Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks (June 7, 1917– December 3, 2000) was an American poet and teacher. She was the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer prize when she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1950 for her second collection, Annie Allen.
Throughout her career she received many more honors. She was appointed Poet Laureate of Illinois in 1968, a position held until her death and Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1985.
Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks was born on June 7, 1917, in Topeka, Kansas, and died on December 3, 2000 in Chicago, IL. She was the first child of David Anderson Brooks and Keziah (Wims) Brooks. Her mother was a school teacher and chose that field of work because she couldn’t afford to attend medical school. Family lore held that her paternal grandfather had escaped slavery to join the Union forces during the American Civil War.
When Brooks was six weeks old, her family moved to Chicago during the Great Migration; from then on, Chicago remained her home. According to biographer Kenny Jackson Williams, Brooks first attended a leading white high school in the city, Hyde Park High School, transferred to the all-black Wendell Phillips, and then to the integrated Englewood High School. After completing high school, she graduated in 1936 from Wilson Junior College, now known as Kennedy-King College. Williams noted, "These four schools gave her a perspective on racial dynamics in the city that continue[d] to influence her work.
Brooks began writing at an early age and her mother encouraged her saying, 'You are going to be the lady Paul Laurence Dunbar.”
After these early educational experiences, Brooks never pursued a four-year degree because she knew she wanted to be a writer and considered it unnecessary. “I am not a scholar,” she later said. “I’m just a writer who loves to write and will always write.” She worked as a typist to support herself while she pursued her career.
She would closely identify with Chicago for the rest of her life. In a 1994 interview, she remarked on this,
“(L)iving in the city, I wrote differently than I would have if I had been raised in Topeka, KS... I am an organic Chicagoan. Living there has given me a multiplicity of characters to aspire for. I hope to live there the rest of my days. That’s my headquarters.
Brooks published her first poem in a children’s magazine, American Childhood, when she was 13 years old. By the time she was sixteen, she had compiled a portfolio of around 75 published poems and had her work critiqued by poet and novelist James Weldon Johnson. At seventeen, she started submitting her work to “Lights and Shadows,” the poetry column of the Chicago Defender, an African-American newspaper. Her poems, many published while she attended Wilson Junior College, ranged in style from traditional ballads and sonnets to poems using blues rhythms in free verse.
Her characters were often drawn from the inner city life that Brooks knew well. She said, “I lived in a small second-floor apartment at the corner, and I could look first on one side and then the other. There was my material.”
By 1941, Brooks was taking part in poetry workshops. A particularly influential one was organized by Inez Cunningham Stark, an affluent white woman with a strong literary background. Stark offered writing workshops to African-Americans on Chicago’s South Side, which Brooks attended. It was here she gained momentum in finding her voice and a deeper knowledge of the techniques of her predecessors. Renowned poet Langston Hughes stopped by the workshop and heard Brooks read “The Ballad of Pearl May Lee.” Brooks continued to work diligently at her writing and growing the community of artists and writers around her as her poetry began to be taken more seriously. She and her husband frequently threw parties at their apartment at 623 E. 63rd Street and it was in the kitchenette of that apartment that Brooks hosted a party for her friend and mentor Langston Hughes. Once he unexpectedly dropped in and famously shared a meal of mustard greens, ham hocks, and candied sweet potatoes with Brooks and her husband Henry Blakely.
Brooks’ published her first book of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville (1945), with Harper and Row, after strong show of support to the publisher from author Richard Wright. He said to the editors who solicited his opinion on Brooks’ work:
“There is no self-pity here, not a striving for effects. She takes hold of reality as it is and renders it faithfully.... She easily catches the pathos of petty destinies; the whimper of the wounded; the tiny accidents that plague the lives of the desperately poor, and the problem of color prejudice among Negroes.”
The book earned instant critical acclaim for its authentic and textured portraits of life in Bronzeville. Brooks later said it was a glowing review by Paul Engle in the Chicago Tribune that “initiated My Reputation.” Engle stated that Brooks’ poems were no more “Negro poetry” than Robert Frost’s work was “white poetry.” Brooks received her first Guggenheim Fellowship in 1946 and was included as one of the “Ten Young Women of the Year” in Mademoiselle magazine.
