Childhood & Early Life
Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks was born on June 7, 1917, in Topeka, Kansas. Her father David Anderson Brooks was initially studying medicine at the ‘Frisk University’, but was compelled to abandon his education when his father died a year after his enrollment. Brooks’s mother Keziah, née Wims, was a fifth grade school teacher in Topeka.
Brooks was the oldest of her parents’ two children, and had a younger brother named Raymond Melvin. Six weeks after her birth, her parents moved to Chicago during the ‘Great Migration’. Once there, her father found a job as a janitor, first at the ‘McKinley Music Publishing Company’ and later, at Targ and Dinner.
When Brooks turned four or five, her mother began to teach her recitation for programs at ‘Carter Temple Church’. Soon, she began to attend monthly musical programs at ‘Metro Community Church’, where she was introduced to music of different ethnic groups. Around this time, she also learned to play the piano.
At the age of six, she was enrolled at ‘Forrestville Elementary School’, where she encountered a different environment. With dark complexion and crimpled hair, she not only looked different from others, but her working class background also differentiated her from her classmates.
In spite of facing social rejection at school, Brooks continued to flourish at home and wrote a two-line poem at the age of seven. Her mother highly applauded her and encouraged her to write more. She told her that if she continued working hard, she would one day become another Paul Lawrence Dunbar.
In 1928, 11 years old Brooks resolved to write one poem every day. By then, she had filled up a series of poetry books, writing about the world around her as well as about mother nature and religion. She was also a voracious reader.
In 1930, when she was 13, she got her poem ‘Eventide’ published in the October issue of ‘American Childhood’. In the same year, she came across ‘Writer’s Digest’, an American magazine for budding writers, and was relieved to learn that other people were also facing the same problems that she was facing.
Brooks began her high school education at the predominantly white ‘Hyde Park Branch High School’, where she had to face extreme racism. Consequently, she first got herself transferred to the all-black ‘Wendell Phillips High School’ and then to the ‘Englewood High School’, an integrated school with a friendlier ambience.
At Englewood, she was encouraged by teachers and students to write poems. However, racism was not totally absent even there. She became aware of it when she threw a Sweet Sixteen party and none of her school friends turned up.
At the age of 16, Books sent some of her works to the famous American author James Weldon Johnson. In his reply, he encouraged her to write and also advised her to read the works of T. S. Elliot and Ezra Pound, etc. His letter greatly encouraged the budding author.
In 1934, she enrolled in the ‘Wilson Junior College’, which is now known as the ‘Kennedy-King College’, for a two-year program. She did not go for the usual four years course because she had already made up her mind to become a writer and did not want to delay her pursuit. During this period, she regularly contributed poems to ‘Chicago Defender’.
While literature was her favorite subject in college, Brooks also became interested in politics and social justice, publishing her own mimeographed newspaper, ‘News Review’, priced at five cents. In it, she wrote about African-American issues. These articles also reflected her racial pride and her commitment towards educating black people.
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Early Writing Career
After her college graduation in 1936, Gwendolyn Brooks found it hard to secure a job, mainly because of her skin color. Eventually, she was hired as an assistant to E. M. French of the Mecca Building and was assigned the task of selling charms and potions to the residents, a job she found thoroughly distasteful.
After four months, she was fired from her job because she refused to be promoted to the position of a preacher. During this period, she also became active in the ‘Youth Council of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’. In 1937, she became the publicity director of its Chicago chapter.
Brooks got married in 1939 and gave birth to her first child a year later. While her family became her first priority, she continued to write in her free time, joining the ‘South Side Writers Group’ sometime around this period.
In 1941, she attended a writing workshop by Inez Cunningham Stark, a wealthy white lady with a strong literally background. At the gathering, she came in contact with poets from both white and black communities, which broadened her horizon and helped her gain a deeper understanding of techniques used by modern poets.
At Stark’s encouragement, she began to appear in competitions and won the ‘Midwest Writers’ Conference Prize’ in 1943, 1944 and 1945. These prizes helped her attract the attention of publishers. Eventually, two of her poems were published in the November 1944 issue of the ‘Poetry’ magazine.
In 1943, she submitted a collection of her poems to Harper & Brothers, whose editor sent them to Richard Wright for his assessment. While Wright praised her work, he also suggested her to write a long poem, carrying a lot of personal feelings, in order to complete a poetry book.
At Wright’s suggestion, Brooks wrote ‘The Sundays of Satin-leg Smiths’. Eventually, her first book of poems ‘A Street in Bronzeville’ was published in 1945. By then, she had reached her poetic maturity and her works had begun to reflect the complexities of modern life.
‘A Street in Bronzeville’ earned instant critical acclaim for its authentic portrayal of life in Bronzeville, a neighborhood located in the south of Chicago. Although Gwendolyn Brooks’s poems reflected the black experience, they were not merely ‘Negro poetry’, but carried a universal appeal.
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In 1946, she received her first ‘Guggenheim Fellowship’ and was also included in the ‘Ten Young Women of the Year’ list of the ‘Mademoiselle’ magazine. Sometime now, she made her first trip to down south for a poetry recital session at the ‘Howard and Atlanta University’.
While Brooks continued to write poetry, she also expanded her horizon and started writing book reviews. In 1949, she had her second collection of poems published. Entitled ‘Annie Allen’, the book earned her many honors, including the coveted ‘Pulitzer Prize’.
