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Personal papers of Pulitzer-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks join archives at UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library
11 Jan 2001

By Kathleen Maclay, Media Relations

Berkeley - Personal papers of poet Gwendolyn E. Brooks, the first African American writer to win the Pulitzer Prize, are now part of the African American writers collection at the University of California, Berkeley's Bancroft Library.

Brooks gave her blessing to the UC Berkeley acquisition before she died on Dec. 3 at the age of 83. Brooks packed the campus's Zellerbach Hall for a 1974 poetry reading and again in 1997 for a reading in Wheeler Auditorium. Some 700 people were turned away from the overflowing Wheeler, and Brooks signed books until nearly midnight for those who remained.

Robert Hass, a former U.S. poet laureate and a professor of English at UC Berkeley, called Brooks one of the most important African American poets of the 20th century.

"She brought the impulses of the Harlem Renaissance to focus by writing about black life in Bronzeville during the Depression and the war years with a candor and sympathy and art that was, in its quiet way, a watershed in American literary and cultural history," he said.

"Berkeley - particularly because of June Jordan's work here - is a fine place for materials on a woman who for all her life wrote 'poetry for the people,'" said Susan Schweik, a UC Berkeley professor of English who has critiqued Brooks' work. Jordan is a UC Berkeley professor of African American studies and a poet, novelist and essayist.

Brooks' emergence in the post-Harlem Renaissance period positioned her for more than five decades as a compelling voice and vitality in African American poetry. The granddaughter of a slave, she was known for poetry that explored poverty and racism while promoting an understanding of African American culture. She wrote children's books, an autobiography, one novel, a collection of poetry about South Africa, and other volumes of poetry that included one of her most popular, "We Real Cool" (1966).

"If any one American writer naturalized the facts of black life, looked at it as lives people led, lives that happened to be inescapably caught in a racialized world but not absolutely defined by that fact, it was she," said Hass. "This curiosity, this art without a social agenda, was a kind of declaration of independence."

Retrieved from a former Brooks home on the South Side of Chicago, the collection now at UC Berkeley contains manuscripts of her poems and speeches, family photos, awards, weekly journals, clippings that reflect source material for poems, 50 years of correspondence with her publishers, and letters. Library officials said the yet-to-be-catalogued 22 boxes of materials constitute a representative sample of her papers from the 1930s to 1980.

"She (Brooks) was most grateful we had these documents. She said, 'You have my blessings to buy it,'" said longtime Brooks friend Daphne Muse.

Muse is an advisor to The Bancroft Library's African American writers collection and is research coordinator for the UC Berkeley McNair Scholars Program. As an adjunct lecturer at nearby Mills College in Oakland during the mid 1970s and early '80s, Muse taught Brooks' poetry in her classes. She said the Brooks material is a significant, unifying addition to UC Berkeley's African American collection.

Launched in 1978, the library's African American writers collection provides access to thousands of books, manuscripts, correspondence and other rare works by black authors. Materials range in date from the 1790s to the present and are regularly used by students, faculty members and outside researchers.

"Without this documentation, there would be gaping holes in what future researchers do here at UC Berkeley, and this canon includes both mainstream and once-marginalized voices," Muse said. The archive provides "a trail of how a poem finds its voice and reams of materials that thread her life together," she added.

It includes letters between Brooks and poet/art critic Ted Berrigan; author/anthologist Arna Bontemps, who helped lead the Harlem Renaissance; and Robert Creeley of the Black Mountain Poets group; as well as the late writer and Black Panther activist Eldridge Cleaver.

Brooks is said to have launched her writing career as a child by sending poems to a community newspaper to surprise her family.

Her first book of poetry, "A Street in Bronzeville," was published in 1945 and told of ordinary life in a real Chicago neighborhood. It gained her national recognition and led to awards that included a Guggenheim Fellowship and induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Her second book of poetry, "Annie Allen," (1949) earned her the Pulitzer Prize in 1950. This series of poems traced the life of a young black girl growing up in Chicago.

"Chicago really shaped her, and she really shaped Chicago," Muse said. "Long before Chicago had Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan, there was Gwendolyn Brooks."

Muse noted that one group of young black poets from Chicago, the "Jump Badders," worked with Brooks to publish a poetry anthology. Haki Madhubuti (Don Lee), Johari Amini and Carolyn Rodgers were among these writers whom Brooks helped. In turn, they radicalized Brooks and, after she published "Riot" in 1969, she pledged to use only black publishing houses.

Schweik said Brooks' work is important because of her early use of traditional form for radically new ends, her mentoring of black and women poets, and her pioneering of writing on race and gender issues. Brooks is believed to have written the first published poem on abortion in the United States, Schweik said. Brooks read "The Mother" during a gathering of American poets honored at the White House by President Jimmy Carter in January 1980.

Brooks is important also because of the range and shifts in her writing style over the decades "as she responded, quickly and profoundly, to social changes and to movements for social change," Schweik said.

Brooks' awards included a lifetime achievement award from the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Book Foundation's medal for distinguished contributions to American Letters, the National Endowment for the Humanities' 1994 Jefferson Lecturer post, the Frost Medal, and the Poetry Society of America's Shelley Memorial Award. Brooks was named consultant-in-poetry to the Library of Congress in 1985-86 and was the first black woman to be so honored. Illinois named her the state poet laureate in 1968.

Despite her huge success, Brooks never became a "diva," said Muse.

"She wore it all so simply, and the remarkable thing about her was the inordinate amount of time she spent with other writers, especially young voices," Muse said. "She was a deep thinker without being tortured by it. She was intellectually honest and generous and a fabulous listener; that's why she worked so well with young people."

"Through her poetry, presence and uncomplicated demeanor," Muse said, "Brooks firmly admonished black people not to be clubbed into submission and to stand tall in their power and honor their truth."

A volume of Brooks' poetry will be published posthumously this spring. Published by Third World Press, it is titled "In Montgomery, New and Other Poems."


NOTE: A memorial reading for Gwendolyn Brooks will be held from noon to 1 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 19, Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. It will take place in UC Berkeley's Maude Fife Room, on the third floor of Wheeler Hall.