Gwendolyn Brooks

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Gwendolyn Brooks
Commemorative postage stamp of Gwendolyn Brooks issued by the USPS in 2012.
Commemorative postage stamp of Gwendolyn Brooks issued by the USPS in 2012.
BornGwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks
(1917-06-07)June 7, 1917
Topeka, Kansas, U.S.
DiedDecember 3, 2000(2000-12-03) (aged 83)
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
Notable worksA Street in Bronzeville, Annie Allen, Winnie
Notable awardsPulitzer Prize for Poetry (1950)
Robert Frost Medal (1989)
National Medal of Arts (1995)
Henry Lowington Blakely, Jr.
(m. 1939; died 1996)
Children2, including Nora Brooks Blakely

Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks (June 7, 1917 – December 3, 2000) was an American poet, author, and teacher. Her work often dealt with the personal celebrations and struggles of ordinary people in her community. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry on May 1, 1950, for Annie Allen,[1] making her the first African American to receive a Pulitzer Prize.[2][3]

Throughout her prolific writing career, Brooks received many more honors. A lifelong resident of Chicago, she was appointed Poet Laureate of Illinois in 1968, a position she held until her death 32 years later.[4] She was also named the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress for the 1985–86 term.[5] In 1976, she became the first African-American woman inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.[6]

Early life[edit]

Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks was born on June 7, 1917, in Topeka, Kansas.[2] She was the first child of David Anderson Brooks and Keziah (Wims) Brooks. Her father, a janitor for a music company, had hoped to pursue a career as a doctor but sacrificed that aspiration to get married and raise a family. Her mother was a school teacher as well as a concert pianist trained in classical music. Brooks' mother had taught at the Topeka school that later became involved in the famous Brown v. Board of Education racial desegregation case.[7] Family lore held that Brooks' paternal grandfather had escaped slavery to join the Union forces during the American Civil War.[8]

When Brooks was six weeks old, her family moved to Chicago during the Great Migration, and from then on, Chicago remained her home. She would closely identify with Chicago for the rest of her life. In a 1994 interview, she remarked,

Living 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.[9]

She started her formal education at Forestville Elementary School on Chicago's South Side.[10] Brooks then attended a prestigious integrated high school in the city with a predominantly white student body, Hyde Park High School; transferred to the all-black Wendell Phillips High School; and finished her schooling at integrated Englewood High School.[11]

According to biographer Kenny Jackson Williams, due to the social dynamics of the various schools, in conjunction with the era in which she attended them, Brooks faced much racial injustice. Over time, this experience helped her understand the prejudice and bias in established systems and dominant institutions, not only in her own surroundings but in every relevant American mindset.[11]

Brooks began writing at an early age and her mother encouraged her, saying, "You are going to be the lady Paul Laurence Dunbar."[12] During her teenage years, she began submitting poems to various publications. By the time she had graduated from high school in 1935, she was already a regular contributor to The Chicago Defender.[10]

After her early educational experiences, Brooks never pursued a four-year college 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."[9] She graduated in 1936 from a two-year program at Wilson Junior College, now known as Kennedy-King College, and worked as a typist to support herself while she pursued her career.[9]


'Song of Winnie', Library Walk, New York City


Brooks published her first poem, "Eventide", in a children's magazine, American Childhood, when she was 13 years old.[6] By the age of 16, she had already written and published approximately 75 poems. At 17, 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. In her early years, she received commendations on her poetic work and encouragement from James Weldon Johnson, Richard Wright and Langston Hughes.[13] James Weldon Johnson sent her the first critique of her poems when she was only sixteen years old.