In 1953, she published her only narrative book, a novella based on her own experiences. Entitled ‘Maud Martha’, it tells the story of a black girl, who faces discrimination not only from white people, but also from the black ones with lighter skin color. However, she never gives up.
Her collection of poems called ‘Bronzeville Boys and Girls’ was published in 1956. It was followed by ‘The Bean Eaters’, which she published in 1960. The latter collection featured ‘We Real Cool’, her favorite poem that explored the themes of youth, rebellion and morality. Slowly, her fame began to spread.
In 1962, Brooks was invited by President John F. Kennedy to read at a ‘Library of Congress’ poetry festival. It opened a new career option for her, as she was appointed the instructor of creative writing at the ‘Columbia College Chicago’.
During the 1960s, she also became active on the African-American cultural scenes in Chicago and hosted a number of gatherings for black artists and intellectuals at her home. In these gatherings, the invitees discussed artistic as well as political issues.
Rediscovering African Identity
Gwendolyn Brooks attended the Second Black Writers' Conference at the ‘Fisk University’ in Nashville in 1967. Here she rediscovered her black identity and became more conscious about black problems. While she had been writing about the black issues from the beginning of her literary career, she was now determined not to compromise for the sake of technicalities.
Her experience at the ‘Fisk University’ had a marked impact on her subsequent writings, which is especially visible in the book ‘In the Mecca’, published in 1968. The poems in this collection, mainly the title poem, were powerful and rough. However, they were neither bitter nor revengeful.
In 1968, Brooks’s collection ‘For Illinois 1968: A Sesquicentennial Poem’ was published. This was her last book under the banner of Harper & Brothers. In order to nurture black enterprise and literature, she left Harper in favor of Broadside Press, a small company run by Dudley Randall.
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Her book ‘Riot’ was published under the banner of Broadside Press in 1969. It was followed by ‘Family Pictures’ (1970), ‘Aloneness’ (1971) and ‘Report from Part One: An Autobiography’ (1972). Between 1971 and 1972, she edited two collections of poetry, ‘A Broadside Treasury’ and ‘Jump Bad: A New Chicago Anthology’.
While she published a lot of collections in the 1970s, her works barely found any mention in the press. Some critics also expressed concerns over the political overtone in her writings from this period. Brooks, however, believed that the literally establishments did not want to encourage black publishers. Nonetheless, she continued to patronize black publishing companies.
In the 1970s, she taught at the ‘Northeastern Illinois University’, the ‘Chicago State University’, the ‘Elmhurst College’, the ‘Columbia University’, the ‘Clay College of New York’ and the ‘University of Wisconsin–Madison’. She spent the summer holidays at home, reading and writing. It is not known when, but she also visited Kenya and Tanzania during one of her summer breaks.
In spite of her busy schedule, Brooks continued to write, publishing a number of her works in quick succession. Among them were 'Primer for Blacks' (1980), 'Young Poet’s Primer' (1980), 'To Disembark' (1981), ‘Black Love’ (1982) and ‘Mayor Harold Washington; and, Chicago, the I Will City’ (1983).
Despite her advanced age, she continued to write, publishing ‘The Near-Johannesburg Boy, and Other Poems’ in 1987 and ‘Winnie’ in 1988. Her autobiography ‘Report from Part Two’, published in 1996, was her last major work.
In her last years, Brooks spent lot of time and energy sponsoring numerous writers’ workshops to encourage young authors. Concurrently, she also took her poetry to the people, reciting poems in schools, universities and even cafes to instigate the inner-city children to see poetry in their life.
Gwendolyn Brooks is best remembered for her 1949 collection of poems ‘Annie Allen’. The work, divided into three parts, tells the story of an African American girl’s journey from birth to womanhood, showing how a dreamy and self-centered girl transforms into a realistic idealist.
‘In the Mecca’ (1968) is another of her well-known works. The first part consists of a long narrative poem, tracing a mother’s steps in search of her lost daughter through the Mecca, a vast apartment building in Chicago. The second part contains individual works and included her famous poem ‘Malcolm X’.
Awards & Achievements
In 1950, Gwendolyn Brooks received the ‘Pulitzer Prize’ in poetry for her 1949 work, ‘Annie Allen’.
She received many awards for her distinguished service to literature, including ‘Robert Frost Medal for Lifetime Achievement’ (1989), ‘Anisfield-Wolf Book Award’ (1969), ‘Shelley Memorial Award’ (1976), ‘National Book Foundation's Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters’ (1994) and ‘National Medal of Arts’ (1995).
In 1985-1986, Brooks became the first black woman to be appointed the poetry consultant at the ‘Library of Congress’.
In 1968, she was appointed ‘Poet Laureate of Illinois’, holding the position until her death. She was also awarded the ‘Order of Lincoln’, the highest honor granted by the state of Illinois, in 1997.
Brooks became the first African-American woman to be inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1976.
Family & Personal Life
Gwendolyn Brooks married Henry Lowington Blakely, Jr., a fellow poet, in September 1939. Blakely had to sacrifice his writing career and work as a business consultant to earn a living so that he could continue to support his wife’s literary aspirations. They had two children, Henry Lowington Blakely III and Nora Brooks Blakely.
On December 3, 2000, Brooks died of breast cancer, in her home in Chicago.