By J. Coyden Palmer, Chicago Crusader
She was one of the most well known poets the world has ever known. Her poems spoke the truth about Black American life and the dreams of its people as she went on to become the Poet Laureate of Illinois and the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1950.
Gwendolyn Brooks would have turned 100 on June 7. To commemorate her life, a local author has penned “A Surprised Queenhood in the New Black Sun: The Life and Legacy of Gwendolyn Brooks.” Published by Beacon Press, the 198-page work by Angela Jackson takes you through Brooks’ childhood in Bronzeville, all the way through her last job as a professor at Chicago State University before her passing in December of 2000.
Jackson spoke with the Crusader earlier this week to discuss her latest work, which to her was more personal than others. She is friends with Brooks’ daughter Nora Brooks Blakely, who gave Jackson her blessing on the project. Having to produce the work in one year, Jackson said it was her most pressing book to date but one she feels gives an accurate portrayal of a woman whom she admired.
“My own mother had just passed away and I was looking for an important, intense and loving task to
fill that void and only Gwendolyn Brooks’ biography was able to do that, as she was a literary mother to me,” Jackson said. “I met Ms. Brooks because I was in a writer’s workshop with her daughter and she came there to read one day.”
Jackson said her interactions with Brooks were always close and personal, but she was not as close to her as was Haki Madhubuti, publisher of Third World Press. But she said her connections were more literary. That does not mean she did not have her personal, one on one moments with Brooks that she will always remember.
“She called me once to let me know I had won a literary award for fiction. When she told me I had won, I started to cry because I didn’t have any money. Two days later a check arrived to me from her for $55,” Jackson said. “In the course of our knowing each other she was kind to me and always helped me by arranging for me to be one of the poets that read at the Library of Congress, even before I had a book out.”
Jackson writes in her book that Brooks was a visionary, and a diplomat with her poetry that was garnering worldwide attention in the 1940’s. She also pointed out however that Brooks was a revolutionary who never became disconnected from her people.
In 1990 Chicago State University became the home of the Gwendolyn Brooks Center, which houses her works. Jackson said it was important for Brooks to keep her work within the Black community. She said one of the things she learned about Brooks while researching for the book was that Brooks was a young activist. “She was a member of the NAACP Youth Council and she was very involved in the anti-lynching movement. That youth council included her friends Dr. Margaret Burroughs, founder of the DuSable Museum, and John H. Johnson, founder of Ebony Magazine as well as many other successful people.”
Jackson said she believes if Brooks were still alive she would want there to be more creative writing and poetry taught in Chicago Public Schools. She said it was one of the reasons Brooks became a professor at Chicago State during the 1990’s because she wanted to pass her skills and love for writing on to the next generation.
“There is a lot to write about now and there is a truth to be told,” Jackson said. “And she would want people to do something about what they find.”
Founded in 2013, Brooks Day will pay homage to Gwendolyn Brooks. Jackson herself will be participating in events in Chicago. The day was conceived by Retro Givens at the University of Chicago and other members at Guild Complex. Nora Brooks Blakely has been in charge of all of the events leading up to this Brooks Day.
The events at the Logan Center, 915 E. 60th Street will run from 6-9 p.m. on June 7. “A Surprised Queenhood in the New Black Sun” is on sale now.