Gwendolyn Brooks; first African American Pulitzer Prize winner
In celebration of Black History Month, the Runnels County Register will run weekly articles on influential and accomplished Black people in the United States, as well as throughout the world.
Gwendolyn Brooks was the first African American Pulitzer Prize winner when she was awarded the coveted prize on May 1, 1950. Brooks was awarded the Pulitzer for her book of poetry, Annie Allen.
Brooks was born in Topeka, Kansas on June 7, 1917. Her father was David Anderson Brooks, a janitor for a music company. Originally, her father hoped to become a doctor, but sacrificed those plans to raise his family. Brooks' mother, Keziah (Wims) Brooks, was a school teacher, as well as a concert pianist trained in classical music.
Brooks' family relocated to Chicago during the Great Migration (1916-1970). The Great Migration "was caused by the poor economic conditions as well as the prevalent racial segregation and discrimination in the Southern states where Jim Crow laws were upheld. Many African Americans moved to the American Northeast, Midwest and West during the migration."
Brooks would call Chicago home for the rest of her life. In a 1994 interview, Brooks spoke about how dearly she held Chicago in her heart, "Living in the city, I wrote differently than I would have if I had been raised in Topeka, KS ... I am an organic Chicagoan. Living there has given me a multiplicity of characters to aspire for. I hope to live there the rest of my days. That's my headquarters."
Brooks started elementary school on "Chicago's South Side. Brooks then attended a an integrated high school in the city with a predominantly white student body, Hyde Park High School. Later, she would transfer to the all-black Wendell Phillips High School; and finished her schooling at integrated Englewood High School."
According to her Wikipedia page, "During her teenage years, she began submitting poems to various publications. By the time she had graduated from high school in 1935, she was already a regular contributor to The Chicago Defender.
After her early educational experiences, Brooks never pursued a four-year college degree because she knew she wanted to be a writer and considered it unnecessary. "I am not a scholar," she later said. "I'm just a writer who loves to write and will always write." She graduated in 1936 from a two-year program at Wilson Junior College, now known as Kennedy-King College, and worked as a typist to support herself while she pursued her career."
Brooks had her first poem, Eventide, published when she was 13 years old. By the age of 16 she had already written and published approximately 75 poems. At 17, she started submitting her work to "Lights and Shadows," the poetry column of the Chicago Defender, an African-American newspaper.
Brooks' published her first book of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville (1945), with Harper & Brothers, after a strong show of support to the publisher from author Richard Wright. He said to the editors who solicited his opinion on Brooks' work, "There is no self-pity here, not a striving for effects. She takes hold of reality as it is and renders it faithfully. ... She easily catches the pathos of petty destinies; the whimper of the wounded; the tiny accidents that plague the lives of the desperately poor, and the problem of color prejudice among Negroes."
Her Pulitzer winning book of poetry, Annie Allen, was published by Harper & Brothers in 1949. According to the entry on her page:
The work consists of three parts about an African-American girl, Annie, growing into womanhood. The first part, titled "Notes from the Childhood and Girlhood", includes 11 poems giving glimpses into Annie's birth, her mother, and her reaction to racism, killing, and death. "The Anniad", a mock heroic poem divided into 43 stanzas and three "Appendix" poems, tells of Annie's dreams of a lover who goes to war, returns to her, marries her, leaves her, and comes back home to die. The last section, "The Womanhood", shows Annie's outlook on a world she would like to change. The book of poetry shows how Annie has changed from an egotistic romantic to a realistic idealist.
Gwendolyn Brooks at her home in Chicago on December 3, 2000. She was 83 years old. Her literary efforts have been heralded throughout the Black community, as well as other poets, novelists, biographers and editors.