Gwendolyn Brooks Biography

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.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 787 words.)

Gwendolyn Brooks Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.

Gwendolyn Brooks Biography

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

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.

Gwendolyn Brooks Biography

(American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

Early Life

The parents of Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks, a janitor and schoolteacher, encouraged the young girl’s literary gifts and provided a loving home and an excellent education for her and her younger brother. As a high school student, Brooks received advice from African American poets James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes. After attending Wilson Junior College, she studied poetic technique in the Southside Community Art Center, where she read modern British and American poetry and began seriously to consider a career as a writer. She married Henry Blakely in 1939 and is the mother of two children. Her early poetry, which centered on African American life in Chicago, was written in conventional style in the European American tradition. Brooks was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1950 for her second collection of poetry, Annie Allen (1949).

The 1960’s

The year 1967 was a turning point in Brooks’s creative work. Although themes of black consciousness appeared in her 1960 collection, The Bean Eaters, Brooks’s awakening came at the Black Writers Conference at Fisk University in 1967, where she met younger African American writers committed to the Black Power movement. From that time, she directed her poetry to an audience of African Americans. In the Mecca (1968), an experimental work, departed from her previous expression in fixed forms and described with compassion, often bitter humor laced with irony, the desperate lives of poor African Americans in Chicago. Riot (1969) was a response to the death of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Some critics found these works darkly pessimistic, but Brooks believed they reflected her new vision of herself as a black woman writer whose audience was African Americans.

Although Brooks never considered herself a political writer, critics agree that her work in the 1960’s and beyond reflected not only a growing sophistication in her craft but also an increasingly revolutionary stance. Brooks has described her creative vision as a positive celebration of blackness. After 1967, she published exclusively with African American presses. As a result of her worldwide travel, including visits to Africa, her poetry expresses international themes and a special concern with the lives of children. Brooks became the poet laureate of Illinois in 1968, succeeding Carl Sandburg.

Later Life

Brooks was elected to the National...

(The entire section is 1015 words.)

Gwendolyn Brooks Biography

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks’s poetry bears the strong impress of Chicago, particularly of the predominantly black South Side where she lived most of her life. Although she was born in Topeka, Kansas, Brooks was taken to Chicago before she was a year old. In many ways, she devoted her career to the physical, spiritual, and, later, political exploration of her native city.

Brooks’s life and writings are frequently separated into two phases, with her experience at the 1967 Black Writers’ Conference at Fisk University in Nashville serving as a symbolic transition. Before the conference, Brooks was known primarily as the first black Pulitzer Prize winner in poetry. Although not politically unaware, she held to a...

(The entire section is 489 words.)

Gwendolyn Brooks Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Shortly after Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks was born, her family moved to Chicago, where she grew up and later made her home. During the 1930’s, Brooks received her associate degree in literature and arts from Wilson Junior College and served as publicity director for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Youth Council in Chicago. She married in 1939 and had two children. She and her husband separated in 1969 but were reconciled in 1973.

A major voice in contemporary American poetry, Brooks published her first book of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville, in 1945. Here she introduces themes that occupied her throughout her life: racism and poverty, life in the American family, the...

(The entire section is 730 words.)