Gwendolyn Brooks

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At a Glance

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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Biography

(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 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...

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