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."[2]

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 at the new South Side Community Art Center, which Brooks attended.[14] 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 her read "The Ballad of Pearl May Lee".[14] In 1944, she achieved a goal she had been pursuing through continued unsolicited submissions since she was 14 years old: two of her poems were published in Poetry magazine's November issue. In the autobiographical information she provided to the magazine, she described her occupation as a "housewife".[15]

Brooks' published her first book of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville (1945), with Harper & Brothers, after a 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.[14]

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".[14] 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.[16]

Brooks' second book of poetry, Annie Allen (1949), focused on the life and experiences of a young Black girl growing into womanhood in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago. The book was awarded the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, and was also awarded Poetry magazine's Eunice Tietjens Prize.[12]

In 1953, Brooks published her first and only narrative book, a novella titled Maud Martha, which in a series of 34 vignettes follows the life of a black woman named Maud Martha Brown as she moves about life from childhood to adulthood. It tells the story of "a woman with doubts about herself and where and how she fits into the world. Maud's concern is not so much that she is inferior but that she is perceived as being ugly," states author Harry B. Shaw in his book Gwendolyn Brooks.[17] Maud suffers prejudice and discrimination not only from white individuals but also from black individuals who have lighter skin tones than hers, something that is a direct reference to Brooks' personal experience. Eventually, Maud stands up for herself by turning her back on a patronizing and racist store clerk. "The book is ... about the triumph of the lowly," Shaw comments.[17] In contrast, literary scholar Mary Helen Washington emphasizes Brooks's critique of racism and sexism, calling Maud Martha "a novel about bitterness, rage, self-hatred, and the silence that results from suppressed anger".[18]

In 1967, the year of Langston Hughes's death, Brooks attended the Second Black Writers' Conference at Nashville's Fisk University. Here, according to one version of events, she met activists and artists such as Imamu Amiri Baraka, Don L. Lee and others who exposed her to new black cultural nationalism. Recent studies argue that she had been involved in leftist politics in Chicago for many years and, under the pressures of McCarthyism, adopted a black nationalist posture as a means of distancing herself from her prior political connections.[19] Brooks's experience at the conference inspired many of her subsequent literary activities. She taught creative writing to some of Chicago's Blackstone Rangers, otherwise a violent criminal gang. In 1968, she published one of her most famous works, 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.[16]

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.[6]


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.[9] Brooks taught extensively around the country and held posts at Columbia College Chicago, Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago State University, Elmhurst College, Columbia University, and the City College of New York.[20]


The Rare Book & Manuscript Library of the University of Illinois acquired Brooks's archives from her daughter Nora Blakely.[21] In addition, the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley has a collection of her personal papers, especially from 1950 to 1989.[22][23]

Family life[edit]

In 1939, Brooks married Henry Lowington Blakely, Jr., whom she met after joining Chicago's NAACP Youth Council.[6] They had two children: Henry Lowington Blakely III, and Nora Brooks Blakely.[2] Brooks' husband died in 1996.[24]

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 her son's fiancée, Kathleen Hardiman, in writing poetry. Upon his return, Blakely and Hardiman married in 1965.[14] 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.[14]

Gwendolyn Brooks died at her Chicago home on December 3, 2000, aged 83.[2]

Honors and legacy[edit]




The Poetry Foundation lists these works among others:

  • A Street in Bronzeville, Harper, 1945.
  • Annie Allen, Harper, 1949.
  • Maud Martha, Harper, 1953.
  • Bronzeville Boys and Girls, Harper, 1956.
  • The Bean Eaters, Harper, 1960.
  • In the Mecca, Harper, 1968.
  • For Illinois 1968: A Sesquicentennial Poem, Harper, 1968.
  • Riot, Broadside Press, 1969.
  • Family Pictures, Broadside Press, 1970.
  • Aloneness, Broadside Press, 1971.
  • Report from Part One: An Autobiography, Broadside Press, 1972.
  • Black Love, Brooks Press, 1982.
  • Mayor Harold Washington; and, Chicago, the I Will City, Brooks Press, 1983.
  • The Near-Johannesburg Boy, and Other Poems, David Co., 1987.
  • Winnie, Third World Press, 1988.
  • Report from Part Two, Third World Press, 1996.
  • In Montgomery, and Other Poems, Third World Press, 2003.

