Gwendolyn Brooks 1917-2000
In Remembering Gwen, Nikki Giovanni tells an anecdote about Soul! TV host Ellis Haizlip’s reticence to meet Gwendolyn Brooks unaccompanied. “She has an afro. She works with that gang the Blackstone Rangers. She is dangerous,” he said, imploring her to join him. Giovanni retorted: “Don’t be silly. She is a little old lady who will adore you.” Nevertheless, Giovanni accompanied Haizlip who wanted Brooks to appear on Soul! For reasons of logistics, she did not appear on the show.
Soon after her birth in Topeka, Kansas on June 7, 1917, Gwendolyn Brooks’ family moved to Champlain Ave. in Chicago. Her father was a janitor who had intended to be a doctor. Her mother was a school teacher. Gwendolyn’s interest in poetry began early. She grew up in a home that had all of [Paul Laurence Dunbar’s] books, she told an interviewer in 1997. In the same interview, she says that when growing up, her father used to recite [Dunbar’s] works to my brother and myself. By eleven years of age, four of her own poems were published in The Hyde Parker, the local newspaper.
She graduated from Wilson Junior College during the depression in 1936. After brief stints working as domestic help and as a secretary, at the age of twenty, she became the publicity director of the Youth Council of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
She had two children with the poet Henry L. Blakely whom she married in 1939. With her husband, she attended a modern poetry workshop sponsored by a reader for Poetry magazine, and in 1945 Harper & Rowe published her first book of poetry, ” A Street in Bronzeville.” She wrote of economically disenfranchised urban blacks, an interest and focus she maintained throughout her life.
In 1950 she became the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize for “Annie Allen,” which was published in 1949.
She enlarged her focus from the lives of ordinary black people, to include heroes of the civil rights movement in her fifth volume of poetry, “The Bean Eaters” published in 1960. Included in this work is a poem about the 1957 lynching of Emmett Till.
Poem: The Blackstone Rangers
April 15, 2007 NPR broadcast of excerpts of Gwendolyn Brooks on Henry Lyman’s public radio program Poems to a Listener which was broadcast in Amherst, Mass.
Selected Poems Gwendolyn Brooks , Haprper Perenial Modern Classics 2006,
Remembering Gwen printed in above
1. May 1969 article in the Atlantic about Blackstone Rangers: