Chicago Illinois Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks, 83, died of cancer Sunday as she lived with a pen in hand, surrounded by verse and people she loved in her South Side home.
One of America's most visible poets, Brooks in 1950 was the first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize for her direct and compassionate poetry, which delved throughout her life into social issues and concerns of African-Americans. In 1968, she became poet laureate of Illinois, and in that role was perhaps more active as an educator and author than any other laureate in the United States.
"I believe that we should all know each other, we human carriers of so many pleasurable differences," she said in a recent interview. "To not know is to doubt, to shrink from, sidestep or destroy."
Dr. Jifunza Wright, who was Brooks' attending physician, said the poet died Sunday at her home, surrounded by friends and family members who had been taking turns reading to her.
Her Pulitzer was awarded in 1950 for her second book of poetry, "Annie Allen."
One of her most famous poems is "We Real Cool," from the 1960 collection "The Bean Eaters." The short poem sums up hopelessness in eight lines: "We real cool. We/Left school. We/Lurk late. We/Strike straight. We/Sing sin. We/Thin gin. We/Jazz June. We/Die soon."
Brooks continued to write throughout her life and had completed her most recent volume of poems late this summer, her agent Carolyn Aguila said.
"Her activity regarding her creative muse was very high," Aguila said. "She continued to speak and read and do all sorts of appearances."
In 1989, Brooks received a lifetime achievement award from the National Endowment for the Arts. She was named the 1994 Jefferson Lecturer by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the highest honor bestowed by the federal government for work in the humanities.
Art drawn from life
Brooks was born in Topeka, Kan., in 1917, but grew up in Chicago.
She began writing at 11 when she mailed several poems to a community newspaper in Chicago to surprise her family. Her early works were mostly autobiographical, detailing the death of friends, her relationship with her family and their reaction to war and racism.
After a number of her poems had been published in Chicago's black newspapers, Brooks sent 19 poems to a list of publishers.
"I said to myself, I'm going to go straight down that list until somebody takes these poems," she said.
Harper & Bros., now HarperCollins, was at the top of the list. Its editors suggested she needed more poems, then published the collection in 1945 in a book called "A Street in Bronzeville."
"Annie Allen" followed four years later.
Mentor to students
Brooks also was known as a tireless teacher, promoter and advocate of creative writing in general and poetry in particular.
"She mentored literally three generations of poets black, white, Hispanic, Native American," said longtime friend, poet and literature professor Haki Madhubuti, who founded the Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Creative Writing and Black Literature at Chicago State University. "She was all over the map sharing her gifts."
She used her prestige as Illinois' poet laureate to inspire young writers, establishing the Illinois Poet Laureate Awards in 1969 to encourage elementary and high school students to write.
She visited with students in Lawrence, Kan., in 1996, conducting two workshops at Lawrence High School. On that visit she also made a public appearance at the Lied Center.