Several collections of multiple works by Brooks were also published.[17]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Banks, Margot Harper (2012). Religious allusion in the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks. McFarland & Co. p. 3. ISBN 9780786449392.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Watkins, Mel (December 4, 2000). "Gwendolyn Brooks, Whose Poetry Told of Being Black in America, Dies at 83". The New York Times. Retrieved September 13, 2012. Gwendolyn Brooks, who illuminated the black experience in America in poems that spanned most of the 20th century, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1950, died yesterday at her home in Chicago. She was 83.
  3. ^ "Frost? Williams? No, Gwendolyn Brooks". Retrieved January 24, 2020.
  4. ^ "Illinois Poet Laureate". Archived from the original on February 28, 2015. Retrieved March 6, 2015.
  5. ^ "Poet Laureate Timeline: 1981–1990". Library of Congress. 2008. Retrieved December 19, 2008.
  6. ^ a b c d e Busby, Margaret, "Gwendolyn Brooks — Poet who called out to black people everywhere", The Guardian, December 7, 2000.
  7. ^ Kniggendorf, Anne. "Renowned Poet Gwendolyn Brooks' Time In Kansas Was Short, But Worth A Birthday Party". Retrieved June 9, 2017.
  8. ^ Kent (1993). A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks. pp. 1–2.
  9. ^ a b c d Hawkins, B. Denise. "1994 Gwendolyn Brooks Interview". James Madison University Furious Flower Poetry Center. Retrieved March 6, 2015.
  10. ^ a b Salley, Columbus (1999). The Black 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential African-Americans, Past and Present. Citadel Press. p. 232. ISBN 978-0-8065-2048-3.
  11. ^ a b Williams, Kenny Jackson (2001). "Brooks, Gwendolyn". In Andrews, William L.; Foster, Frances Smith; Harris, Trudier (eds.). The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Oxford University Press. p. 47. ISBN 9780198031758. Retrieved August 23, 2014.
  12. ^ a b Watkins, Mel (December 5, 2000). "Gwendolyn Brooks, 83, Passionate Poet, Dies". The New York Times. Retrieved March 14, 2016.
  13. ^ Grigsby Bates, Karen (May 29, 2017). "Remembering The Great Poet Gwendolyn Brooks At 100". NPR. Retrieved June 1, 2017.
  14. ^ a b c d e f Kent, George E. (1993). A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks. Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky. pp. 54–55, 184. ISBN 0-8131-0827-6. Retrieved March 15, 2012.
  15. ^ Share, Don. "Introduction: June 2017, Gwendolyn Brooks speaks to us more vividly than ever" (June 2017 ed.). Poetry.
  16. ^ a b Miller, Jason (2009). "Brooks, Gwendolyn". In Finkleman, Paul (ed.). Encyclopedia of African American History: 1896 to the Present. 1. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 288.
  17. ^ a b c "Gwendolyn Brooks". Poetry Foundation.
  18. ^ Washington, Mary Helen (1989). Invented Lives: Narratives of Black Women 1860-1960. London: Virago. p. 387.
  19. ^ See Mary Helen Washington, The Other Blacklist, Columbia University Press, 2014, chapter 4, "When Gwendolyn Brooks Wore Red".
  20. ^ Although her biographer Kenny Jackson Williams lists this as Clay College of New York, there is otherwise no evidence that such a college ever existed. Other biographies show that Brooks did teach at the City College of New York, and it is likely that "Clay College" is simply a typo for "City College".
  21. ^ Williams, John (October 17, 2013). "University of Illinois Acquires Gwendolyn Brooks Archives". The New York Times.
