A new work marks a groundbreaking poet's centennial year

Patrik Henry Bass
Jun, 07, 2017

Gwendolyn Brooks's literary heritage will always loom large.

Born a century ago on June 7, 1917, in Topeka, Kansas, Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks would move to the South Side of Chicago and memorialize that historic area in more than a dozen collections.

Annie Allen, published in 1949, received praise and earned Brooks the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, making her the first African-American to win the distinguished award. In honor of Brooks's birth, poet Angela Jackson has released the long-overdue account A Surprised Queenhood in the New Black Sun: The Life & Legacy of Gwendolyn Brooks (Beacon Press, $24.95).

Mentored by Langston Hughes, Brooks had a grasp on who she was years before she garnered critical acclaim.

"She was a dark-skinned girl at the time when being a decidedly dark girl was not the most desirable thing to be," writes Jackson. "At the time her first poem was chosen for publication, she was not the most popular girl in any part of Negro society. But her self-esteem did not depend on others choosing her.

She chose herself. Rejection hurt, but she had early on fallen in love with her own color because her parents, by their love of her, and her brother, had taught her to love the totality of herself." From the South Side scribe's debut collection, A Street in Brozeville, to Annie Allen to Maud Martha (Third World Press), Brooks's only novel, Jackson leaves no stone unturned examining the cultural changes the icon both defined and defied.

We learn even more about her embrace of the Black Arts Movement and her decision to eschew commercial publishers. It made sense for the freedom-loving Brooks, who, through her pen, relied on an endless imagination to chronicle the Black experience with an unerring sense of courage and beauty.

This feature originally appeared in the June 2017 Issue of ESSENCE Magazine.