We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
a tribute by: Rita Dove, Poet Laureate of the United States
How does one begin to convey the influence Gwendolyn Brooks has had on generations-not only writers, but people from all walks of life? How can one describe the fiercely personal connection her poems make, how chronicle her enormous impact on recent literary, social, and political history?
There is a tradition in the black church: we call it Testifying. It is the brave and humbling act of standing up among one’s family, friends, and neighbors to bare one’s soul, and to bear witness by acknowledging those who have sustained and nurtured the testifier along the way.
Here, then, is my testimonial honoring Gwendolyn Brooks:
Standing in front of this literary congregation as a grown woman, a woman who has entered her 40s, I feel very strange thinking that when Gwendolyn Brooks was awarded the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for “Annie Allen,” her second collection of poems, I was not even, as people used to say then, “a twinkle in my daddy’s eye.”
I was born two years after Gwendolyn Brooks, as the first Black writer ever, had received this highest honor in American letters. And it wasn’t until 17 years later, when as a gawky adolescent I spent the whole of a muggy midwestern summer combing the local library shelves for something that might speak to me-that the poems of Gwendolyn Brooks leapt off the pages of the book in my hands and struck me like a thunderbolt. These were words that spoke straight from the turbulent center of life-words that nourished like meat, not frosting. Yes, I was struck by these poems, poems with muscle and sinew, poems that weren’t afraid to take the language and revamp it, twist it and energize it so that it shimmied and dashed and lingered.
From that summer on I read everything by Gwendolyn Brooks that I could get my hands on: First I went back to her early books, “A street in Bronzeville” (1945) and the Pulitzer volume “Annie Allen;” then there was “Selected Poems,” which came out in 1963, followed by “In the Mecca: poems in 1968” and “Riot,” published in 1969, the same year she was selected to succeed Carl Sandburg as Poet Laureate of the State of Illinois, a position she still holds. And most recently I admired her “The NearJohannesburg Boy and Other Poems” (1986) and “Blacks,” collected poems, published by the Third World Press in 1987.
Gwendolyn Brooks also ventured successfully into prose. “Maud Martha,” her moving novel, came out in 1953. The autobiographical remembrances and reflections “Report from Part One” and “The World of Gwendolyn Brooks” were both published in 1972, and in 1980 “Primer for Blacks” appeared. But Gwendolyn Brooks not only spoke loud and clearly through her books; she made herself heard on numerous disc recordings, in trenchant interviews and through books about her life and creative work. Honors for her outstanding achievements include, besides the Pulitzer Prize and poet laureate position, grants and awards from the likes of the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Institute of Arts and Letters.
As someone who, as a Black child, was educated in a literary tradition that seemed to have little use for my existence except as a caricature or in servitude and who, as a young person, came of age in a society where the discourse of the melting pot effectively translated into: “Disappear into the mainstream or Else,” I know that Gwendolyn Brooks was among the few who gave me the courage to insist on my own story. And though I never dreamed of following in her footsteps as far as the Pulitzer Prize, her shining example opened up new possibilities for me and generations of younger artists.
Thank you, Gwendolyn, for your invaluable contributions to changing the face of our world.
The African American poet Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks was born June 7, 1917, to Keziah and David Brooks in Topeka, Kansas. Later that year the Brooks family moved to Chicago, where her two siblings were born. Brooks’ mother discovered Gwendolyn’s gift for writing when she was seven. She promptly encouraged this talent by exposing the girl to various forms of literature. Her parents, however were very strict and she was not allowed to play with the kids in the neighborhood. As a child she lacked the sass and brass of the other girls in her class and became very isolated. As a result, she made few friends while in school. When Brooks was at home in her room she often created a world of her own by reading and writing stories and poetry. Due to her lack of social skills she became very shy and continued to be shy throughout her adult life. After graduating from high school she went on to Wilson Junior College and graduated in 1936. Her early verses appeared in the Chicago Defender, a newspaper written primarily for the black community of Chicago. In 1939 she was married to Henry Blakely and they had two children, Henry junior and Nora Blakely. In 1945 Gwendolyn Brooks’ first book entitled A Street In Bronzeville was published. In 1949 Annie Allen (a loosely-connected series of poems related to a black girl’s growing up in Chicago) was published and received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1950, becoming the first African American to receive this prestigious award in poetry. In 1953 Brooks’ first novel is published Maud Martha. In 1963 she published Selected Poems and secured her first teaching job at Chicago’s Columbia College. In 1967 at the Fisk University Writers Conference in Nashville, Brooks met the new black revolution. She came from South Dakota State College, which was all white, where she was received with love. Now she had arrived at an all black college where she was now coldly respected. After this trip Brooks says that she is no longer asleep she is now awake. After 1967 she became aware that other blacks feel that way and are not hesitant about saying it. She appeals to her people for understanding and is more conscious of them in her writing. In 1968 she published her next major collection of poetry, In the Mecca. The effect of her awakening is noticeable in her poetry. Brooks is less concerned with poetic form, and uses mostly free verse. In 1968 she was named poet laureate for the state of Illinois and was also the first African American to receive an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in 1976. Since then, Gwendolyn Brooks has gone on to receive over fifty honorary doctorates from numerous colleges and universities. She has received two Guggenheim Fellowships and has served as Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress. In 1990 she became professor of English at Chicago State University. Ms. Brooks died at the age of 83 Sunday December 3, 2000.
(Note: I felt deeply honored just knowing that for 8 years, I lived and breathed in the same city, Chicago, as the grand Ms. Brooks and was heartbroken when she died)