In 1967, the year of Hughes’ death, Brooks attended the Second Black Writers’ Conference at Nashville’s Fisk University. Here she met activists and artists such as Imamu Amiri Baraka, Don L. Lee and others who exposed her to new black cultural nationalism. Brooks’ experience at the conference inspired many of her subsequent literary activities. She taught creative writing to some of Chicago’s Blackstone Rangers, a gang of teenagers. In 1968 she published one of her most famous poems, In the Mecca, a long poem about a mother’s search for her lost child in a Chicago apartment building. The poem was nominated for the National Book Award for poetry.
Brooks’ second book of poetry, Annie Allen (1950), focused on the life and experiences of a young Black girl as she grew into womanhood in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago. The book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry; she also was awarded Poetry magazine’s Eunice Tietjens Prize.
Her autobiographical Report From Part One, including reminiscences, interviews, photographs and vignettes, came out in 1972, and Report From Part Two was published in 1995, when she was almost 80.
Brooks said her first teaching experience was at the University of Chicago when she was invited by author Frank London Brown to teach a course in American literature. It was the beginning of her lifelong commitment to sharing poetry and teaching writing.
Brooks taught extensively around the country and held posts at Columbia College Chicago, Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago State University, Elmhurst College, Columbia University, City College of New York, and the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
On May 1, 1996, Brooks returned to her birthplace of Topeka, Kansas. She gave the keynote speech for the Third Annual Kaw Valley Girl Scout Council’s “Women of Distinction Banquet and String of Pearls Auction.”
The Rare Book & Manuscript Library (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) acquired Brooks’ archives from her daughter Nora. In addition, the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley has a collection of her personal papers, especially from 1950 to 1989.
In 1939 Brooks married Henry Lowington Blakely, Jr. They had two children: Henry Lowington Blakely III, born on October 10, 1940; and Nora Blakely, born in 1951.
From mid-1961 to late-1964, Henry III served in the U.S. Marine Corps, first at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego and then at Marine Corps Air Station Kaneohe Bay. During this time, Brooks mentored his fiancée, Kathleen Hardiman, today known as anthropologist Kathleen Rand Reed, in writing poetry. Upon his return, Blakely and Hardiman married in 1965. Brooks had so enjoyed the mentoring relationship that she began to engage more frequently in that role with the new generation of young black poets.
Brooks died of cancer at the age of 83 on December 3, 2000, at her home on Chicago’s South Side. She is buried at Lincoln Cemetery in Blue Island, Illinois.
Honors and legacy
1946, Guggenheim Fellow in Poetry
1946, American Academy of Arts & Letters Award
1950, Pulitzer Prize in Poetry
1968, appointed Poet Laureate of Illinois, a position she held until her death in 2000
1976, the Shelley Memorial Award of the Poetry Society of America
1985, selected as the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, an honorary one-year position whose title was renamed the next year to Poet Laureate
1988, inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame
1989, recipient, Life Time Achievement Award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
1989, awarded the Robert Frost Medal for lifetime achievement by the Poetry Society of America
1992, awarded the Aiken Taylor Award by the Sewanee Review
1994, chosen as the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Jefferson Lecturer, one of the highest honors in American literature and the highest award in the humanities given by the federal government.
1994, Recipient of the National Book Foundations’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters
1995, presented with the National Medal of Arts
1995, honored as the first Woman of the Year chosen by the Harvard Black Men’s Forum
1995, received the Chicago History Museum “Making History Award” for Distinction in Literature
1997, awarded the Order of Lincoln award from The Lincoln Academy of Illinois, the highest honor granted by the State of Illinois
Brooks also received more than 75 honorary degrees from colleges and universities worldwide.
1970: “For Sadie and Maud” by Eleanor Holmes Norton, included in Sisterhood is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings From The Women’s Liberation Movement (1970), quotes all of Brooks’ poem “Sadie and Maud”
1970: Gwendolyn Brooks Cultural Center, Western Illinois University, Macomb, Illinois
1995: Gwendolyn Brooks Elementary School, Aurora, Illinois
1990: Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Black Literature and Creative Writing, Chicago State University
2001: Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy, Chicago, Illinois
2001: Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School, Harvey, Illinois
2002: Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School, Oak Park, Illinois
2003: Gwendolyn Brooks Illinois State Library, Springfield, Illinois
2002: 100 Greatest African Americans
2004 Gwendolyn Brooks Park named by the Chicago Park District, 4542 S. Greenwood Ave. Chicago IL 60653
2005: Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School, Bolingbrook, Illinois
2012: Honored on a United States’ postage stamp.