Gwendolyn Brooks

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Gwendolyn Brooks Biography

Gwendolyn Brooks is best known for her lyrical style of urban poetry, such as in “We Real Cool,” a poem about a subject she knew very well: the problems of African American youths in the mid-twentieth century.

Born in 1917, Brooks spent most of her life in Chicago, Illinois. Her father was the son of a runaway slave, and her mother was a teacher. Her parents recognized her writing talent early on and encouraged her work. In high school, Brooks’ mother took her to meet the famous Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes. Inspired by his advice, Brooks was soon publishing her own poetry. By the age of seventeen, she had more than one hundred poems in print, and her subject matter was frequently the difficulties of growing up black and impoverished in America. Brooks died in 2000, a celebrated voice of literature and poetry.

Facts and Trivia

  • Gwendolyn Brook’s high school life helped her gain the racial perspective for which she is famous. She attended three different schools as a teen—one predominately white, one all black, and a third that was integrated.
  • Brooks was the first African American, male or female, to win the Pulitzer Prize (1950). Her other awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship and the coveted position of Jefferson Lecturer, the highest honor the government bestows on authors via the National Endowment for the Arts.
  • Her poem “We Real Cool” is among the most anthologized of any American poems. Other popular and critically acclaimed works include “The Bean Eaters” and “The Crazy Woman.”
  • President John F. Kennedy asked Brooks to read her work at the Poetry Festival in 1962.
  • Brooks was one of the champions of the “black aesthetic,” a movement in the 1960s to promote and encourage black separatism.

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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 residents, a “spiritual adviser” who sold love potions. The building and its inhabitants would furnish the subject matter for her poem “In the Mecca,” published in 1964.

Frustrated by the inability to find more fulfilling work, Brooks started a mimeographed newspaper that sold for five cents per copy. The paper, News Review, included stories about local events, discussions of cultural issues, brief biographies of successful African Americans, and cartoons drawn by her brother.

In 1939, Brooks married Henry Lowington Blakely II, another aspiring poet. They had two children, Henry in 1940 and Nora in 1951. Henry supported the family through a variety of jobs, while Gwendolyn wrote poems and reviewed books (both novels and collections of poetry) for Negro Digest, The New York Times, and The New York Herald Tribune.

Brooks’s reputation as a poet began with the publication of individual poems in magazines such as The Crisis, Cross-Section, Twice a Year, Common Ground, and Negro Story. In 1945, however, she produced a volume of poems titled A Street in Bronzeville, published by Harper & Row. Four years later, she published Annie Allen, the work for which she won the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. She was the first black writer to win the award. Brooks also wrote poems for children (Bronzeville Boys and Girls, 1956, and The Tiger Who Wore White Gloves, 1974) as well as several essays, including “Poets Who Are Negroes” (1950) and “They Call It Bronzeville” (1951). In 1953, she published the novel Maud Martha.

Brooks succeeded Carl Sandburg as poet laureate of Illinois in 1968, and in 1985 she was appointed Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress....

(This entire section contains 787 words.)

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She was named to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and received many awards, including the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, the Shelley Memorial Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Award, the Kuumba Liberation Award, two Guggenheim Fellowships, the Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America, a National Book Award nomination forIn the Mecca (1968), and the National Endowment for the Arts Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989.

Although she was reputed to be shy and introverted, she was eager to share her work and the art of writing poetry. She gave readings at many universities as well as in prisons and taverns. Moreover, she conducted a number of poetry workshops and organized writing contests in elementary and secondary schools, paying the prizes, which ranged from fifty to five hundred dollars, from her own pocket.

Despite her lack of an advanced degree, Brooks taught courses in literature and writing at Chicago’s Columbia College, Northeastern Illinois State College, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Elmhurst College, City College of New York, and Chicago State University, where she held the Gwendolyn Brooks Chair in Black Literature and Creative Writing. In 1969, however, health problems forced her to resign from teaching, and she devoted herself to the work she most loved: the production of poetry.


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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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Gwendolyn Brooks, the child of loving parents who valued learning, was encouraged to write. Her father provided a desk and bookshelves; her mother took her to meet the writers Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson. After being graduated from Wilson Junior College, she was married to Henry Lowington Blakely, also a writer, in 1939.

From Langston Hughes she received encouragement to write about the everyday aspects of black life. She wrote about relatives she knew or stories she heard growing up. Her early poetry also reflects her dreams for romance. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Annie Allen traces the growth of a young woman from childhood to maturity. Brooks was not, however, a romantic poet. Her work exhibits a realistic and unsentimental understanding of what it means to be a black woman in twentieth century America. The strength of her poetry lies in its illumination and criticism of a society that does not respect and reward those who are good. The forms of her work often contain a similar criticism of the literary world: Annie Allen, for example, is a parody of a traditional epic poem.

Brooks’s novel Maud Martha compassionately explores a woman’s search for identity and her resulting spiritual growth. Many African American themes are illumined: The light skin versus dark skin motif is one. Much in the novel is taken from Brooks’s life. Her autobiography, Report from Part One, is a creative composite of experiences, memories, photographs, and interviews. It is less a literary chronology than it is a storytelling experience in the oral tradition.

In the late 1960’s, Brooks began working closely with young black writers whose concerns for the poor and oppressed mirrored her own. Her poetry of this period, Riot and Family Pictures, exhibits a strong voice, an increased use of black speech patterns, and a larger focus on black consciousness. She celebrated her achievement of selfhood with a decision to publish her work with African American publishers. Throughout her career Brooks looked to the men, women, and children in her black community for inspiration. Through them and for them she made a difference.