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Kansas girl Gwendolyn Brooks broke ground as black poet

  • Published Monday, May 20, 2013, at 6:17 a.m.

Ad Astra

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating the state’s history. The series’ name comes from the state motto, “Ad astra per aspera: To the stars through difficulties.”

“Say to them, say to the down-keepers, the sun-slappers, the self-soilers, the harmony hushers, ‘Even if you are not ready for day, It can not always be night.’ You will be right. For that is the hard home-run.

“Live not for battles won. Live not for the end-of-the-song. Live in the along.”

Gwendolyn Brooks, Selected Poems

There wasn’t much Gwendolyn Brooks didn’t write about.

She would say, “I am a writer perhaps because I am not a talker.”

She wrote of war, racism, drug use and love. Anything became the subject of scrutiny from her pen.

She was born on June 7, 1917, on her grandmother’s kitchen table in Topeka.

When she was less than a month old, her family moved to Chicago. She began writing at age 11. By 13, her first poem, “Eventide,” was published in “American Childhood.” Her early works were mostly autobiographical, detailing the deaths of friends, her relationship with family and their reaction to war and racism.

Her family encouraged her to read books and write prolifically. They took her to meet fellow Kansan Langston Hughes, who was one of the nation’s most important writers in the Harlem Renaissance, a movement that celebrated African-American life and culture.

In the beginning, Brooks worked as a secretary to support her writing. In 1945, her book of poetry “A Street in Bronzeville” brought her national acclaim. She was named one of the Ten Young Women of the Year in Mademoiselle magazine.

In 1950, her second book, “Annie Allen,” was published and earned her the Pulitzer Prize. She was the first African-American poet to receive the coveted award.

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy invited her to read at a Library of Congress poetry festival. Soon afterward, she began teaching creative writing at Columbia College Chicago and taught at Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago State University, Elmhurst College, Columbia University, Clay College of New York and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

During the 1980s, she was the first African-American woman to become a poetry consultant for the Library of Congress.

In all of her works, she tried to encourage young students – particularly those who were African American – to write, to be passionate about their lives, to stay in school and to be proud of who they were and who they could become.

One of her most famous poems, “We Real Cool,” expressed her frustration in those who chose not to do that:

We real cool. We

Left school. We

Lurk late. We

Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We

Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We

Die soon.”

Throughout her life, Brooks continued to speak to audiences, read and write. In 1989, she received a lifetime achievement award from the National Endowment for the Arts. And in 1994, she was named a Jefferson Lecturer by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the highest honor bestowed by the federal government for work in the humanities.

She died in Chicago on Dec. 3, 2000. She was 83.

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com.

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