STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Gwendolyn Brooks would have turned 100 next month. She was the first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize. And on the centennial of her birth, a new biography of the late poet is out this week. Here's Karen Grigsby Bates of our Code Switch team.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: In 1950, Gwendolyn Brooks got the news of her Pulitzer Prize for poetry while sitting in the growing gloom of her living room. In a 1986 interview with the Library of Congress, Brooks confided she was in the dark because her electric bill hadn't been paid. So amidst her jubilation about the Pulitzer, she worried about what would happen when word of her honor became public and the press descended upon her.
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GWENDOLYN BROOKS: The next day, reporters came. Photographers came with cameras. And I was absolutely petrified. I wasn't going to say anything about the electricity. I knew that when they - (sobbing) when they tried to attach their cameras and all, nothing was going to happen.
BATES: Turned out the photographers were able to plug in their lights because someone - Brooks never knew who - quietly paid the bill. That, to a certain extent, was Gwendolyn Brooks' life - sometimes financially strapped, always artistically sublime.
In poet Angela Jackson's new biography, "A Surprised Queenhood In The New Black Sun: The Life And Legacy Of Gwendolyn Brooks," Jackson says even before her award, Gwendolyn Brooks was well-known by many African-Americans because she appeared in The Chicago Defender, a legendary black newspaper.
ANGELA JACKSON: She published regularly from 1938 to about 1945 in The Chicago Defender. And the Defender was read not just by black people in Chicago but by black people all throughout the South, where it was distributed.
BATES: This new honor, Jackson says, now drew the attention of white America as well.
JACKSON: As with the Pulitzer for anyone, her notoriety increased. And the fact that she was the first African-American to be awarded the Pulitzer made her notoriety go through the roof.
BATES: Brooks' collections, like "A Street In Bronzeville," "The Bean Eaters" and "In The Mecca" describe black Chicago - its landmarks, its customs, its people - in recognizable detail. She wrote about people not normally visible in the poetry world. Nora Brooks Blakely says this didn't surprise anyone who knew her mother.
NORA BROOKS BLAKELY: It was definitely important for her to speak about the people that she lived around, among, with. But fundamentally, Mama was an observer.
BATES: It was that quick eye that was the catalyst for one of Gwendolyn Brooks' most famous poems, which she reads here.
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BROOKS: "We Real Cool." The pool players, seven at the Golden Shovel. We real cool. We left school. We lurk late. We strike straight. We sing sin. We thin gin. We jazz June. We die soon.
BATES: Other work, like her Pulitzer Prize-winning volume "Annie Allen," described the life of a brown-skinned black girl in cadence and imagery that showed Brooks' mastery of classic poetic structure. It put her in the company of poets like Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams. But, daughter Nora Blakely recalls, there was still struggle.
BROOKS BLAKELY: I remember a lot of meals of beans and chicken wings before chicken wings got gourmet and popular - when chicken wings were just the cheapest part of the chicken.
BATES: Brooks and her husband, Henry Blakely, raised Nora and her older brother Hank in a home rich with books and music and intellectual discussions. Brooks' finances wouldn't change until the mid-'60s, when she began to teach poetry and writing at several colleges. Nora Blakely remembers one year her mother taught at three colleges concurrently.
BROOKS BLAKELY: That Christmas, suddenly the Christmas presents changed. And she just had a happy little fit where she only got presents that year for people from Marshall Field's and C.D. Peacock.
BATES: Born in Topeka, Kan., in 1917, Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks became a Chicagoan when she was 5 weeks old. She grew up on the city's South Side with thousands of black residents who had migrated out of the South near the end of World War I. At age 7, she was making her own books of stories and poems. As a teen, Harlem Renaissance poets James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes mentored her. In turn, she would spend her life encouraging aspiring young poets, including Chicago poet Haki Madhubuti, who met her in the early 1960s.
HAKI MADHUBUTI: Like so many young poets at that time, I was pretty much in awe of her craft, her work and her commitment to her community.
BATES: Madhubuti, who first published under his birth name, Don L. Lee, came to prominence during the Black Arts Movement, a decade in the mid-'60s to '70s that focused on black self-expression. He said he and a number of what Brooks fondly called the riotous young people would meet at her small home and argue poetry and politics passionately.
MADHUBUTI: Our poetry changed, and her poetry changed.
BATES: And it wasn't only the poetry that changed.
MADHUBUTI: One day she showed up. (Unintelligible), walked in. She had a scarf on her head. And then she took the scarf off her head, and she had a natural hairdo.
BATES: For a proper middle-aged black woman at the time, it was a bold move.
Brooks made other bold moves. She left her mainstream publisher for black presses. Her old friend Haki Madhubuti heads Chicago's Third World Press, which has published her books for the past several years.
MADHUBUTI: She never took royalties. She said, you know, just use the money to build the press.
BATES: Gwendolyn Brooks believed in building black institutions and put her modest money where her mouth was. Nora Brooks Blakely says, while her mother enjoyed nice things, she considered them occasional enhancements not necessities. Instead, she created and funded poetry prizes to encourage others and gave money to people who needed the time and space to write.
BROOKS BLAKELY: I am constantly amazed by the number of people who come up to me and talk to me about the impact that Mama had on their lives.
BATES: A conference on poetry was established in her name at Chicago State University. Biographer Angela Jackson.
JACKSON: One year, Toni Morrison was a speaker. And she, at great length, talked about Ms. Brooks' influence on her writing - that she was able to write because of Gwendolyn Brooks.
BATES: Several schools were named after her. Students, actors and spoken-word artists often recite "We Real Cool" in tribute to this quiet, generous poet. On June 7, Chicago will hold a birthday celebration for Gwendolyn Brooks, a very American poet who elevated the stories of ordinary African-Americans with her extraordinary skill. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.
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