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Pulitzer Prize Winning Poet Dies

December 4, 2000

CHICAGO (AP) _ Gwendolyn Brooks, who promoted an understanding of black culture through her candid, compassionate poetry and became the first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize, has died of cancer. She was 83.

She wrote hundreds of poems, had more than 20 books published, and had been Illinois’ poet laureate since 1968. Her poetry delved into poverty, racism and drugs among black people.

``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.

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.

Brooks often referred to her works as her family, which also included black people in general.

``If you have one drop of blackness blood in you _ yes, of course it comes out red _ you are mine,″ she once said. ``You are a member of my family.″

But she was quick to point that she wasn’t exclusionary, noting that she had the liveliest interest in other families.

Brooks was also 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 said she found it intoxicating and exciting to see young talent. She would attend poetry slams in Chicago, where aspiring poets would line up to read their works, and she often financed awards to the poet voted the best reader by the audience.

Brooks once said of the awards she received _ including having a bronze sculpture of her placed in the National Portrait Gallery _ that there was only one that meant a great deal to her:

``In December 1967, at a workshop called the Kumuba Workshop in a rundown theater in Chicago, I was given an award for just being me, and that’s what poetry is to me _ just being me.″

Survivors include her daughter, Nora Brooks Blakely, son Henry Blakely III, and a grandson. Her husband, poet and writer, Henry Blakely Jr., died in 1996, Aguila said.


On the Net: http://www.csu.edu/CollegeOfArtsAndSciences/EnglishSpeechAndModernLanguages/

Chicago State University’s Brooks center: BROOKS.htm

The Academy of American Poets: http://www.poets.org/index.cfm

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