A brilliant wordsmith, Gwendolyn Brooks made admirable strides to use her voice in a manner that detailed the everyday struggles of the Black community. Born in Topeka, Kansas in 1917, she lived the majority of her life in Chicago where she helped to transform the state's literary scene in a great way. By age 16, Brooks had published nearly 75 poems and as a means to support herself, worked as a librarian until her notability grew.
Her hustle certainly paid off. Her second book, Annie Allen, was published in 1949 and received rave reviews. The following year, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, making her the first Black person to receive the honor.
Though it's been nearly 20 years since her passing, Brooks' impact can be seen through her work, especially the following five poems. Though there are plenty more to study from, these compositions are a great introduction into her massive catalog.
1. The Mother
One of Brooks’ most popular poems, the 1945 work tackles the very sensitive topic of abortion, nearly 30 years before the landmark Supreme Court ruling of Roe v. Wade, guaranteeing a woman’s right to a safe abortion. As the poem continues on, the subject recalls her past experiences and laments the children she’ll never “get.” The sonnet ends with the subject affirming she “loved” all the children she never had.
2. To Be in Love
What’s interesting about “To Be in Love” is that it’s encompassed in one solid block of text, allowing the narrator’s words to continuously flow into a fitting description of what love in fact is. Despite Brooks noting the trials and tribulations couples face, it all makes up the common reality of finding one’s better half.
3. Sadie and Maud
A part of her 1945 collection A Street in Bronzeville, the overarching lesson in “Sadie and Maud” can be applied to a modern audience: happiness is best obtained when you forge your own path and sadness is expected if you conform to societal norms. Sadie marches to the beat of her own drum, having children under her maiden name and taking care of them until she passes away. Maud, who decides to attend college, faces a much worse fate than Sadie: she dies alone in “this old house.” Moral of the story: remain true to your convictions.
4. A Sunset of the City
In “A Sunset of the City,” Brooks questions the advantages of living. Considering the struggles faced thus far, is it worth continuing on? In the opening stanza, the narrator makes it clear the concept of death doesn’t terrify her. In fact, she is prepared to accept her fate. Contrary to some of her other work, where Brooks alludes to overcoming her struggles, the narrator’s attitude here is more concession than optimism.
5. Children of the Poor
Included in the third part of Annie Allen, “Children of the Poor” chronicles the outcome of World War II from a mother’s viewpoint. She mourns the children who now have to grow up without a father, especially those with mothers who are facing financial hardships. Brooks notes the positive and negative parts of motherhood, using words like “softness” and “trap” to describe the responsibility of raising children. Nevertheless she affirms that her children must come to terms with their racial identity, as it will be extremely beneficial to them in the future.
The 1960s were a period that tremendously shaped the Black experience in America, and Gwendolyn Brooks played a considerable role to help reflect the political sentiment felt by many. She fought tirelessly for civil rights and provided a voice for a marginalized community determined to receive equal privileges.