Women’s History Month Notable Women Series: Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks, born in 1917, was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. She also was poetry consultant to the Library of Congress — the first black woman to hold that position — and selected to succeed Carl Sandburg as Poet Laureate of the State of Illinois.

gwendolyn-brooks

At age 13, she published her first poem in a children’s magazine, and by the time she was 16, she had published some 75 poems. She started going to poetry workshops, and in 1943 received her first award for her work.

Her first book, A Street in Bronzeville, was published in 1945 to wide acclaim. With her second book, Annie Allen (1950), she became the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Brooks’s work became more political as she got older, displaying what National Observer contributor Bruce Cook termed “an intense awareness of the problems of color and justice.”

She wrote in 1972:

“There is indeed a new black today. He is different from any the world has known. He’s a tall-walker. Almost firm. By many of his own brothers he is not understood. And he is understood by no white. Not the wise white; not the schooled white; not the kind white. Your least pre-requisite toward an understanding of the new black is an exceptional Doctorate which can be conferred only upon those with the proper properties of bitter birth and intrinsic sorrow. I know this is infuriating, especially to those professional Negro-understanders, some of them very kind, with special portfolio, special savvy. But I cannot say anything other, because nothing other is the truth.”

You can see a difference in tone between the following two poems, the first published in 1959, and the second in 1980:

We Real Cool (1959)

THE POOL PLAYERS.
SEVEN AT THE GOLDEN SHOVEL.

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.”

Primer For Blacks (1980)

Blackness
is a title,
is a preoccupation,
is a commitment Blacks
are to comprehend—
and in which you are
to perceive your Glory.

The conscious shout
of all that is white is
“It’s Great to be white.”
The conscious shout
of the slack in Black is
“It’s Great to be white.”
Thus all that is white
has white strength and yours.

The word Black
has geographic power,
pulls everybody in:
Blacks here—
Blacks there—
Blacks wherever they may be.
And remember, you Blacks, what they told you—
remember your Education:
“one Drop—one Drop
maketh a brand new Black.”
         Oh mighty Drop.
______And because they have given us kindly
so many more of our people

Blackness
stretches over the land.
Blackness—
the Black of it,
the rust-red of it,
the milk and cream of it,
the tan and yellow-tan of it,
the deep-brown middle-brown high-brown of it,
the “olive” and ochre of it—
Blackness
marches on.

The huge, the pungent object of our prime out-ride
is to Comprehend,
to salute and to Love the fact that we are Black,
which is our “ultimate Reality,”
which is the lone ground
from which our meaningful metamorphosis,
from which our prosperous staccato,
group or individual, can rise.

Self-shriveled Blacks.
Begin with gaunt and marvelous concession:
YOU are our costume and our fundamental bone.
      
All of you—
you COLORED ones,
you NEGRO ones,
those of you who proudly cry
“I’m half INDian”—
those of you who proudly screech
“I’VE got the blood of George WASHington in MY veins”
ALL of you—
you proper Blacks,
you half-Blacks,
you wish-I-weren’t Blacks,
Niggeroes and Niggerenes.

You.”

Brooks died of cancer at the age of 83 in 2000.

gwendolyn-brookss-quotes-2

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About rhapsodyinbooks

We're into reading, politics, and intellectual exchanges.
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4 Responses to Women’s History Month Notable Women Series: Gwendolyn Brooks

  1. Trisha says:

    I am not a fan of poetry, never have been. When I had to teach it, Brooks is one of the first poets I added to the curriculum.

  2. sagustocox says:

    She is/was a wonderful poet. Her range is spectacular. Thanks for highlighting her, especially so close to April!

  3. Trish says:

    I would love to hear Primer for Blacks read out loud. I bet it’s incredibly powerful! Sadly I’m not sure if I’ve read any of her poems before. Sad considering how many lit courses I’ve taken over the years. 😦

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