January 9, 2009 | Revised: January 16, 2018
Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks was born on June 7, 1917 to David Anderson Brooks and Keziah Wims in Topeka, Kansas. Shortly thereafter, when she was an infant, the family relocated to Chicago, Illinois, where she grew up and resided all her life. Her father was a janitor, for his ambition to attend medical school to become a doctor was unfulfilled due to monetary issues; her mother was a teacher and a classical trained pianist.
Brooks had a passion for reading and writing and found great support from her parents. In fact, in 1930, she published her first poem, “Eventide,” in American Childhood at the age of thirteen. Although her parents were supportive and loving, they were also strict and did not allow her to play with the neighborhood kids; instead, they encouraged her to remain in her literature and provided her with the educational tools to do so. Her home was stable, but the same cannot be said for her schools, where she encountered racial prejudice. She first attended an all-white school, Hyde Park High School (now called Hype Park Career Academy); she later transfer to an all-black high school, Wendell Phillips, before settling at an integrated school, Englewood High School. While attending Englewood, her mother, in 1933, introduced her to Harlem Renaissance prominent poets Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson. Meeting these Black writers was not only advantageous but inspirational. After taking Johnson’s advice to read and study modern poets, Brooks began reading the work of Ezra Pound, E.E. Cummings, T.S. Eliot, and others alike. After meeting Hughes at the Metropolitan Community Church, he told her to seriously think of writing professionally after reading a few poems she had with her.
In 1934, she graduated from Englewood High School and found employment with the Chicago Defender, an African American newspaper, where she had an adjunct position. During this time, she attended Wilson Junior College (now Kennedy-King College), for two years, graduating in 1936; she never attended a four-year university because she thought it was unnecessary for her writing career. As a staff of the Chicago Defender, she published more than seventy-five poems in its poetry section called “Lights and Shadows”; however, she was not given a full-time position. She later worked briefly as a maid and secretary in a slum apartment building known as The Mecca, managed by a spiritual charlatan/slumlord. She was not too fond of any of these humiliating job experiences as described in her poetry.
In 1938, she joined the Youth Council of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In a Youth Council meeting she met Henry Lowington Blakely II and married him on September 17, 1939; their son, Henry Blakely, Jr., was born a year later.
To improve her poetic techniques, Brooks enrolled in poetry workshops taught by a rich Chicagoan named Inez Cunningham Stark at the South Side Community Art Center, from 1941 to 1942. Under the guidance of Stark, Brooks admitted she became a better poet. Indeed, the workshops were advantageous, for in 1943 she won the poetry award from Midwestern Writers’ Conference in Chicago.
In 1945, she gained fame and praise with the release of her first book of poetry, A Street in Brownsville, published by Harper. She was selected by now-defunct Mademoiselle magazine as one of the “Ten Young Women of the Year,” and received other respected honors. In 1946, she was awarded the National Institute of Arts and Letters grant, an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, and the Guggenheim Fellowship; she won the latter award for a second time in 1947.
The years of 1949 and 1950 were special and momentous for Brooks. She published her second book of poetry called Annie Allen (1949) and won the Eunice Tietjens Memorial Prize from Poetry magazine. Most important, in 1950, it earned her the most prestigious award that one could receive, the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Not only did she win such noted and noble prize, but she made history by becoming the first African American to be crowned this award. Annie Allen brought her countrywide fame and firmly established her as a key voice in modern American literature. Brooks, in 1951, received her most precious prize by giving birth to her second child, a daughter named Nora Blakely.
At this point in her life, she was at the highest pinnacle of her career and continued publishing her work of literature through Harper and Row. In 1953, she published her only work of fiction called Maud Marta; in 1956, she published Bronzeville Boys and Girls, a book of verses intended for a young audience. At the height of the Civil Rights movement and her growing awareness of social and racial disparities, Brooks published her third collection of poetry titled The Bean Eaters in 1960, which occupies a much-anthologized and famous poem, “We Real Cool.” This poem represents the perils of young Black boys and their refusal to attend school, but find joy at a poolroom facility, which may serve as a death sentence if such behaviors continue.
In 1962, Brooks read at the Library of Congress poetry festival via an invitation from then-President John F. Kennedy. She began her first teaching job at Chicago’s Columbia College in 1963 (and received an honorary degree from the college in 1964). In fact, she taught creative writing at other institutions including Northeastern Illinois University, Elmhurst College, Columbia University, Clay College of New York, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Impressively, she was awarded more than seventy-five honorary degrees from various colleges and universities.
A defining moment in Brooks’ career occurred in 1967 when she attended the Fisk University Second Black Writers’ Conference in Nashville, Tennessee (where she rediscovered her blackness). Subsequent to her attendance, she became more involved in the Black Arts movement and her poetic voice was tailored accordingly to fit the change. The change is evident in her 1968 book of poetry, In the Mecca, and her following work. Her poetic voice was not heavily altered, but some critics claimed her work presented an angrier tone. According to The Norton Anthology of American Literature (Vol. E), “her subjects tend to be more explicitly political and to deal with questions of revolutionary violence and issues of African American identity.” In truth, many Black writers at the time wrote stimulating and angry poetry, precipitated by the Civil Rights/Black Power movement and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther king, Jr. in 1968. Being in touch with the Black Arts movement and wanting to support Black businesses, Brooks left her New York publisher, Harper & Row, and decided to publish her work with African American publishers. In 1968, Brooks received a National Book Award nomination for In the Mecca and became the Poet Laureate of Illinois.
During her life, Brooks published more than twenty-five books that garnered her many accolades, imprinting her place in history as one of the best contemporary writers. On top of winning her most recognized award (the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry), Brooks served as a poetry consultant to The Library of Congress in 1985 and was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1988. Another honor worth mentioning came in 1994 when she was selected as the Jefferson Lecturer by National Endowment for the Humanities, the highest federal government award given for distinguished scholarly achievement in the humanities.
On Sunday, December 3, 2000, Brooks died of cancer in her Chicago home at the age of 83; she was buried at Lincoln Cemetery in Blue Island, Illinois. Brooks inspired many during her lifetime and continues to inspire many today. She left behind a rich legacy that will be long-lasting for generations to come. Her poetry will be a constant study in college classrooms and elsewhere. Her name will be mentioned when great poets are named and when anthologies are rendered. Alice Walker once said in an interview, “If there was ever a born poet, I think it is Brooks.” Not only was she a born poet, but she was truly an amazing poet who employed her poetic language with profound richness and influence.
Her legacy remains robust: In 2001, the Chicago Public Schools system renamed a high school in her honor to Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy, a four-year magnet high school. In 2002, Brooks made the list of the 100 Greatest African Americans via an encyclopedia by professor Molefi Kete Asante; in 2010, she was inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame; in 2012, the United States Postal Service honored Brooks with a specialized postage stamp. The honors after her death are countless; these are only a few.
Appropriately, Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks will always be remembered as one of the best and respected African American poets, not to mention one of the most distinguished American literary figures.
The Norton Anthology of American Literature (Vol. E) Sixth Edition (2003)
https: //www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/gwendolyn-brooks (Retrieval date Jan. 10, 2009)
http: //www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/brooks/brooks.htm (Retrieval date Jan. 10, 2009)
* * *
Originally published Jan. 10, 2009 via now-defunct writing Web site Helium.com