mentored Madhubuti and poet Nikki Giovanni. The African-American poets who followed her in winning the Pulitzer Prize—Rita Dove, Yusef Komunyakaa, Natasha Trethewey, Tracy K. Smith and Tyehimba Jess—have cited their debt to her work. The award-winning poet Cornelius Eady recalls reading Brooks’ “We Real Cool” as a teenager in Rochester, N.Y. “It was like sitting on the porch of my parent’s house and listening to my mother and aunts,” he says. It sparked in him the desire to write.
Throughout the month of June and beyond, Chicago will be celebrating Brooks’ body of work through lectures, readings, an exhibit of her personal papers (archived at the University of Illinois in Urbana) and a trolley tour of the sites around the city referenced in her poems. Her adopted city of Chicago is throwing its favored daughter an extended birthday bash.
Ms. Blakely says her mother continued to write pretty much until the day she died of cancer in 2000 at the age of 83. Brooks Permissions has issued a new collection called Seasons: A Gwendolyn Brooks Experience that contains a previously out-of-print poetry handbook she wrote for young writers, among other works. HarperCollins has published a children’s book called We Are Shining, based on a line from one of her poems.
Asked if she has a favorite among her mother’s poems, Ms. Blakely says her favorites change over time. Currently, she has been re-reading her mother’s poem, “Paul Robeson.” Its message, she says, speaks to a nation hampered by division, struggling to once again find its soul. Brooks writes:
We are each other’s
we are each other’s
we are each other’s
magnitude and bond.