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Gwendolyn Brooks; Won Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1950

December 04, 2000|From Associated Press

CHICAGO — Gwendolyn Brooks, who won a Pulitzer Prize for writing candid and compassionate poetry that delved into poverty, racism and drugs among black people, died Sunday. She was 83.

Family friend Leron Bennett said Brooks died after a short illness.

Brooks was world-renowned for promoting an understanding of black culture through her poetry while at the same time suggesting inclusiveness is the key to harmony.

"I believe that we should all know each other, we human carriers of so many pleasurable differences," she said in a recent interview. "To not know is to doubt, to shrink from, sidestep or destroy."

Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize in 1950 for her second book of poetry, "Annie Allen." She wrote hundreds of poems and more than 20 books and had been Illinois' poet laureate since 1968.

In 1989, she received a lifetime achievement award from the National Endowment for the Arts. She was named the 1994 Jefferson Lecturer by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the highest honor bestowed by the federal government for work in the humanities.

Brooks was born in Topeka, Kan., in 1917, but grew up in Chicago.

She began her writing career at 11 when she mailed several poems to a community newspaper in Chicago to surprise her family. Her early works were mostly autobiographical, detailing the deaths of friends, her relationship with her family and their reaction to war and racism.

After a number of her poems had been published in Chicago's black newspapers, Brooks sent 19 poems to a list of publishers.

"I said to myself, 'I'm going to go straight down that list until somebody takes these poems,' " she said.

Harper & Bros., now Harper-Collins, was at the top of the list. Its editors suggested she needed more poems, then published the collection in 1945 in a book called "A Street in Bronzeville."

"Annie Allen" followed four years later.

Brooks often referred to her works as her family, which also included black people in general.

"If you have one drop of blackness blood in you--yes, of course it comes out red--you are mine," she said. "You are a member of my family."

But she was quick to point that she wasn't exclusionary, noting that she had the liveliest interest in other families.

Brooks was also known as a tireless teacher and advocate of creative writing and poetry.

"She mentored literally three generations of poets--black, white, Hispanic, Native American," said longtime friend, poet and literature professor Haki Madhubuti, who founded the Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Black Literature and Creative Writing at Chicago State University. "She was all over the map sharing her gifts."

She used her prestige as Illinois' poet laureate to inspire young writers, establishing the Illinois Poet Laureate Awards in 1969 to encourage elementary and high school students to write.

She said she found it intoxicating and exciting to see young talent. She would attend poetry slams in Chicago, where aspiring poets would line up to read their works, and she often financed awards to the poet voted the best reader by the audience.

Brooks once said of the awards she received, including having a bronze sculpture of her placed in the National Portrait Gallery, that there was only one that meant a great deal to her.

"In December 1967, at a workshop called the Kumuba Workshop in a rundown theater in Chicago, I was given an award for just being me, and that's what poetry is to me--just being me."

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