To reach the age of 100 bestows a certain illustrious or legendary aura to the centenarian. After all, for something to have endured for so many years—10 decades, hundreds of seasons, more than 36,500 days—it must possess some form of mythical strength or wisdom. Gwendolyn Brooks, one of America’s most celebrated and beloved poets, would’ve reached that milestone last month, although she became a legend long before her hundredth birthday.
Brooks was born on June 7, 1917 in Topeka, Kansas. As a child, her family moved to Chicago, a city that she would call home for the rest of her life. Chicago had a powerful influence on Brooks’ writing; in fact, Brooks’ first book of poetry—1945’s A Street in Bronzeville—was inspired by her experiences living in the neighborhood of the same name in Chicago’s South Side, and many of her other collections and poems painted portraits of the lives of city dwellers.
Her biography is rich with awards and accolades. At 32, she became the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize for her second book of poetry, Annie Allen, in 1950. She was the first African-American woman inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1976. By the time of her death in 2000, Brooks had served as a Guggenheim Fellow in Poetry, the Poet Laureate of the United States, the Poet Laureate of Illinois, received the National medal of Arts, and much more.
In honor of her 100th birthday, countless poets, teachers, and fans organized events celebrating her life, legacy, and of course, her incomparable poetry. The celebratory spirit was perhaps most intense in Brooks’ native Chicago, home of the annual BrooksDay festival, which featured presentations from dozens of poets such as Patricia Smith, Peter Kahn, and Brooks’ daughter, Nora Blakely Brooks. Chicago artists also collaborated with the Poetry Foundation to produce an original video entitled “We Real Cool,” named for one of Brooks’ most famous poems, which “imagines the moment of witness that inspired Gwendolyn Brooks to write her landmark poem.”
Personally, I was honored to commemorate Brooks’ centenary with the release of The Golden Shovel Anthology, a collection of poems that I co-edited along with Patricia Smith and Peter Kahn. The collection features works from poets such as Nikki Giovanni, Billy Collins, Rita Dove, Tracy K. Smith, Timothy Yu, and many others. Each poem is written in the Golden Shovel style, a format developed by poet Terrance Hayes in which the final words of each line are taken from a poem by Brooks herself, thus enabling a reading of both the new Golden Shovel poem as well as Brooks’ original poem along the right-hand margin. With The Golden Shovel Anthology, we hope to keep Brooks’ legacy alive for the next hundred years and beyond.