Centennial Celebration: The Life and Legacy of Gwendolyn Brooks

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UVZ6KTLN7O8]


YouTube Video Published on Oct 15, 2012: In this edition of HoCoPoLitSo’s The Writing life, revered American poet Gwendolyn Brooks sat down in 1986 to talk with Alan Jabbour, director of the Library of Congress’ American Folklore division, and E. Ethelbert Miller, poet and director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University.

Poets, writers, historians, and musicians in the city and across the state are creatively celebrating the life and legacy of the late Gwendolyn “Gwendie” Brooks, the first African American person to ever win the Pulitzer Prize and the Illinois Poet Laureate for more than 30 years. Widely considered one the greatest writers of the 20th century, Brooks’ centennial celebrations have been ongoing since January of this year. Today, June 7, marks the 5th annual “BrooksDay,” an official birthday party in her honor at the University of Chicago. Brooks’ daughter, Nora Brooks Blakely, a successful playwright, teacher and speaker in her own right, is among those leading the efforts to celebrate her mother’s distinguished body of work throughout the year.

“My mother didn’t have quite as much visibility as a writer of her stature probably should have. Part of that was her commitment to hiding from video, and photography, and so forth so that people like Alice Walker, Tony Morrison, the late Maya Angelou, they’re all far more visible than Mama was. She was content with that, but in her honor, we aren’t. We think that this is a wonderful opportunity, the centennial, to make her a lot more visible,” said Blakely.

Brooks began writing at age 13. Her works were shaped by the racial dynamics and social injustice she experienced and witnessed while living on the South Side of the city, where she grew up. She was only 17 when she began submitting her work to “Lights and Shadows,” the poetry column in the editorial section of the Chicago Defender.  By 1934, Brooks had published nearly 100 poems in the paper and joined the Defender as an adjunct staff member. She had several well-known literary role models, including Langston Hughes, who also wrote for the Defender.

As a tribute to Brooks’ early career with the Defender, we are republishing two of these early poems in the paper today and publishing more online at ChicagoDefender.com.

Brooks went on to marry Henry Blakely in 1938. They had two kids, Nora and Henry, Jr. Nora, producing artistic director and primary playwright for Chocolate Chips Theatre Company in Chicago for 29 years, gave us more insight about what it was like to grow up with her mom and dishes about her new book, “Seasons,” which includes Gwendolyn Brooks’ early work, her later work, and poems she wrote for children and adults.

Nora Brooks Blakely

What advice did your mom give to emerging poets?

I can give you two tips from the Young Poets Primer in my new book, “Seasons,” because they’re both pretty short.

Tip number 12: In writing your poems, tell the truth as you know it. Tell your truth. Don’t try to sugar it up. Don’t force your poem to be nice, or proper, or normal, or happy if it does not want to be. Remember that poetry is life distilled and that life is not always nice, or proper, or normal, or happy, or smooth, or even edged.

And tip number 30: Poetry has a future. You may initiate new forms. You may create. You do not have to consider that everything has been done. You do not have to write sonnets, villanelle, heroic couplets, haiku, Tanka simply because centuries of poets have written such. Dare to invent something. Understand that somebody invented the sonnet. Understand the day before the sonnet was invented there was no sonnet.

Do you see some similarities between her style and current day spoken word poetry?

I think in some of her pieces, yes. Some of her poetry is beautifully written as it is, reading it written on the page, but especially after 1967 when she began to tinker with her style and became more politically conscious because she was always interested in what was happening in peoples’ lives–particularly in Black peoples’ lives. A lot of that was addressed even before 1967, but her style of writing definitely changed and some of it certainly would work as spoken word.

Did she talk about working for the Defender?

I knew about it, of course. She kept scrapbooks of her pieces that had been published in the Defender. In the archives down at University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, those scrapbooks with a lot of her pieces from the Defender are there. The Defender was definitely a major part of her writing history, long before the Pulitzer Prize and how most people were aware of her.

Your mom and dad had other jobs, but they were both writers. What was that like growing up?

Basically, it was the fact that this was part of how my brother and I lived in our home. It was, “Do you read? Do you sleep? Do you eat? Do you write?” Those were just things that were taken for granted that were part of what you did. The understanding of writing as a normal part of life; the opportunity to go with her not only to many of her readings but to the readings of other writers and really get to hear what good writing sounded like. All of that was very important to me as I grew up as a human being and as I grew up as a writer.

Which of your mom’s poems is your favorite?

Paul Robeson.” A lot of people now quote the last three lines of Paul Robeson because they’re so important, and that poem is, to me, much more representative of Mama’s general message to the world. It’s a wonderful poem. It’s a power poem. The last three lines of it are, “We are each other’s harvest. We are each other’s business. We are each other’s magnitude and bond.” Especially at a time like we are in now with interesting people in the White House, I think it’s even more important for people to remember those lines.

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