November 27, 2014 18:03 UTC

Entertainment

Gwendolyn Brooks, 1917-2000: First African-American to Win a Pulitzer Prize for Literature

Read, listen and learn English with this story. Double-click on any word to find the definition in the Merriam-Webster Learner's Dictionary.

Gwendolyn Brooks, the first black person to win a Pulitzer Prize, holds a portrait of herself painted by artist Anne Cressey McGraw BeuchampGwendolyn Brooks, the first black person to win a Pulitzer Prize, holds a portrait of herself painted by artist Anne Cressey McGraw Beuchamp
x
Gwendolyn Brooks, the first black person to win a Pulitzer Prize, holds a portrait of herself painted by artist Anne Cressey McGraw Beuchamp
Gwendolyn Brooks, the first black person to win a Pulitzer Prize, holds a portrait of herself painted by artist Anne Cressey McGraw Beuchamp

Multimedia

Play or download an MP3 of this story
SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: I’m Shirley Griffith.
 
SARA LONG: And I’m Sarah Long with the VOA Special English program, PEOPLE IN AMERICA. Today we tell about the life of award-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks. She was the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize for Literature.
 
(MUSIC)

Download PDF of this story
 
SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Gwendolyn Brooks wrote hundreds of poems during her lifetime. She had more than twenty books published. She was known around the world for using poetry to increase understanding about black culture in America. 
 
Gwendolyn Brooks wrote many poems about being black during the nineteen forties and nineteen fifties. Her poems described conditions among the poor, racial inequality and drug use in the black community. She also wrote poems about the struggles of black women.
 
But her skill was more than her ability to write about struggling black people. She was an expert at the language of poetry. She combined traditional European poetry styles with the African American experience. 
 
SARA LONG: Gwendolyn Brooks once said that she wrote about what she saw and heard in the street. She said she found most of her material looking out of the window of her second-floor apartment house in Chicago, Illinois.
 
In her early poetry, Gwendolyn Brooks wrote about the South Side of Chicago. The South Side of Chicago is where many black people live.  In her poems, the South Side is called Bronzeville. It was “A Street in Bronzeville” that gained the attention of literary experts in nineteen-forty-five. Critics praised her poetic skill and her powerful descriptions about the black experience during the time. The Bronzeville poems were her first published collection.
 
Here she is reading from her nineteen forty-five collection, “A Street in Bronzeville.”
 
GWENDOLYN BROOKS: “My father, it is surely a blue place and straight.  Right, regular, where I shall find no need for scholarly nonchalance or looks a little to the left or guards upon the heart.”
 
SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: In nineteen fifty, Gwendolyn Brooks became the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. She won the prize for her second book of poems called “Annie Allen.” “Annie Allen” is a collection of poetry about the life of a Bronzeville girl as a daughter, a wife and mother. She experiences loneliness, loss, death and being poor.
 
Ms. Brooks said that winning the prize changed her life.
 
Her next work was a novel written in nineteen fifty-three called “Maud Martha.” “Maud Martha” received little notice when it first published.  But now it is considered an important work by some critics. Its main ideas about the difficult life of many women are popular among female writers today.
 
SARA LONG: Gwendolyn Brooks wrote poems about the black experience in America. She described the anger many blacks had about racial injustice and the feeling of being different. She used poetry to criticize those who did not show respect for the poor. Yet for all the anger in her writing, Gwendolyn Brooks was considered by many to be a gentle spirit and a very giving person. 
 
By the early nineteen sixties, Ms. Brooks had reached a high point in her writing career. She was considered one of America’s leading black writers. She was a popular teacher. She was praised for her use of language and the way people identified with her writing.
 
(MUSIC)
 
SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Gwendolyn Brooks was born in Topeka, Kansas in nineteen seventeen. But she grew up in Chicago. She began writing when she was eleven years old. She mailed several poems to a community newspaper in Chicago to surprise her family.
 
In a radio broadcast in nineteen sixty-one, Ms. Brooks said her mother urged her to develop her poetic skills:
 
GWENDOLYN BROOKS: My mother took me to the library when, I guess, I was about four or five. I enjoyed reading poetry and I tried to write it when I was, I think, about seven, at the time that I first tried to put rhymes together. And I have loved it ever since.”
 
SARA LONG: Gwendolyn Brooks married Henry L. Blakely in nineteen thirty-nine. Henry Blakely was a young writer who later published his own poetry. They lived in Chicago for the next thirty years, divorced in nineteen sixty-nine, but re-united in nineteen seventy-three. They had two children, Nora Brooks Blakely and Henry Blakely.
 
