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Books

Books, events celebrate late poet Gwendolyn Brooks’ 100th birthday

Illinois Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks reads poetry in February 2000 to a crowd at Chicago's Union Station. Brooks would have turned 100 this week, and her birthday is being commemorated with new books, poetry readings, writing contests and even a bus tour through her hometown of Chicago.
Illinois Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks reads poetry in February 2000 to a crowd at Chicago's Union Station. Brooks would have turned 100 this week, and her birthday is being commemorated with new books, poetry readings, writing contests and even a bus tour through her hometown of Chicago.

CHICAGO (AP) – Poet Gwendolyn Brooks would have turned 100 this week, and that birthday is being commemorated with new books, poetry readings, writing contests and even a bus tour through her hometown of Chicago, all inspired by her.

Brooks, who died in 2000, became the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize, earning the honor in 1950 for her coming-of-age poetry book “Annie Allen.” Her writing drew from vibrant Chicago neighborhoods, capturing everyday black life and examining critical issues like civil rights. She was also instrumental in promoting black publishing, bypassing big houses for smaller presses later in her career.

“She was at the apex of understanding who she was culturally and who she was as a woman. She was on top of a significant mountain representing us without doubt or hesitation,” said poet Haki Madhubuti, who Brooks mentored.

Madhubuti founded Third World Press, which also published Brooks’ work. Her poetry “was not only revolutionary, but evolutionary,” he said.

Today marks the official birthday, with planned celebrations at the University of Chicago and other places throughout Illinois, where she was poet laureate for more than 3 decades. Organizers are encouraging a social media “International Birthday Party” in remembrance. Some locales have already hosted centennial events, including Medgar Evers College in New York.

At least three new books about Brooks have recently been released: Angela Jackson’s biographical “A Surprised Queenhood in The New Black Sun,” the anthology “Revise the Psalm: Work Celebrating the Writing of Gwendolyn Brooks,” and “Seasons: A Gwendolyn Brooks Experience,” which is partly edited by her daughter, Nora Brooks Blakely.

“We’re hoping that as the centennial continues, that more and more people will be excited about learning more about her,” Blakely said.

Chicago’s Literary Hall of Fame has mapped out a June 16 bus tour of important Brooks sites, including the South Side home where she lived for decades and the Chicago Defender, the iconic black newspaper which published her first poems written as a teenager.

Organizers say the commemorations, including a teen writing contest, are emblematic of Brooks.

She believed in mentorship, promoting young writers and hosting workshops. She visited schools, prisons, hospitals and drug rehabilitation centers to read her work and instill appreciation of the written word.

“Gwendolyn Brooks was a truth teller. That is the most significant thing about her. The other thing is her accurate and honest depiction of black people and black lives. So much in America is marshaled against the realization that black people are human beings and Gwendolyn Brooks captured our humanity and lifted it up,” said Jackson, who wrote the new biography. “When you portray black people in our full humanity, then that’s a gift to all of humanity.”

There’s a Chicago State University center, park and a school bearing her name in Chicago, with plans for a sculpture. She’s buried in a suburban cemetery, her gravestone in the shape of a book.

Fellow poet Nikki Giovanni, who shares a birthday with the late poet, said Brooks paved the way.

“What she did was she led us. We could follow Gwen Brooks and we were going to go some place. We were going to learn something,” she said. “What made her outstandingly brilliant was that she was current.”

Educators and poets say she continues to inspire the next generation.

Patricia Frazier, a senior at Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy, said Brooks’ writing struck her immediately, especially since they had lived in some of the same Chicago neighborhoods, including historically black Bronzeville. The work inspired the 18-year-old’s own poetry.

“She really doesn’t really go to great lengths to cloak anything in some covered metaphor... She talks about real people, going through real life things,” Frazier said, adding that she’s honored to attend the namesake school. “There is a certain responsibility that I owe to her lineage to tell the story right. We kind of carry her name everywhere we go.”

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Errin Haines Whack reported from Philadelphia. Follow her work on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/emarvelous . Follow Sophia Tareen on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sophiatareen

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