Gwendolyn Brooks: From a Chicago Kitchenette to Literary Greatness

A 1945 Chicago Defender article depicted poet Gwendolyn Brooks on the brink of literary stardom. 

In a 1945 Chicago Defender article, Gwendolyn Brooks said she was “merely writing about human beings” in response to the national acclaim she began receiving for her poetry.

Yet, even then, few writers could match her ability to document Black people — her people — with piercing insight and clarity, selecting the surest word or verse to depict them and their world — however they felt and wherever they were.

Because June 7 marks Mrs. Brooks’ 106th birthday, we look back at that article by Marjorie Peters, who interviewed the poet when she lived in a small Southside apartment. By then, Brooks had just published her first poetry collection, “A Street in Bronzeville.” The literary world was riveted by her work.

In the tiny kitchenette apartment, 623 E. 63rd Street, where she lives with he husband, Henry Blakely, a writer of prose, and four-year-old son, she is receiving letters and reviews from all over the country hailing her as a new and exciting literary voice portraying the undertones of Negro feeling and living, wrote Peters.

‘kitchenette building’ and the Possibility of Dreams

Brooks’ kitchenette apartment would inspire one of her most beloved poems.

According to the article, It was in this same tiny kitchenette, where her little family must share a bath with four others, that she produced, two years ago…”Kitchenette Building,” which struck across Chicago’s tragic housing situation for Negroes with the simple query as to the possibility of artistic dreams being engendered in “yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall.” 

The poem “kitchenette building” depicted the living conditions of many African-American families in Chicago’s Black Belt, particularly in the early part of the 20th century. It was a time when families resided in cramped, deteriorating one-room quarters and shared single bathrooms with multiple occupants on the same floor. And while all races lived in kitchenettes throughout Chicago, the ones that Black people occupied were more likely to have less space, sunlight and amenities, a national study found.

Brooks Poetry: ‘Hard and Real’

Yet, to her, in this same kitchenette, have come to her all her poems as well as all the notices of her pyramiding success…It was in this same kitchenette, too, with periodicals piled on the floor around her because there was no space otherwise, she read the proofs for her book, and last week received the five complimentary volumes from the publisher, slender little volumes bearing the testimony of William Rose Benet and Richard Wright…that she is high in the ranks of new and potent writers. 

It was Wright, a literary legend himself, who described Brooks’ poetry as, hard and real, right out of the central core of Black Belt Negro life in urban areas…Only one who has actually lived and suffered in a kitchenette could render the feeling of lonely frustration as well as she does: — of how dreams are drowned out by the noises, smells, and the frantic desire to grab one’s chance to get a bath when the bathroom is empty. Miss Brooks is real and so are her poems.

Except, five years after Peters’ story was published, Brooks would emerge from that kitchenette apartment to become the first African-American ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. She would later become Illinois Poet Laureate and one of the most celebrated poets in history.

Celebrate ‘BrooksDay 2023’

To commemorate Gwendolyn Brooks’ birthday, the Guild Literary Complex hosts its 10th Annual BrooksDay on June 7, from 12– 6 p.m. at the South Shore Cultural Center. For more information on this free event, visit

Then on June 7 from 7-8:15 p.m. (CT), Brooks Permissions will host an online panel discussion titled, “ALL THIS LIFE: Examining Gwendolyn Brooks’ Maud Martha!,” featuring Sandra Cisneros, Dr. Joanne Gabbin and Sandra Jackson-Opoku. This event will be streamed live on Brooks Permissions’s Facebook and YouTube channels.


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