“I could not have told you then that some sun
somewhere over the road,
would come evoking the diamonds
of you, the Black continent–
somewhere over the road.
You would not have believed my mouth.”
The above stanza echoes, poet and author Gwendolyn Brooks’ confidence in the potential of African-Americans. In 1950, Brooks was the first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize. Brooks did more than illuminate the Black experience; she transcended racial boundaries, paving the way for transformative Black figures that would come after her.
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Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks was born in Topeka, Kansas on June 7, 1917. Six weeks later, her parents, David and Keziah Brooks, moved to Chicago, Illinois. As a teen, attending a leading white high school, Brooks was no stranger to racism and prejudice. She transferred from the all-black Wendell Phillips to the integrated Englewood High School. She graduated from Wilson Junior College in 1936. Brooks developed profound insight on racial dynamics, which later influenced her work.
At 13, Brooks’ first poem, “Eventide,” debuted in the American Childhood Magazine. By 16, the shy Brooks had compiled 75 published pieces. As a teen, she met two of Harlem Renaissances iconic poets, Langston Hughes and James W. Johnson, who encouraged her to read modern poetry extensively.
In 1945, Brooks won critical praise for her first published book of poetry in, “A Street in Bronzeville.” By the end of the decade, she had become a Guggenheim Fellow, and in 1950, Brooks became the first African-American to win the Pulizer Prize, for her book “Annie Allen.”
In 1962, John F. Kennedy invited Brooks to read at the Library of Congress poetry festival, she later began teaching creative writing at several notable institutions.
1967 marked a pivotal change in Brooks career; she attended a Black Writers’ Conference at Fisk University, where she said she rediscovered her Blackness. This consciousness is notably portrayed in “In The Mecca,” a long poem about a mother’s desperate search for her missing child in a Chicago housing project.
Gwendolyn Brooks was made poet laureate of Illinois in 1968, a title that she held until her death, of cancer, on December 3rd 2000, at age 83. Brooks’ resilience lives on far beyond Chicago’s South Side. Whether it was via ballads and sonnets or blues and rhythms in free verse, the poet’s words reverberate loudly. She once said that in order to create “bigness” one doesn’t have to create an epic. “Bigness,” Brooks proclaimed, “Can be found in a little haiku, five syllables, seven syllables.”