Gwendolyn Brooks By: darien allegree

Gwendolyn Brooks was a poet, author, and teacher. She was the recipient of many awards for her work and influence; including the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry on May 1, 1950, making her the first African American woman to receive this award. Throughout her career she was honored many more awards. She was appointed poet laureate of Illinois in 1968, a position held until she had passed away at the age of 83. She was born in Topeka, Kansas on June 7, 1917 and had passed away on December 3, 2000 in Chicago, Illinois. She was the first child of David Anderson Brooks and Keziah (Wims) Brooks. Her father was a janitor for a music company who had hoped to pursue a career as a doctor but sacrificed that aspiration to get married and raise a family. Her mother was a school teacher as well as a concert pianist trained in classical music. Family lore held that her paternal grandfather had escaped slavery to join the Union forces during the American Civil War. Brooks began writing at an early age and her mother encouraged her saying, ''You are going to be the lady Paul Laurence Dunbar." Brooks published her first poem, "Eventide", in a children's magazine, American Childhood, when she was 13 years old. By the age of sixteen she had already written and published approximately seventy-five poems. She received commendations on her poetic work and encouragement from James Weldon Johnson and later, Langston Hughes, both well-known writers with whom she kept communication with and whose readings she attended in Chicago. At seventeen, she started submitting her work to "Lights and Shadows," the poetry column of the Chicago Defender, an African-American newspaper. Her poems, many published while she attended Wilson Junior College, ranged in style from traditional ballads and sonnets to poems using blues rhythms in free verse. Her characters were often drawn from the inner city life that Brooks knew well. She said, "I lived in a small second-floor apartment at the corner, and I could look first on one side and then the other. There was my material." In 1953, Brooks published her first and only narrative book, a novella titled Maud Martha, which in a series of thirty-four small vignettes, follows the life of a black woman named Maud Martha in detail as she moved about life from childhood to adulthood. It tells the story of "a woman with doubts about herself and where and how she fits into the world. Maud's concern is not so much that she is inferior but that she is perceived as being ugly," states author Harry B. Shaw in his book, Gwendolyn Brooks. Maud suffers prejudice and discrimination not only from white individuals but also from black individuals who have lighter skin tones than hers, something that is direct reference to Brooks' personal experience. Eventually, Maud stands up for herself by turning her back on a patronizing and racist store clerk. "The book is ... about the triumph of the lowly," Shaw comments. Brooks said her first teaching experience was at the University of Chicago when she was invited by author Frank London Brown to teach a course in American literature. It was the beginning of her lifelong commitment to sharing poetry and teaching writing. On May 1, 1996, Brooks returned to her birthplace of Topeka, Kansas. She gave the keynote speech for the Third Annual Kaw Valley Girl Scout Council's "Women of Distinction Banquet and String of Pearls Auction." In 1939, Brooks married Henry Lowington Blakely, Jr. They had two children: Henry Lowington Blakely III, born on October 10, 1940; and Nora Blakely, born in 1951. From mid-1961 to late-1964, Henry III served in the U.S. Marine Corps, first at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego and then at Marine Corps Air Station Kaneohe Bay. During this time, Brooks mentored his fiancée, Kathleen Hardiman, today known as anthropologist Kathleen Rand Reed, in writing poetry. Upon his return, Blakely and Hardiman married in 1965. Brooks had so enjoyed the mentoring relationship that she began to engage more frequently in that role with the new generation of young black poets. In the year 1990, her works were given a permanent home when Chicago State University established the Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Black Literature and Creative Writing on campus. On her eightieth birthday, in 1997, Brooks was honored with tributes from Chicago to Washington, D.C. Gwendolyn Brooks died of cancer at her Chicago home on December 3, 2000.


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