Throughout her life, Ms. Brooks supported herself through speaking appearances, poetry readings and part-time teaching in colleges. She also received money from organizations that offered grants designed to support the arts.
 
(MUSIC)
 
SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: One of Gwendolyn Brooks's most famous poems is called “We Real Cool”. It is a short poem that talks about young people feeling hopeless:
 
We real cool.  We
 
Left school.  We
 
Lurk late.  We
 
Strike straight.  We
 
Sing sin.  We
 
Thin gin.  We
 
Jazz June.  We
 
Die soon.
 
SARA LONG: By the end of the nineteen sixties, Gwendolyn Brooks’s poetry expanded from the everyday experiences of people in Bronzeville. She wrote about a wider world and dealt with important political issues. She won praise for her sharper, real-life poetic style.
 
Gwendolyn Brooks was affected by the civil rights struggles and social changes taking place in America. She began to question her relations with whites. She said she felt that black poets should write for black people. 
 
That became evident in her next collection of poetry in nineteen sixty-eight called “In the Mecca.” Critics suggested Ms. Brooks had become too political and seemed to be writing only for black people.  Her new poems received little notice in the press. 
 
SHIRLEY GRIFFITH:
 
In some of her poems, Gwendolyn Brooks described how what people see in life is affected by who they are. One example is this poem, “Corners on the Curving Sky”:
 
Our earth is round, and, among other things
 
That means that you and I can hold
 
completely different
 
Points of view and both be right.
 
The difference of our positions will show
 
Stars in your window.  I cannot even imagine.
 
Your sky may burn with light,
 
While mine, at the same moment,
 
Spreads beautiful to darkness.
 
Still, we must choose how we separately corner
 
The circling universe of our experience
 
Once chosen, our cornering will determine
 
The message of any star and darkness we
 
encounter.
 
SARA LONG: Although her poetry did not receive much notice in the press, Gwendolyn Brooks continued to receive honors. She was chosen poet laureate of the state of Illinois in nineteen sixty-eight. In nineteen seventy-six, she became the first black woman to be elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. She received a lifetime achievement award from the National Endowment for the Arts in nineteen eighty-nine. And she was named the nineteen ninety-four Jefferson Lecturer by the National Endowment for the Humanities.  That is the highest honor given by the federal government for work in the humanities. 
 
Ms. Brooks once said that of all the awards she received, there was only one that meant a lot to her. It was given to her at a workshop in an old theater in Chicago. She said: “I was given an award for just being me, and that’s what poetry is to me – just being me.”
 
SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Although she was well known, Gwendolyn Brooks lived a quiet life. She said her greatest interest was being involved with young people. She spent time giving readings at schools, prisons and hospitals. She also attended yearly poetry competitions for Chicago children. She often paid for the awards given to the winners. 
 
In nineteen sixty-two, President John F. Kennedy asked Ms. Brooks to speak at a Library of Congress poetry festival. Soon after, she began teaching creative writing at universities in Chicago, New York, and Wisconsin. She liked working with students. She felt that young people would lead the way in healing the wounds of the United States civil rights movement of the nineteen sixties. To honor her work, Chicago State University formed the Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Creative Writing and Black literature.
 
SARA LONG: Gwendolyn Brooks influenced many African American writers. Friends say her prize-winning works also helped other black Americans to develop their own sense of identity and culture. 
 
Doctors discovered Ms. Brooks had cancer in November, two thousand. She died December third at her home in Chicago. She was eighty-three.
 
The funeral service was held on the South Side, the same area of the city that had been a window for much of Ms. Brooks’s poetry. The service was at times filled with laughter. There were warm remembrances of a woman whose life and words had touched people forever. African drums sounded and dancers leaped.
 
(MUSIC)
 
SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: This Special English program was written and produced by Cynthia Kirk. Our studio engineer was Holly Capeheart.  I’m Shirley Griffith.
 
