Gwendolyn Brooks’s Annie Allen (1949) was the first book by a black writer to win the Pulitzer Prize. In A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks, George F. Kent shows that her unique development as an Afro-American writer probably contributed directly to her unusual success at a fairly young age. Born in Topeka, Kansas, on June 7, 1917, Brooks was reared in a strong, middle-class family. Though her parents struggled through the Depression in Chicago, they had settled there early enough to be well-established homeowners before the hard times arrived, and they were tenacious enough to keep the family together without resort to welfare when her father’s salary fell during the 1930’s. Strongly committed to education, her family saw her through Wilson Junior College by 1937 and supported her artistic aspirations throughout her youth.
This solid and stable background gave Brooks what she later characterized as an illusory optimism about life, upon which she based much of her youthful self-confidence. After her marriage in 1939 to Henry Lowington Blakely, whom she met when she joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1937, she discovered a different life. Her struggle with comparative poverty, motherhood, the losses of friends in World War II, and the many pains of prejudice and racism gradually qualified her optimism, clarified her vision, and radicalized her poetry and politics. This was a slow process, however, that brought her to a decisive turning point in 1967, when she attended the Second Annual Writers’ Conference at Fisk University.
Before the 1960’s, Brooks tended to accept many elements of what has been characterized as the white liberal attitude toward the black poet’s role in American society. Kent points out, however, that Brooks’s ideas came from the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance and other black writers she admired, such as James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, and Richard Wright. In this view, the black writer was to transcend the admitted problems of racism by writing of universal themes to a universal audience. Such an approach was intended to show white readers that black writers were genuine artists, to provide role models for younger writers, and to lift the hearts and spirits of all readers, thus bringing oppressed and oppressor together on a higher, common ground of community. Such idealism appealed strongly to Brooks, as it did to white liberals. Insofar as this attitude governed her poetic practice, it helped assure that her work would be published and would attract reasonably large audiences. This is, in fact, what happened, and her first two books, A Street in Bronzeville (1945) and Annie Allen, established her as an important poet among both white and black readers.
Brooks rapidly rose from being a poor, aspiring poet whose works appeared mainly in the Chicago Defender into becoming a Chicago and then a national literary institution at the age of thirty-two, having two important and well-reviewed collections published and a Pulitzer Prize to her credit. Her rapid rise was aided by established black writers such as Richard Wright, whose recommendation was decisive in persuading Harper and Brothers to publish A Street in Bronzeville. Another key to her early success, however, was almost certainly her ability to attract and interest various powerful white patrons. Inez Cunningham Stark, a Chicago socialite, discovered Brooks in a writing workshop on Chicago’s South Side, encouraged her work, and introduced her to important people such as Henry Rago at Poetry. Paul Engle brought her work to the attention of the Midwest Writer’s Conference, which awarded her poetry prizes at the beginning of her career. Also crucial was Brooks’s editor at Harper and Brothers, Elizabeth Lawrence, who repeatedly encouraged her to universalize, to make sure that the particular stories and images that arose from Brooks’s black experience and inspired her poems were made accessible to white readers.
That Brooks’s early works were addressed fairly consciously to white audiences does not mean that they lacked biting reflections on racial injustice or that they failed to speak movingly to her black readers. Brooks knew well what her social and political condition was. Her family’s difficulty in finding satisfactory housing resulted directly from racist politics in Chicago. When Brooks visited New York with Inez Stark only a few months before receiving the Pulitzer Prize, she was humiliatingly prevented even from...
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