Seventy years ago today, on May 1, 1950, Gwendolyn Brooks (1917–2000) won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for her collection Annie Allen. Brooks’s award marked the first time an African American had won a Pulitzer Prize in any category, and Brooks managed to edge out not only William Carlos Williams’s Selected Poems but also Robert Frost’s Collected Poems. In a subsequent letter, Pulitzer poetry juror Henry Seidel Canby praised Annie Allen (which comprises three sections tracing the title character’s passage from childhood to maturity) as “a volume of great originality, real distinction and high value as a book, as well as poetry.”
The historic nature of that win is being commemorated today through the #GlobalGwen initiative launched by Brooks Permissions, the poet’s estate. Brooks Permissions invited publishers of Brooks’s work and other partner organizations to mark the anniversary by having someone from each organization read her poetry on camera and then share the footage on social media. The goal is to raise awareness of Brooks’s writing among a wide audience.
For Library of America’s contribution to the anniversary celebration, President and Publisher Max Rudin reads Brook’s poem “The Bean Eaters,” from her 1960 collection of the same title. Enjoy his reading in the video below:
“The Bean Eaters” and selections from Annie Allen are included in the 2005 LOA collection The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks, edited by Elizabeth Alexander.
The story of how Brooks learned she had won the Pulitzer has justly become a part of American literary lore. As she recounted in a 1986 interview with Ethelbert Miller and Alan Jabbour for the Library of Congress:
I was in a house at 9134 S. Wentworth and the lights were out—that’s been told many times by now. We hadn’t paid the electric bill so there was no electricity and it was dusk. It was dark in the house. My son was nine at the time. Jack Starr, a reporter on the [Chicago] Sun-Times, called . . . . He said, “Do you know that you have won the Pulitzer Prize?” I said “No” and screamed over the telephone. I couldn’t believe it. So he said, Well, it was true and it would be announced the next day.
The next day, reporters came, photographers came with cameras, and I was absolutely petrified. I wasn’t going to say anything about the electricity. I knew that when they put in their—when they tried to attach their cameras and all, nothing was going to happen.
However, miraculously, somebody had turned the electricity back on that fast. I’ve never known exactly what happened. So my son and I danced around in the dusk and decided we’d go out to the movies to celebrate. I don’t know what movie it was, before you ask.
We encourage all our readers to share their own favorites, responses, and thoughts on Brooks’s poetry via Instagram. Tag our account with the hashtag #GlobalGwen to commemorate the anniversary of her Pulitzer win.