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Life Sketch of Gwendolyn Brooks

Life sketches of poets and other writers afford readers a glimpse into the writing process, backgrounding the creativity of each artist.

Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks

Life Sketch of Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks forged an amazing career as a woman of letters, penning some of the finest poems in the American literary canon.

Early Life

Gwendolyn Brooks was born June 7, 1917, in Topeka, Kansas, to David and Keziah Brooks. Her family relocated to Chicago shortly after she was born. Brooks attended three different Chichago high schools: Englewood, Hyde Park, and Wendell Phillips.

In 1936, she graduated from Wilson Junior College (renamed as Kennedy-King College in 1969) with an associates degree.

In 1930, at age thirteen, Gwendolyn published her first poem, "Eventide," in American Childhood Magazine. Her love for and dedication to poetry was so intense that her mother would encourage her daughter’s future in letters by telling Gwendolyn that she was going “to be the lady Paul Laurence Dunbar.”

Brooks continued to study poetry and to compose verse. In 1938, Gwendolyn married Henry Blakely. The couple had two children, Henry, Jr, in 1940 and Nora in 1951.

Living on the Southside of Chicago afforded her the opportunity to engage with writers associated with Harriet Monroe's magazine, Poetry, which remains one of the most prestigious magazines in American poetry.

Gwendolyn Brooks had the good fortune to associate some of the biggest names in the literary world. She was influenced by some of the best, for example, James Weldon Johnson, with whom she corresponded throughout her teen years and who encouraged her to read T. S. Eliot, E. E. Cummings, and Ezra Pound.

She became friends with Langston Hughes, and Claude McKay attended her book celebration party after the publication of her first book.

A Literary Life

In 1945, Gwendolyn Brooks’ first books of poems, A Street in Bronzeville, appeared, brought out by Harper and Row. Her second book, Annie Allen, won the Eunice Tiejens Prize, offered by the Poetry Foundation, the publisher of Poetry Magazine.

In addition to poetry, Gwendolyn penned a novel, Maud Martha, in the early 1950s. She completed two autobiographies, Report from Part One in1972 and Report from Part Two in 1995.

Brooks went on to win numerous awards and fellowships including the Guggenheim Prize and the Academy of American Poets Award.

Brooks was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1950, becoming the first black woman to win that once prestigious award. In 1963, she began conducting poetry workshops at Chicago's Columbia College.

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She also conducted workshops in poetry writing at Columbia University, the University of Wisconsin, Northeastern Illinois University, and Elmhurst College.

Brooks and her husband enjoyed an active social life in Chicago. In her first autobiography, Report From Part One, she describes her social scene:

My husband and I knew writers, knew painters, knew pianists and dancers and actresses, knew photographers galore.

There were always weekend parties to be attended where we merry Bronzevillians could find each other and earnestly philosophize sometimes on into the dawn, over martinis and Scotch and coffee and an ample buffet. Great social decisions were reached. Great solutions for great problems were provided. . . .

Of course, in that time, it was believed, still, that the society could be prettied, quieted, cradled, sweetened, if only people talked enough, glared at each other yearningly enough, waited enough.

After the publication of her first book, A Street in Bronzeville, the noted poet Paul Engle reviewed the collection for the Chicago Tribune, remarking, "The publication of A Street in Bronzeville is an exceptional event in the literary life of Chicago, for it is the first book of a solidly Chicago person.” He noted that she was young but still a "permanent talent."

Many of Brooks’ most anthologized poems come from her collection, A Street in Bronzeville. About living and writing on the South Side of Chicago, Brooks has remarked, "If you wanted a poem, you only had to look out of a window.

There was material always, walking or running, fighting or screaming or singing."

She took from her urban environment much material for the subjects of her poems, as she experimented with verses about front yards ("a song in the front yard"), vacant lots ("the vacant lot"), and bars ("Gay Chaps at the Bar").

She offers a major experimental piece with "the sonnet-ballad" which audaciously compresses a ballad narrative into the famous fourteen-line form.

Brooks on the Exclusionary Term, "African American"

Regarding the phrase, African American, Brooks has opined,

I don't like the term African American. It is very excluding. I like to think of Blacks as family, and the parts of that family that live in Brazil or Haiti or France or England are not going to allow you to call them African American because they are not.

Brooks’ works offer the genuine experience of a human being who happens to be black. Instead of playing identity politics, she focuses on real life experiences. Individual life experience becomes universal when focused with love, attention, honesty, and empathy.

Brooks has always considered herself an "organic Chicagoan." She has asserted that she wanted to report her own experience and to record that experience openly and honestly. By remaining open and honest, she has created a body of work that becomes classic, thus enduring.

She explained that her writing process was to go "inside [herself]" and to bring forth what she feels, write it down, give it a good looking over, and "pull out all the clichés." She claimed rightly, therefore, that she worked that way and she worked hard at her craft.

Death and Funeral

At the age of 83, Brooks died of cancer on December 3, 2000. Surrounded by loved ones, she passed away quietly at her Southside Chicago home, where she had resided for most of her life. A severe snowstorm blanketed the landscape on the day of Brooks’ funeral.

