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About the Poet Gwendolyn Brooks grew up in Chicago in a poor yet stable and loving family. Her father was a janitor who had hoped to become a doctor; her mother a teacher and classically trained pianist. Brooks was thirteen when her first published poem, 'Eventide', appeared in American Childhood; by seventeen she had published a number of poems in Chicago Defender, a newspaper serving Chicago's black population. She attended the leading white high school in Illinois, but transferred to an all-black school, then to an integrated school. In 1936 she graduated from Wilson Junior College. These four academies gave her a perspective on racial dynamics in the city, which was to influence the rest of her writing life.

While working for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, she developed her poetic craft, publishing her first collection A Street in Bronzeville in 1945. In this book, which bought her instant critical acclaim, Brooks chronicles the everyday lives, aspirations, and disappointments of the ordinary black people in her own neighborhood. The book also explores the unfair treatment of blacks in the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II.

Brooks was celebrated as a major new voice in contemporary poetry for her technical expertise, innovative use of imagery and idiom, and new perspective on the lives of African Americans. She was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, and Mademoiselle magazine named her one of its "Ten Women of the Year."

In 1949, she became the first ever black writer to win the Pulitzer Prize with Annie Allen which tells the story of a black woman's passage from childhood to adulthood, against a backdrop of poverty and discrimination. In Saturday Review of Literature, Starr Nelson proclaimed the collection: "a work of art and a poignant social document." and Langston Hughes commented: "the people and poems in Gwendolyn Brooks' book are alive, reaching, and very much of today."

After attending the Second Black Writers' Conference at Fisk University in 1967, Brooks' work took a more overtly political stance and shows a deepening concern with social problems. Toni Cade Bambara wrote in the New York Times Book Review that "something happened to Brooks, a something most certainly in evidence in In the Mecca and subsequent works—a new movement and energy, intensity, richness, power of statement and a new stripped lean, compressed style. A change of style prompted by a change of mind." In the seventies, Brookes left the major publishing house Harper & Row, in favour of new Black publishing companies – although this should not be taken as a sign that her work was universally acclaimed by its Black readership. Her autobiography Report from Part One (1972) did not provide the insight that some reviewers had expected – prompting Brooks to reply: "They wanted a list of domestic spats." Other critics praised the book for explaining the poet's new orientation toward her racial heritage and her role as a poet.

Gwendolyn Brooks was sixty-eight when she became the first black woman to be appointed to be poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. Of her many duties, the most important, in her view, were visits to local schools. Similarly, visits to colleges, universities, prisons, hospitals, and drug rehabilitation centers characterized her tenure as poet laureate of Illinois. In recognition of her service and achievements, a junior high school in Harvey, Illinois, was named for her, and she was also honored by Western Illinois University's Gwendolyn Brooks Center for African-American Literature.

In this recording, Brooks' confident musical voice emphasizes the rhythmical patterns of her poetry. On performing the poem 'We Real Cool', Brooks has said "The "We" - you're supposed to stop after the "We" and think about their validity, and of course there's no way for you to tell whether it should be said softly or not, I suppose, but I say it rather softly because I want to represent their basic uncertainty, which they don't bother to question every day, of course."

The recording was made on January 19, 1961 at the Recording Laboratory, Library of Congress, Washington DC and is used with permission of the Library of Congress.

Which books contain this poem?
  • Selected Poems - Gwendolyn Brooks
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