Gwendolyn Brooks

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Gwendolyn Brooks
Born Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks
(1917-06-07)June 7, 1917
Topeka, Kansas, US
Died December 3, 2000(2000-12-03) (aged 83)
Chicago, Illinois, US
Occupation Poet
Nationality American
Period 1930–2000
Notable works A Street in Bronzeville, Annie Allen, Winnie
Notable awards Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (1950)
Robert Frost Medal (1989)
Spouse Henry Lowington Blakely, Jr. (m. 1939)
Children Henry Blakely, III, and Nora Blakely

Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks (June 7, 1917 – December 2, 2000) was an American poet and teacher. She was the first black person (the term she preferred to African-American[1]) 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 she held until her death,[2] and Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1985.[3]

A photo of Gwendolyn Brooks and Langston Hughes
Gwendolyn Brooks and Langston Hughes in an undated photo

Early life[edit]

Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks was born on June 7, 1917, in Topeka, Kansas, and died on December 3, 2000[4] 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 could not 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.[5]

When Brooks was six weeks old, her family moved to Chicago, Illinois 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.[6]

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."[1] She worked as a typist to support herself while she pursued her career.[1]

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.[1]




Brooks published her first poem in a children's magazine at the age of thirteen. 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."[4]

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.[7] 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."[7] 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.[8] 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 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."[7]

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."[7] 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. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry; she also was awarded Poetry magazine’s Eunice Tietjens Prize.


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.[1] 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,[9] 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.[10] In addition, the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley has a collection of her personal papers, especially from 1950 to 1989.[11][12]

Personal life[edit]

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.[7] 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.[7]


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[edit]

Sara S. Miller's 1994 Bronze Portrait Bust Of Gwendolyn Brooks

Brooks also received more than 75 honorary degrees from colleges and universities worldwide.



See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Hawkins, B. Denise. "1994 Gwendolyn Brooks Interview". James Madison University Furious Flower Poetry Center. Retrieved 6 March 2015. 
  2. ^ "Illinois Poet Laureate". Retrieved 6 March 2015. 
  3. ^ "Poet Laureate Timeline: 1981–1990". Library of Congress. 2008. Retrieved 2008-12-19. 
  4. ^ a b Mel Watkins (author) (December 4, 2000). "Gwendolyn Brooks, Whose Poetry Told of Being Black in America, Dies at 83". New York Times. Retrieved 2012-09-13. 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. 
  5. ^ Kent (1993). A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks. pp. 1–2. 
  6. ^ Williams, Kenny Jackson (2001). "Brooks, Gwendolyn". In Andrews, William L.; Foster, Frances Smith; Harris, Trudier. The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Oxford UP. p. 47. ISBN 9780198031758. Retrieved 23 August 2014. 
  7. ^ 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 2012-03-15. 
  8. ^ The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks, Elizabeth Alexander, Editor, 2005.
  9. ^ 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 City College of New York, and it is likely that "Clay College" is simply a typo for "City College".
  10. ^ Williams, John (October 17, 2013). "University of Illinois Acquires Gwendolyn Brooks Archives". The New York Times. 
  11. ^ "Finding Aid to the Gwendolyn Brooks Papers, 1917-2000, bulk 1950-1989". Online Archive of California. Retrieved 23 August 2014. 
  12. ^ Maclay, Kathleen (11 Jan 2001). "Personal papers of Pulitzer-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks join archives at UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library". Campus News (UC Berkeley). Retrieved 23 August 2014. 
  13. ^ "Gwendolyn Brooks". Retrieved 26 January 2014. 
  14. ^ "Sisterhood is powerful : an anthology of writings from the women's liberation movement (Book, 1970)". []. Retrieved 2015-05-08. 
  15. ^ Rosalyn Baxandall; Linda Gordon (17 May 2001). Dear Sisters: Dispatches From The Women's Liberation Movement. Basic Books. pp. 213, 214–. ISBN 978-0-7867-3133-6. 
  16. ^ "About the Gwendolyn Brooks Cultural Center". Western Illinois University. Retrieved March 29, 2010. 
  17. ^ Gwenddolyn Brooks Center, Chicago State University.
  18. ^ "Oak Park D97: History of Brooks Middle School". Retrieved 2012-03-15. Named for: Gwendolyn Brooks, Poet Originally built in 1893 as South or Washington Blvd School and later known as Emerson Junior High School. The new building opened in 2002. The Ralph Waldo Emerson Junior High School student population included 7th and 8th grade students. The school was renamed Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School in September of 2002 with the inclusion of 6th grade children and the opening of a new facility. Our first 6th grade class graduated 8th grade at the end of the 2004–05 school year. 
  19. ^ Asante, Molefi Kete (2002). 100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books. ISBN 1-57392-963-8.
  20. ^ Schmich, Mary (May 2, 2012). "Poet left her stamp on Chicago". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 3 May 2012. 

External links[edit]