This poem, though published in the early 1960s, is a throwback to 1930s Chicago. The word "kitchenette" might sound cute, but back then was a term for houses and apartments that had been chopped up into even smaller units (which is only cute if you think living practically on top of your family members like sardines in a can is cute).
This was the start of discriminatory housing practices and unofficial segregation aimed at African-American families in inner-city Chicago. These cramped kitchenette buildings were usually run by predatory landlords and kept in poor condition. If you were making a comic book character based on these baddies (and you totally should) you might call it "Slumlords: The Dark Side of Chicago." The kitchenettes were often just one small room, and bathrooms and kitchens were shared with several other families. (Sharing a bathroom with your own siblings seems bad enough; now imagine having to share with other people's siblings.)
Gwendolyn Brooks grew up in a single-family home in Chicago, but spent her early married years in a kitchenette, which we imagine was a little bit of an adjustment (understatement of the year). Like many of Brooks's poems, "Kitchenette Building" explores the lives of African-Americans living in a time of extreme discrimination without ever coming out and saying that. She approaches the subject of discrimination not from a political standpoint, but from the speaker's personal experience. It's because of this point of view that Brooks's poems never read like a history lesson, but an intimate glimpse into someone's life. And let's face it, snooping through someone's diary is a lot more fun than browsing a history book.
The critics thought so, too. "Kitchenette Building" was just the second poem in Brooks's very first book, A Street in Bronzeville, published in 1945. Even still, folks thought enough of her work to award it the Pulitzer Prize, making Brooks the first African American ever to win that award for poetry. It was a huge milestone in literary history, and it's easy to see why Brooks was able to put her name on it. This poem gives us an insider's view that's just the right mix of historically significant and entertaining.
Dreams are lofty things, always threatening to float away at the threat of heavier, more of-this-world stuff like school, chores, and work. Think about how many hours a day are committed to things you don't necessarily want to do, but have to do: brushing your teeth; picking up your room; helping prepare breakfast, lunch, and dinner; cleaning; studying your least favorite subjects; running errands; working a job after school. The stuff we need to do to keep our lives in motion can be time- and energy-consuming, so sometimes it feels like our dreams get pushed to the back burner.
"Kitchenette Building," by Gwendolyn Brooks, recognizes the struggle of keeping our dreams alive. Whatever you want to do—become the next Barack Obama, Maria Sharapova, Beyoncé, or Iron Chef—it will not be easy to get there, but that doesn't mean you should stop dreaming. As tough as it may be to keep our dreams afloat, they are what make our daily tasks endurable. So read this poem and then tie your dreams to you like you would the string of a balloon; you don't want them to get away.
The Poetry Foundation
The Poetry Foundation has tons of info on Brooks, including audio recordings of some of her poems, as well as articles, and recommendations for further reading.
Encyclopedia of Chicago
Who knew there was such a cool resource? Check out this entry on kitchenette buildings to learn more about where (and when) this poem is coming from.
This vid sketches out a tribute to the poet's life and work.
Throwback Vid! Brooks in 1986
Brooks sits down with the director of the Library of Congress folklore division to discuss her work and influences on her work.
Brooks Reads the Poem
Hear it in the poet's own voice.
Brooks Reads a Handful of Her Other Poems
Listen to Brooks read a selection of her poems and enjoy the music of them. Recorded in 1961 at the Library of Congress.
Celebrate Poetry Day with Brooks
Brooks lectures at poetry day in Chicago in 1990.
Brooks at the Typewriter
Here's an early photo of Brooks, poised to do what she did best.
Brooks through a Different Lens
Here's Brooks later on in life, with glasses.
At the Mic
Brooks continued to read and give lectures until very late in her life.
Put it in Perspective
Critic Hannah Brooks-Motl delves into the history surrounding kitchenettes, and what that meant for Brooks.
Interview at James Madison University
Brooks dishes info on her early life, who and what influenced her poetry, and what it's like to be Poet Laureate.
This New York Times interview looks back at Brooks's life and career after her death at age 83.
You'll find "Kitchenette Building" and more of Brooks's most famous poems in this collection.
Brooks won the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for her collection Annie Allen.
Brooks on Brooks
Brooks published her autobiography, Report from Part One, in 1972.