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 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.
Brooks was elected to the National...
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