Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks
June 7, 1917 – December 3, 2000
Gwendolyn Brooks was born and spent the first six weeks of her life in Topeka, Kansas before moving with her family to Bronzeville, a Black neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Her father, David Anderson Brooks, had dreamed of becoming a doctor but instead worked as a janitor. Her mother, Keziah Corinne Wims, who was a classically trained pianist earned a living as a schoolteacher.
Brooks’s parents encouraged her to pursue her passion for reading and writing. At the age of 13 her first poem, “Eventide”, was published. With encouragement from her mother, Brooks reached out to Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson with samples of her writing to which both replied with compliments and suggestions. By the age of 16, she would have 75 poems published and was a regular contributor to the Chicago Defender.
During this period she attended three high schools: predominately White, then all-Black, and finally integrated. Despite her youth, Brooks drew on the things she witnessed in Chicago for writing inspiration. Her experiences with discrimination at school also impacted her views and would later surface in her writing.
After graduating from high school, Brooks enrolled at Wilson Junior College from which she obtained an associate degree in literature and arts. To support herself she got a day job as a secretary and for a period of time worked as the director of publicity for the Chicago NAACP. It was around this time that Brooks married another writer, Henry L. Blakely. The two would be together for almost 60 years, though they were divorced for a period of four years halfway through the relationship, after which they got back together.
In efforts to continue developing her talent as a poet, Brooks began participating in poetry workshops. Her dedication resulted in a 1943 award from the Midwestern Writers’ Conference. Two years later she published her first collection of poems A Street in Bronzeville which told the stories of Black people and explored themes of struggle and discrimination. The book was well-received and brought more literary notoriety in addition to a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Yet, it was the 1949 release of Annie Allen, a book about a young Black woman’s journey to adulthood that resulted in Brooks becoming the first Black person to win a Pulitzer Prize. Up to this point, Brooks had been experiencing some financial struggles but her Pulitzer win catapulted her career.
1953 saw the publication of Brooks’ only novel which continued her frequent theme of telling stories of everyday Black life. The book Maud Martha was in some ways based on Brooks’s personal experiences. It followed the main character Maude, a dark-skinned Black woman, as she navigated racial discrimination from White people as well as colorism from Black people with lighter skin complexions. And 1960 saw the publication of “We Real Cool” one of her most well-known poems.
Beginning in the 1960s, Brooks worked as a creative writing teacher at various universities, primarily in Chicago. In the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, she attended a 1967 conference for Black writers at Fisk University. Brooks had always explored the themes of race and prejudice in her work but the experience sparked a shift in her writing. Racial and social issues were featured just as prominently but with an unwillingness to compromise or tone down her commentary for mainstream literary acceptance. She continued to write and publish collections of poetry eventually moving her work to small Black-owned publishing companies.
In 1968 Brooks was appointed as poet laureate of Illinois and later at the age of 68, she became the first Black woman to be appointed poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. Her responsibilities included visiting schools, prisons, hospitals, and drug rehab centers to give poetry readings and she also independently organized poetry contests for children. She received several awards as well as honorary degrees over the course of her life. Gwendolyn Brooks passed away from cancer at her home on Chicago’s South Side on December 3, 2000, at the age of 83. She was predeceased by her husband and survived by her two children.
- Biography.com Editors, ed. 2020. “Gwendolyn Brooks.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. April 24, 2020. https://www.biography.com/writer/gwendolyn-brooks.
- “Gwendolyn Brooks.” 2020. Poetry Archive. The Poetry Archive. January 24, 2020. https://poetryarchive.org/poet/gwendolyn-brooks/.
- “Gwendolyn Brooks.” n.d. Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation. Accessed April 28, 2021. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/gwendolyn-brooks.
- Richardson Johnson, Doris. 2007. “Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000).” Blackpast.org. January 19, 2007. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/brooks-gwendolyn-1917/.
- Watkins, Mel. 2000. “Gwendolyn Brooks, 83, Passionate Poet, Dies.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company. December 5, 2000. https://www.nytimes.com/2000/12/05/books/gwendolyn-brooks-83-passionate-poet-dies.html.
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