But many people from all over the country still traveled to celebrate the life of this fine poet. The renowned jazz-singer, poet, and activist, Oscar Brown, Jr., celebrated her life by singing the song, "Elegy," which is a musical rendition of Brooks’ poem, “of DeWitt Williams on his way to Lincoln Cemetery.”

Many heartfelt memorial tributes to Gwendolyn express the love, admiration, gratitude, and respect her readers have for her. The following tribute exemplifies the glowing praise afforded this fine poet:

What manner of woman was she? Gwendolyn Brooks was our teacher and friend. She loved and celebrated black people and black life, and she taught us that it was all right and necessary to love our black selves. She was a lover of humanity. I thank God for her example, for her service, for her body of work that will continue to energize, inspire, and guide us.

I will miss Miss Brooks.

Annie Perkins
December 20, 2000 | Norfolk, VA

Gwendolyn Brooks is interred at Lincoln Cemetery in Blue Island, Illinois.

Sources

Grave Marker of the Poet

Grave Marker of the Poet

Sample Poem: "a song in the front yard"

Gwendolyn Brooks’ speaker in "a song in the front yard" from her first published collection, A Street in Bronzeville, offers a fascinating glimpse into the mind of an innocent, sheltered young girl, who becomes enamored of the "bad" kids and who wants to experience a side of life from which her mother would protect her.

This poem offers a sample of the poet's style as well as an example of the type of subjects and themes she explores.

a song in the front yard

I’ve stayed in the front yard all my life.
I want a peek at the back
Where it’s rough and untended and hungry weed grows.
A girl gets sick of a rose.

I want to go in the back yard now
And maybe down the alley,
To where the charity children play.
I want a good time today.

They do some wonderful things.
They have some wonderful fun.
My mother sneers, but I say it’s fine
How they don’t have to go in at quarter to nine.
My mother, she tells me that Johnnie Mae
Will grow up to be a bad woman.
That George’ll be taken to Jail soon or late
(On account of last winter he sold our back gate).

But I say it’s fine. Honest, I do.
And I’d like to be a bad woman, too,
And wear the brave stockings of night-black lace
And strut down the streets with paint on my face.

Recitation of Brooks' "a song in the front year"

Commentary on "a song in the front year"

A young girl laments that her mother wants to keep her from having fun.

First Movement: A Front Yard Metaphor

I’ve stayed in the front yard all my life.
I want a peek at the back
Where it’s rough and untended and hungry weed grows.
A girl gets sick of a rose.

The speaker metaphorically compares her sheltered life to being kept "in the front yard all [her] life." She announces that she hankers to see what is going on in the back yard. She describes the back of her dwelling as "rough and untended" where "hungry weed grows."

The girl has decided that she is "sick of a rose," which continues her metaphor complaining that she has grown tired of everything "good," implying she is ready to experience some "bad."

Second Movement: Hankering After the Seamy Side of Life

I want to go in the back yard now
And maybe down the alley,
To where the charity children play.
I want a good time today.

This girl insists that she desires to get involved in the not-so-pleasant aspects of life, and she is ready "now." She wants to go to the back yard and "maybe down the alley." She yearns to go where the "charity children play," and she associates those unfortunates with "a good time," which she yearns to experience "today."

Third Movement: Warnings to Youth

They do some wonderful things.
They have some wonderful fun.
My mother sneers, but I say it’s fine
How they don’t have to go in at quarter to nine.
My mother, she tells me that Johnnie Mae
Will grow up to be a bad woman.
That George’ll be taken to Jail soon or late
(On account of last winter he sold our back gate).

The girl asserts that those "charity children "do some wonderful things," and thus they also have "some wonderful fun." Her mother takes a different view of those characters with whom her daughter yearns to associate.

Her mother "sneers" at her daughter’s new desires. But the daughter insists that she, unlike her mother who has given the girl a curfew, thinks "it’s fine / How they don’t have to go in at quarter to nine."

The mother has warned her daughter that one of the young rough girls, Johnnie

Mae, will turn out unsavory, and the rough girl will likely "grow up to be a bad woman." And a young man, George, the mother believes will end up in jail because he stole their back yard gate and sold it.

Fourth Movement: A Challenging Attitude

But I say it’s fine. Honest, I do.
And I’d like to be a bad woman, too,
And wear the brave stockings of night-black lace
And strut down the streets with paint on my face.

Unfortunately, for the mother, the young girl’s attitude will remain a challenge because the daughter thinks the activities of those young thugs are "fine." The daughter emphasizes her belief, insisting, "Honest, I do."

The daughter/speaker then adds words to strike fear and sadness in the hearts of mothers and fathers: she claims she would like "to be a bad woman." She wants to prance down the streets with her face full of make-up in "stockings of night-black lace."

The Frightening Delusion of Youth

Brooks’ poem dramatizes a profound split between the mother who would protect her daughter from the dark side of life and the daughter who is intrigued by that side and hankers to take part in it.

This deceptively simple poem offers a clear yet frightening glimpse into the delusion of youth. Brooks has fashioned a little drama that speaks to the experience of most parents with young daughters whose delusion presents a great challenge to good parenting.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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