Gwendolyn Brooks, the great poet of Bronzeville, would have turned 100 years old on June 7. Although she won many honors and accolades before her death in 2000—she was the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize, in 1950 for Annie Allen, her second collection of poems; she served as a poetry consultant to the Library of Congress and, for 32 years, as Illinois’s poet laureate; and her work has been widely anthologized—her former student, poet Quraysh Ali Lansana, believes she deserves nothing more than a full year of celebration, throughout Chicago and the entire country. He calls it Our Miss Brooks 100.
“I believe Miss Brooks was among the most significant poets of the 20th century,” he says. “I believe she has not received the kind of recognition in the literary canon that she merits. She’s woefully understudied, in my opinion. A big important part of all of this for me is to reintroduce her. Though some of us never forgot her.”
For all her greatness, Brooks remained approachable. She lived in Bronzeville her entire adult life and taught and remained active in the community into her old age. As poet laureate, she ran an annual youth poetry contest that she funded entirely out of her own pocket; Lansana helped her with the administration, but she insisted on doing all the judging herself. With support from the Chicago Community Trust, Lansana plans to reignite the contest this year.
Our Miss Brooks 100 kicked off February 2 at the Art Institute’s Rubloff Auditorium, with readings by five other black Pulitzer Prize-winning poets, including Rita Dove, who became the second in 1987, 37 years after Brooks. This weekend, the University of Chicago and the Poetry Foundation will cosponsor Centennial Brooks, three days of readings, discussions, and musical performances by Black Earth Ensemble and Jamila Woods.
Brooks has been underrated, says John Wilkinson, a poet and U. of C. professor who was one of the organizers of Centennial Brooks, not just because she was a black woman, but also because of her decision in the late 1960s to not have her work published by big New York publishers but by small, independent, black-run presses in Chicago. “She’s read and explored in a different way from poets who have major New York publishers behind them,” Wilkinson says. “We wanted to show that Gwendolyn Brooks’s influence is extremely widespread and extends outside of poetry.”
Brooks, Lansana says, always considered herself an observer and was determined to portray her world honestly. When the editor of her first collection, A Street in Bronzeville, balked at including the poem “The Mother,” which begins, “Abortions will not let you forget / You remember the children that you got that you did not get,” Brooks threatened to pull the entire project. “This was 1944,” Lansana says. “That’s who she was.”
Bronzeville remained equally devoted to Brooks. When she won the Pulitzer, she and her husband couldn’t afford to keep the electricity on in their apartment. By the next day, when the press arrived, the lights were on: someone had found a way to flip the switch on the light pole. “I love that story,” says Lansana. “The community was proud of her and that they were the substance of her work. It’s a real testament to who she was and how she moved through the world.” v