SARA LONG: And I’m Sarah Long. Join us again next week for another PEOPLE IN AMERICA program on the Voice of America.
This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Ryo
06/11/2012 8:03 PM
It is difficult for me to comprehend what poems, not only written in English, mean.


by: Jean
06/08/2012 1:05 AM
It's not easy to totally understand the poems. Thanks, VOA for the detailed introduction. I'm always encouraged by people who tried their best to make our world better.


by: BIJU.P.Y. from: SOUTH INDIA
06/04/2012 4:14 PM
Gwendolyn Brook's life is very thrilling. She led a life devoted to poetry. Many awards, including the much coveted pulitzer prize, were after her. She was proud of being a Black American roll model to give poetry a great momentum. But, alas, she was kidnapped to death by the world's blackest disease. I share that grief earnestly. Thank you.


by: Jadwiga from: Poland
06/04/2012 1:34 PM
I think Gwendolyn Brooks had beautiful soul and her poetry is warm, simple, very nice and touching my heart.
Thank You VOA.


by: Mike from: CA
06/03/2012 6:51 AM
Touching story written like a poem,
and the poem is one of the most powerful ways to let people from diverse background to really know and understand each other, then care and love each other.

Learn with The News

  • New members of the Afghan National Army attend their graduation ceremony at the Afghan Military Academy in Kabul, Afghanistan, Nov. 23, 2014.

    Audio US Says Military Operations in Afghanistan Remain the Same

    Also in the news, India-Pakistan tensions remain at a major South Asia conference in Kathmandu, Nepal; Hong Kong police arrest student leaders and clear streets around Mong Kok; The Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) of Colombia frees two soldiers to restart peace talks with the government. More

  • Video Thanksgiving, a Traditional American Holiday

    Thanksgiving is celebrated every year on the fourth Thursday of November. The month of November comes in autumn, the main season for harvesting crops. Thanksgiving is an autumn harvest festival like those found in many cultures. It is viewed as the most traditional of all American holidays. More

  • A flock of 30-pound tom turkeys mill around in the barn at  Raymond's Turkey Farm in Methuen, Mass.,Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2006. The 60-acre farm expects to sell about 9,000 turkeys this holiday season.(AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

    Audio Turkey: A Case of Mistaken Identity

    Many think the bird comes from the nation of Turkey. But turkey is not from Turkey. In fact, the fact that the turkey bird is called by that name is one big mistake. Find out in today's Words and Their Stories. More

  • Audio Group Claims Gender Equality Will End Hunger, Poverty

    A Christian aid group calls for governments and employees to end discrimination against women and girls. Bread for the World says increasing educational levels, giving women more economic power and helping with child care will help them earn more. This will, in turn, help men and their families. More

  • People hide from gunfire near church during firefight between African peacekeepers, fighters from the Christian "anti-balaka" militia, Bangui, Feb. 18, 2014.

    Audio Central African Republic Losing the Next Generation

    Thousands of people have been killed in the fighting in the Central African Republic, and many have been forced from their homes. Among the victims are children whose parents died or have gone missing. For these boys and girls, joining an armed group is one of the only ways to find protection. More

Featured Stories

  • Battle of Cold Harbor

    Audio Strong Defense at Cold Harbor Gives Lee His Last Major Victory

    After Northern forces defeated Southern troops at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and Vicksburg, Mississippi, General Ulysses Grant decided to hit the Confederates with the full force of the Union armies. The fight did not go as he expected. But General Grant was resolved to defeat the Confederates. More

  • Alzheimer brain

    Audio East Meets West to Treat Alzheimer's Patients

    But researchers in California say a new way of treating Alzheimer’s disease is showing promise for reversing some of that memory loss. The new treatment combines western medicine with eastern philosophy – ideas rooted in Asian religions. More

  • Mr. Van Rijsselberghe worked on the project with scientists from the Free University of Amsterdam.

    Video Dutch Experiment Grows Vegetables in Sea Water

    Due to rising sea level, farmers are increasingly unable to use fields close to the sea. A farmer in the Netherlands is growing small, but healthy and tasty crops in a mixture of fresh and salt water. Farmers in Pakistan may soon be growing Dutch potatoes in areas affected by rising sea waters. More

  • Jonathan Evans Performs with Bonerama

    Video With Bonerama, Three Trombones Lead the Big Parade

    The New Orleans-based group brings together funk, rock, blues and jazz, creating a gumbo for the ears. Bonerama has horns like many bands. But, unlike most groups, the trombone players lead this band. Reporter Jonathan Evans performed with the band and wrote about it for American Mosaic. More

  • A line from Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is displayed at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.

    Audio Lincoln's Words at Gettysburg Still Have Meaning

    On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln said no one would remember his speech at a battlefield cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. But Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address remains one of the most important speeches in U.S. history. | The Making of a Nation More

Practice Your Writing

Confessions of an English Learner BlogConfessions of an English Learner Blog

Tell us About Our Programs