Gwendolyn Brooks

On this day in history, Gwendolyn Brooks, author of more than 20 books of poetry and who  published her first poem in a children’s magazine at age 13, was born in 1917 in Topeka, Kansas. Growing up in Chicago, she attended four different high schools, including the city’s elite all-white high school as well as an all-Black institution, and graduating from the integrated Englewood High School.

By 1941, Brooks was taking part in poetry workshops with a highlight on one organized by Inez Cunningham Stark, an affluent white woman with a strong literary background. Stark offered writing workshops to African-Americans on Chicago’s South Side. It was there she found her voice and a deeper knowledge of the techniques of her predecessors. Renowned poet Langston Hughes stopped by the workshop and heard Brooks read “The Ballad of Pearl May Lee.” Brooks began to grow in the literary community of artists and writers around her as her poetry began to be taken more seriously. She and her husband frequently threw parties at their apartment including one for her friend and mentor Langston Hughes. Once he unexpectedly dropped in and famously shared a meal of mustard greens, ham hocks, and candied sweet potatoes with Brooks and her husband Henry Blakely.

Brooks’ collection of different surroundings moving from school to school played a big role in her work which frequently offered a commentary on race and class. Brooks received critical acclaim for her first book of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville, published in 1945 introduced a group of characters in a segregated urban area unknown to many in America’s reading public but closely resembling Chicago’s South Side. She also was named one of Mademoiselle magazine’s “Ten Young Women of the Year,” won a Guggenheim Fellowship and became an American Academy of Arts and Letters fellow. On September 27, 1950, she received the most coveted award of all,  the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, for her second volume, Annie Allen. She was the first African-American and one of few women to receive the honor.

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