Today's Adventures in Feministory features Gwendolyn Brooks, a Chicagoan, prolific poetess, and the first black author to win the Pulitzer Prize for her 1949 collection, Annie Allen.
Though she was born in Topeka, Kansas, in 1917, Brooks was raised primarily in Chicago and considered herself a resident of the city her entire life. Her parents were quite supportive of her educational aspirations and her love of reading and writing. This early encouragement and her academic experiences as a teenager in the tumultuous racial climate of the city would have a profound effect on the dynamics of her writing and allowed her to come into contact with many different people and their worlds at a formulative time in her life.
Initially, Brooks attended Hyde Park High School, the leading white high school in Chicago. However, the eventually transferred to the all-black Wendell Phillips High, and would graduate from an integrated high school, Englewood. In 1936 she graduated from Wilson Junior College with a unique perspective on racial dynamics and almost 100 poems published in a column she penned for the Chicago Defender.
Brooks would take on many of the dynamics of black society in her works—the role of women ("The Mother"), the racism among blacks which she herself experienced many times as a result of her fairly dark skin ("Primer for Blacks"), the role of poverty in a community and its effects on those both within and without ("The Lovers of the Poor"). If you follow these links to The Poetry Foundation, you can explore many more of Brooks's poems available there.
Brooks is credited with bridging many gaps of audience in both the academic and poetic world. She lived through decades of sweeping social change, and managed to write poetry which was appealing both to the literary circles of the 1940s and her more radical readers of the 1960s.
She was recognized for her contributions numerous times, reading at the Library of Congress Poetry Festival in 1962 after an invitation from President Kennedy, serving as Poet Laureate for the state of Illinois in 1968 and acting as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 1985-86. Brooks died at her home in Chicago on December 3, 2000, but her words live on in their power and relevance even today.
So, in honor of the ideals of Black History month and women everywhere who are brave enough to write their minds, a humble suggestion: take a couple of moments today to bring Brook's voice to life. Read one of her poems out loud—to your dinner table, to your friend, to your cat, to yourself.