The first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize and the first black woman to hold the post of Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, Gwendolyn Brooks was a poet who was admired for her linguistic acuity and use of established forms as well as free verse. A lifelong resident of Chicago, Brooks often wrote about the urban experiences of African Americans, including black women and mothers. Active in educating young people, Brooks gave readings in schools, prisons, and hospitals; established Poet Laureate Awards for Illinois students; and founded the Blackstone Rangers, a Chicago workshop for teenage gang members.
Born on June 7, 1917, Brooks grew up in a household that nurtured her early aptitude for writing poetry. By 1945, her first collection of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville, appeared, and Brooks quickly established her reputation as a poet of ordinary African Americans. In poems such as “Hattie Scott,” “Queen of the Blues,” “Ballad of Pearl May Lee,” and “The Mother” section of “A Street in Bronzeville,” Brooks also portrayed the lives of mothers struggling in a harsh urban landscape.
Brooks's second collection, Annie Allen, which won the Pulitzer, traces the life of a young woman before and after World War II. The section titled “Womanhood” depicts Annie as a mother who has developed a wiser and more critical view of her life. By the time Annie Allen appeared, Brooks herself had married and become a mother when her son, Henry Blakely, was born in 1940. Her daughter, Nora Brooks Blakely, was born in 1951. In 1953 Brooks's first and only novel, Maud Martha, depicted “color-ism,” the discrimination against dark-skinned African Americans within the black community. Maud is a young mother whose husband regrets marrying a woman darker than he is.
In The Bean Eaters (1960), the Civil Rights Movement and motherhood were centerpieces of poems such as “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi.” “Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon,” which captures the tragedy of Emmett Till's murder through the perspective of a white mother married to one of his killers. The experience of mothers—in grief, poverty, and old age—mark poems such as “The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till,” “Mrs. Small, Jessie Mitchell's Mother,” and the widely anthologized “The Lovers of the Poor.”
In 1967 Brooks found inspiration in Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), founder of the Black Arts Movement. Brooks's next collection, the National Book Award-nominated In the Mecca (1968), features a mother's frantic search for her missing child in a rundown apartment building. The poem's portrait of poverty implicates the cultural and historical forces of slavery and white indifference.
Brooks's other honors include lifetime achievement awards from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1989 and the National Book Foundation in 1994, two Guggenheim fellowships, an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in literature, and the National Medal of Arts award in 1995. In 1968, she was appointed the poet laureate of Illinois, succeeding Carl Sandburg, and in 1988 she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame. She held the Gwendolyn Brooks Chair in Black Literature and Creative Writing at Chicago State University, and in 1994 was selected as the National Endowment of the Humanities’ Jefferson Lecturer. Western Illinois University houses the Gwendolyn Brooks Cultural Center.
African American Mothers, Literature, Mothers in, Poetry, Mothers in
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