University to celebrate life and legacy of poet Gwendolyn Brooks

Events to include April 6-8 conference of scholars, writers and musicians

Andrew Bauld
News Officer for Arts and HumanitiesNews Office
Nora Semel
Director of External Relations for UChicago Arts and the Logan CenterUniversity Communications, UChicago Arts

The University of Chicago will celebrate the legacy of acclaimed poet Gwendolyn Brooks with events throughout the spring, including a major gathering of scholars, writers and musicians from April 6-8.

In honor of the 100th anniversary of her birth, Centennial Brooks will include a scholarly conference and a celebration of the life and poetry of the first African American poet to win the Pulitzer Prize. Presented by the University of Chicago in partnership with the DuSable Museum of African American History and the Poetry Foundation, it also will feature a special appearance by Nora Brooks Blakely, Gwendolyn Brooks’ daughter.

“The University of Chicago is honored to partner with arts and culture organizations around the city of Chicago to celebrate the legacy of Gwendolyn Brooks,” said Bill Michel, executive director of UChicago Arts and the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts. “Centennial Brooks presents a momentous occasion to convene the public and share with them myriad events across campus that recognize Brooks’ impact on the South Side of Chicago and the world.”

Born in Topeka, Kan., Brooks moved to Chicago as a child. A passionate writer, Brooks published her first poem at age 13, and by the time she was 17 her work frequently appeared in the Chicago Defender. Brooks spent the early part of her career mostly as a typist for lawyers, but was invited by the novelist Frank London Brown to teach a course in American literature at the University of Chicago. She would go on to have a long career in higher education, teaching at a number of institutions including Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago State University and Columbia College Chicago. Closely associated with Chicago’s South Side, in particular the Bronzeville neighborhood, Brooks’ poetry reflected the realities of urban black Chicago.

“Centennial Brooks has twin aims, reflecting two aspects of the many-faceted work of Gwendolyn Brooks,” said John Wilkinson, chair of creative writing and the Committee on Poetics, who led the Centennial Brooks planning group. “First, we seek to recognize Gwendolyn Brooks as one of the great American poets of the 20th century. Second, we seek to honor Gwendolyn Brooks’ self-identification as a black poet, and to show her present influence as poet and cultural activist on black culture in the United States and in the wider African diaspora.”

Centennial Brooks will begin April 6 at the DuSable Museum, including readings featuring Brooks’ contemporaries and canonical poets Sonia Sanchez, Haki Madhubuti and Angela Jackson. On April 7 and 8 at the Logan Center, events will feature Robin Coste Lewis, Ishion Hutchinson, Ed Roberson, Evie Shockley, the premiere of a new commission by Nicole Mitchell and the Black Earth Ensemble inspired by Brooks, as well as the music and poetry of Jamila Woods.

“For years there has been a murmur and a mutter about the lack of attention paid to Gwendolyn Brooks at the college and post-graduate level,” said Blakely. “One of the many reasons I'm so excited about this celebration is my belief that the centennial and specifically the University of Chicago conference in April will shine a new light on my mother's canon.”

All Centennial Brooks events are free and open to the public. For a complete listing of events, visit https://arts.uchicago.edu/brooks100.

Centennial Brooks is presented alongside Our Miss Brooks 100, a citywide program for Chicagoans of all ages interested in Brooks’ poetry and life. UChicago Arts will host a number of additional events at various locations on campus, including Seasons: A Gwendolyn Brooks Experience book launch on March 1; a performance for Chicago-area students by the Joffrey Ballet’s Excelon Strobel Step-up group on March 16; a concert by Imani Winds, the Don Michael Randel Ensemble-in-Residence at the University of Chicago, including the world premieres of three works on May 3; a book launch for A Surprised Queenhood in the New Black Sun: The Life and Legacy of Gwendolyn Brooks by Angela Jackson on May 30; the annual BrooksDay celebration on June 7; and more.