  22. ^ "Finding Aid to the Gwendolyn Brooks Papers, 1917–2000, bulk 1950–1989". Online Archive of California. Retrieved August 23, 2014.
  23. ^ Maclay, Kathleen (January 11, 2001). "Personal papers of Pulitzer-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks join archives at UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library". Campus News. UC Berkeley. Retrieved August 23, 2014.
  24. ^ Heise, Kenan (July 6, 1996). "Henry Blakely, 79, 'Poet Of 63d Street'". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved February 12, 2018.
  25. ^ "Remembering The Great Poet Gwendolyn Brooks At 100". Retrieved May 23, 2018.
  26. ^ "Gwendolyn Brooks", Winners, Anisfield-Wolf Awards.
  27. ^ a b c d e Harris, Trudier, ed. (1988), Afro-American Writers, 1940-1955, Dictionary of Literary Biography, 76, Detroit: Gale Research Co., p. 23, ISBN 0810345544
  28. ^ "Shelley Winners". Poetry Society of America. Retrieved January 24, 2015.
  29. ^ "Gwendolyn Brooks". National Women's Hall of Fame.
  30. ^ "Frost Medalists". Poetry Society of America. Retrieved June 5, 2017.
  31. ^ "National Book Foundation's Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, Presenter of National Book Awards". Retrieved June 5, 2017.
  32. ^ "National Medal of Arts – Gwendolyn Brooks". National Endowment for the Arts. Retrieved June 5, 2017.
  33. ^ "1997 Laureate Interviews: Lincoln Academy Interview Gwendolyn Brooks". The Lincoln Academy of Illinois. 1997.
  34. ^ "Academy of American Poets Fellowship". Academy of American Poets. Retrieved July 31, 2017.
  35. ^ "About the Gwendolyn Brooks Cultural Center". Western Illinois University. Retrieved March 29, 2010.
  36. ^ Gwendolyn Brooks Center, Chicago State University.
  37. ^ "Gwendolyn Brooks' Biography". Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy. Retrieved June 6, 2017.
  38. ^ Asante, Molefi Kete (2002). 100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books. ISBN 1-57392-963-8.
  39. ^ "History of Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School". Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School. Archived from the original on June 27, 2017. Retrieved June 29, 2017.
  40. ^ "Illinois State Library". Retrieved June 5, 2017.
  41. ^ Staff (June 5, 2017). "Readings to mark Gwendolyn Brooks' 100th birthday". The State Journal-Register. Retrieved June 9, 2017.
  42. ^ "Statue Of Poet Gwendolyn Brooks To Be Unveiled On Her Birthday « CBS Chicago". June 7, 2018. Retrieved June 14, 2018.
  43. ^ "Gwendolyn Brooks". Retrieved June 6, 2017.
  44. ^ Schmich, Mary (May 2, 2012). "Poet left her stamp on Chicago". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved May 3, 2012.
  45. ^ Sophia Tareen and Errin Haines Whack, "Books, events mark late poet Gwendolyn Brooks 100th birthday"[permanent dead link], The State, June 6, 2017.
  46. ^ Schoenberg, Nara (February 4, 2016). "Poets exalt a potent South Side voice as city celebrates Gwendolyn Brooks' birth". Chicago Tribune. p. 11, Section 1.
  47. ^ "Gwendolyn Brooks – OMB100". Retrieved June 6, 2017.
  48. ^ Patton, Katrina (June 13, 2018). "Gwendolyn Brooks: The Oracle of Bronzeville". The Chicago Defender. Retrieved June 14, 2018.
  49. ^ "Gwendolyn Brooks". Retrieved March 30, 2021.

Further reading[edit]

  • Jackson, Angela (2017). A Surprised Queenhood in the New Black Sun: The Life & Legacy of Gwendolyn Brooks. Beacon Press. ISBN 978-0807025048.
  • Share, Don (ed.). "Poetry" (June 2017 ed.). Poetry Foundation. Cite journal requires |journal= (help) Gwendolyn Brooks, special issue

External links[edit]