June 7, 1917
“I felt that I had to write,” she said, explaining she wasn’t a talker, so she wrote. And, her words spoke volumes to many people, encouraging and inspiring, with characters who struggle to figure out where they fit in the world. She explored topics such as racism, interracial families, concepts of beauty, drug dealing, Black women, and everyday life.
She was born on June 7, 1917, on her grandmother’s kitchen table in Topeka, Kansas. Her father had hoped to become a doctor, but settled for a janitor, to get married and raise a family. Her mother was a school teacher, who taught at the Topeka school that later became involved in the famous Brown v. Board of Education racial desegregation case. Some in her family say her paternal grandfather had escaped slavery to join the Union forces during the American Civil War.
After she was born, her family would move to Chicago, where she would grow up and make a name for herself.
She started writing at age 11, sitting at her back porch, thinking about friends who had died, her relationships, and life around her. At the age of 16, she met Langston Hughes. He read several of the young girl’s manuscripts and was impressed, encouraging her to keep writing, telling her that one day her writing would be published.
On the anniversary of her birthday, June 7, 2018, on what would have been her 101st birthday, a statue was unveiled where she grew up, making her the first black, Chicago-based poet honored with a statue and memorial in a city park.
Her daughter said her mother was “not a cryer,” according to the Chicago-SunTimes, but she would have teared up at this honor.
Langston Hughes was right, of course. The young girl he encouraged eventually became not only a poet, an author, and a teacher, but she also became a Pulitzer Prize winner for her book of poetry, “Annie Allen”, making her the first African American to receive the prize. She was also the first black woman to be the poet laureate of Illinois — a position she held from 1968 until her death in 2000 — as well as the first to serve as a poetry consultant to the Library of Congress.
Gwendolyn Brooks first started writing about life in her neighborhood and her community, but, eventually, learning more about the bigger world around her, she would write about war, racism, and poverty, even mentioning the death of Emmett Till and the controversy surrounding the Little Rock Nine, stories previously shared on the Peace Page.
When she wrote of war, she wrote:
“Oh mother, mother, where is happiness?
They took my lover’s tallness off to war,
Left me lamenting. Now I cannot guess
What I can use an empty heart-cup for.
He won’t be coming back here any more.
Some day the war will end, but, oh, I knew
When he went walking grandly out that door
That my sweet love would have to be untrue.”
When she wrote of racism, she wrote:
“When you use the term minority or minorities in reference to people, you’re telling them that they’re less than somebody else…Don’t let anyone call you a minority if you’re black or Hispanic or belong to some other ethnic group. You’re not less than anybody else.”
When she wrote of poverty, she wrote:
“What shall I give my children? who are poor,
Who are adjudged the leastwise of the land,
Who are my sweetest lepers, who demand
No velvet and no velvety velour;
But who have begged me for a brisk contour,
Crying that they are quasi, contraband
Because unfinished, graven by a hand
Less than angelic, admirable or sure.
My hand is stuffed with mode, design, device.
But I lack access to my proper stone.
And plenitude of plan shall not suffice
Nor grief nor love shall be enough alone
To ratify my little halves who bear
Across an autumn freezing everywhere.”
But, most people found in her writing inspiration, strength, and encouragement.
“Her religion was kindness,” poet and longtime friend Haki Madhubuti said.
Her daughter would say, many of her mother’s lines “could fit on posters to get you through the day”.
Some of those lines include:
“We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.”
“Exhaust the little moment.
Soon it dies.
And be it gash or gold it will not come
Again in this identical guise.”
She also wrote:
“Say to them,
say to the down-keepers,
“Even if you are not ready for day
it cannot 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.”
When she was asked about her writing and finding topics to write about, she said, “Look at what’s happening in this world. Every day there’s something exciting or disturbing to write about. With all that’s going on, how could I stop?”
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