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Columns at museum's entrance

Living Self Portrait: Gwendolyn Brooks

Charles Zange
April 26, 2016

Home meant a quick-walking, careful, Duty-Loving mother, who played the piano, made fudge, made cocoa and prune whip and apricot pie, drew tidy cows and trees and expert houses with chimneys and chimney smoke, who helped her children with arithmetic homework, and who sang in high soprano: “Brighten the corner where you are!...”

Home meant my father, with kind eyes, songs, and tense recitations for my brother and myself. . . . He could fix anything that broke or stopped. . . . He could chuckle. No one has ever had, no one will ever have, a chuckle exactly like my father’s. It was gentle, it was warmly happy, it was heavyish but not hard.

Gwendolyn Brooks (1917–2000), Report From Part One

From a very young age, Gwendolyn Brooks’s life was intertwined with poetry. As a child, her parents remarked on her budding talent and encouraged her to write. Her mother Keziah, a teacher, emboldened her to be “the lady Paul Laurence Dunbar.” Her father David, a janitor, recited to her from Dunbar’s poetry and the Harvard Classics. At thirteen, Brooks’s poem “Eventide” was published in American Childhood, a national children’s magazine. The year of her death at age of eighty-three, she completed work on her final volume of poetry, In Montgomery.

Her seven-decade-long writing career was inventive and prolific. She wrote more than twenty books, often drawing from her personal experiences overcoming racism and social challenges on Chicago’s South Side. Brooks explored new avenues in poetry (A Street in Bronzeville, 1945), prose (Maud Martha, 1953), and autobiography (Report From Part One, 1972). In 1950, she became the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize. Her many awards and distinctions included two Guggenheim Fellowships, election into the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

In addition to her writing career, Brooks was also a teacher and mentor for new generations of poets. She set up poetry workshops in Chicago to guide young writers and was a poetry instructor at numerous colleges and universities. As author and publicist Haki Madhubuti described in Jet magazine, “She mentored literally three generations of poets, Black, White, Hispanic, Native American. She was all over the map sharing her gifts.” By the time of Brooks’s death on December 3, 2000, she had received more than seventy-five honorary degrees from colleges and universities.

The National Portrait Gallery’s collection includes a 1994 bronze sculpture of Brooks, currently on view in the exhibition “Struggle for Justice.” This bust was on stage with Brooks for her Living Self-Portrait interview with then-Senior Historian Marc Pachter on February 11, 1996. In the following clip, Brooks describes her reaction to the sculpture and thanks the artist, Sara S. Miller, with a poem prepared specifically for the occasion.

This interview was recorded as part of the National Portrait Gallery’s Living Self-Portraits, a series dedicated to capturing personal narratives of influential figures in American history. The full interview is available for research by appointment within the Portrait Gallery’s Audio/Visual Archive.

To learn more about the bronze sculpture of Gwendolyn Brooks, see our online collection.  

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Cited

Brooks, Gwendolyn, Report From Part One (Detroit: Broadside Press, 1972), 39

"Gwendolyn Brooks," Contemporary Black Biography, 28 (Detroit: Gale, 2001) Biography in Context,

“Gwendolyn Brooks,” Contemporary Heroes and Heroines, 3 (Detroit: Gale, 1998) Biography in Context,

Kent, George E., A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990), 1.

Living Self-Portrait: Gwendolyn Brooks, original interview video, National Portrait Gallery, AV.1996.EDU.1.

Thumbnail: "Gwendolyn E. Brooks" by Sara S. Miller, 1994. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution © Sara S. Miller, 1994. 

Tags:  Biography

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