Extraordinary Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks

Herb Boyd | 11/13/2014, 2:30 p.m.
In the African-American literary canon, Phillis Wheatley, Zora Neale Hurston, Ann Petry, Maya Angelou, Mari Evans, Audre Lorde, Nikki Giovanni, ...
Gwendolyn Brooks: A master of poetic verse

In the African-American literary canon, Phillis Wheatley, Zora Neale Hurston, Ann Petry, Maya Angelou, Mari Evans, Audre Lorde, Nikki Giovanni, Alice Walker and Sonia Sanchez—to name a few illustrious Black women writers—have carved an everlasting niche in our collective memory. Far too often, Gwendolyn Brooks is omitted from this roster of acclaim, and in so many ways, she belongs near the top, if no more for the breakthroughs she accomplished in awards, prestige and the style and insight of her poetry.

Renowned poet Haki Madhubuti never fails to invoke her name and legacy in his lectures and books, forever grateful to the influence she has had on his artistic vision and output. Brooks’ output was phenomenal, and it’s just as hard to single out one of her most impressive poems as it is to cite which of the awards or commendations attest to the height of her achievements.

In her poem “Malcolm X,” dedicated to Dudley Randall, himself a poet and the founder of Broadside Press in Detroit, Brooks wrote, “He had the hawk-man’s eyes. We gasped. We saw the maleness/The maleness raking out and making guttural the air/And pushing us to the walls/And in a soft and fundamental hour/a sorcery devout and vertical/beguiled the world.”

Beguiling too was her poetry, which reached an early pinnacle in 1945 with her first book of poetry, “A Street in Bronzeville.” It was an auspicious arrival, one in which she was noted and lauded in Mademoiselle magazine. Four years later in 1949, she published her second book of poetry, “Annie Allen,” which would earn her the Pulitizer Prize in 1950, Brooks becoming the first African-American recipient of the award.

Accumulating awards would be the least of concerns for Brooks, who was born June 7, 1917, in Topeka, Kan. At 13, she published her first poem, and by her teen years, her poems appeared regularly in the Chicago Defender. One of the first jobs she secured after graduating from Englewood High School and Wilson Junior College was as a publicity director for Chicago’s NAACP Youth Council. She was only a few years from her youth in 1939, when she married Henry Lowington Blakely. They had two children. It was during this period that she began to think seriously about her poetry and took writing classes with Inez Cunningham Stark.

Urban life and the struggle of average Black Americans to overcome poverty, adversity and discrimination were often the themes of her poetry, and through her characters in her only novel, “Maud Martha,” the ghetto is realized in several rewarding dimensions.

There followed a succession of books, and by 1968, she began to focus her themes and subjects within the context of Black Nationalism, a change that occurred from the political protests of young militants during that era. Her book “In the Mecca,” which was nominated for a National Book Award, captured this new orientation with all the fervor of revolution and outrage against oppression. Her appointment to be the poet laureate of Illinois in 1968 did not dampen her social and cultural demands for justice and the end of racism in America.