Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks was born June 7, 1917, the first child of David and Keziah Wims Brooks. Her birthplace, Topeka, Kansas, was the home of her maternal grandparents, but at the age of five weeks, she and her mother returned to the Brooks’s residence in Chicago, the city in which Brooks would live for most of her life. Her brother Raymond was born in 1918.
David Brooks, a janitor, made only modest wages. His children’s lack of material luxury, however, was offset by a warm home atmosphere that nurtured culture and creativity. David loved to sing, tell stories, and recite poems, while his wife enjoyed singing, playing the piano, and directing plays for young actors.
As a child, Brooks was encouraged to read and to dream. By the time she was seven, she was expressing her thoughts in two-line verses. This precocity prompted her mother to predict that her daughter would one day become “the lady Paul Laurence Dunbar.” Brooks continued to write, producing at least one poem per day, mostly about nature and romantic love. At thirteen, she published her first poem, “Eventide,” in American Childhood. Three years later, she became a weekly contributor to the Chicago Defender’s column “Lights and Shadows.” By the age of twenty, she had published poems in two anthologies.
Much of Brooks’s inspiration came from James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes, two well-known African American poets to whom she had submitted several poems for criticism. Johnson concluded that she was indeed talented but needed to acquaint herself with more modern poets such as T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and E. E. Cummings. Hughes also endorsed Brooks’s ability and exhorted her to keep writing—especially about the things she knew.
After graduating from Wilson Junior College, Brooks worked briefly as a maid in a Chicago apartment building and as a secretary to one of its...
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Writing from her own experience, Gwendolyn Brooks captures black life in both its poverty and its beauty. Her ability to portray beauty comes from her use of varied poetic forms and linguistic devices such as diverse rhyme schemes and diction from earlier eras. In her three best-known collections of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville, Annie Allen, and The Bean Eaters, she shows personal growth. In the first collection, she is objectively descriptive, in the second, reflectively autobiographical, and in the third, more consciously aware of widespread social and racial problems. Her poetry has touched many readers, regardless of their color.
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