papers of Pulitzer-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks join archives
at UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library
Kathleen Maclay, Media Relations
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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
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."
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.
was most grateful we had these documents. She said, 'You have
my blessings to buy it,'" said longtime Brooks friend Daphne
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.
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.
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
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.
is said to have launched her writing career as a child by
sending poems to a community newspaper to surprise her family.
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.
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.
really shaped her, and she really shaped Chicago," Muse said.
"Long before Chicago had Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan,
there was Gwendolyn Brooks."
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.
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.
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
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
her huge success, Brooks never became a "diva," said Muse.
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
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
of Brooks' poetry will be published posthumously this spring.
Published by Third World Press, it is titled "In Montgomery,
New and Other Poems."
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.