The first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize, Brooks is considered a major poet of the twentieth century. She is known for her sensitive representations of black urban life and for combining African American vernacular speech with the poetic conventions of traditional verse.
Brooks was born in Topeka, Kansas, on June 7, 1917, to Keziah Wims Brooks, a schoolteacher, and David Anderson Brooks, a janitor who had once hoped to become a doctor. She was raised on Chicago's South Side where, although she encountered racial prejudice in her neighborhood and in her school, her home life was stable and loving. Her enthusiasm for reading and writing was encouraged by her parents, and she published her first poem in a children's magazine at the age of thirteen. Her early work was influenced by Emily Dickinson, William Cullen Bryant, and the English Romantic poets—William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats. She was later steered toward the work of more modern poetry through her correspondence with the poet James Weldon Johnson. Brooks made regular contributions to the Chicago Defender, which had published seventy-five of her poems by the time she graduated from Englewood High School in 1934. She attended Wilson Junior College, graduating in 1936, and worked briefly as a maid and then as a secretary for a "spiritual advisor" who sold worthless potions and charms to the residents of a slum tenement known as "The Mecca." Both of these employment experiences were later recounted in her poetry. In 1939 Brooks married Henry Lowington Blakely II, and a year later gave birth to a son, Henry Lowington III; their daughter Nora was born in 1951.
In 1944 and again in 1945, Brooks won the Midwestern Writers Conference Prize for individual poems. She published her first poetry collection, A Street in Bronzeville, in 1945. Over the next several years, she received numerous awards, among them the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, the Eunice Tietjens Memorial Prize, and the Robert F. Ferguson Memorial Award. She was awarded a grant from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, as well as two Guggenheim fellowships, and in 1950 won the Pulitzer Prize. In the 1960s Brooks began teaching at a variety of institutions of higher learning in her home state of Illinois, and served as the Rennebohm Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and Distinguished Professor of Arts at New York's City College. She mentored several young poets and established numerous poetry prizes and workshops, including one for the members of the Blackstone Rangers street gang on Chicago's South Side. In 1968, Brooks succeeded Carl Sandburg as poet laureate of the state of Illinois.
Brooks was greatly influenced by her introduction, at the 1967 Writers' Conference at Fisk University, to the black activist poets Amiri Baraka and Haki R. Madhubuti. Her verse after this period took a more militant turn and she began producing work more specifically aimed at a black reading audience and publishing her work with black-owned presses. She eventually founded her own press, the David Company, in 1980. Brooks continued to write and garner awards and honors throughout the 1980s and 1990s. She was appointed poetry consultant for the Library of Congress in 1985 and received the Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1989, and a National Book Foundation medal for lifetime achievement in 1994. Brooks died of cancer at the age of eighty-three on December 3, 2000.
Brooks's first poetry collection, A Street in Bronzeville, presents readers with characters from Chicago's South Side as well as tributes to the many black soldiers who served with courage and honor in World War II, despite the racism they encountered both at home and within the armed forces abroad. Her second collection, Annie Allen (1949), for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1950, is considered by many critics to be her finest achievement. Although the work more than demonstrates Brooks's ability to master conventional literary forms, its content is devoted to exposing and denouncing American racism and injustice. One of the individual poems, "To Those of My Sisters Who Kept Their Naturals," praises those black women who refuse to subscribe to white standards of female beauty by straightening their hair. This same theme, encompassing color prejudice within the black community that also favored straight hair and light skin, was again explored in Brooks's only novel, Maud Martha (1953).
In 1956, Brooks published Bronzeville Boys and Girls, a volume of poems featuring the experiences of children and intended for young readers. Four years later, she produced a far more political collection, The Bean Eaters (1960), which includes "We Real Cool," a frequently anthologized poem describing the short lives of urban black males. Brooks left behind the humor and irony that characterized much of her earlier work with In the Mecca (1968), about the inhabitants of a slum tenement Brooks worked in when she first graduated from college. The title poem is a grim account of a mother's search for her missing child who has been brutally raped and murdered by another resident of the housing complex. The volume also contains tributes to Medgar Evers and Malcolm X, two slain heroes of the 1960s civil rights movement.
In her later work, Brooks made a conscious decision to abandon the poetic standards of the Western literary tradition in favor of formal features that would resonate with most African American readers. Collections from this period include Riot (1969), Beckonings (1975), and Primer for Blacks (1980). Her subject matter, still devoted to representations of the lives of blacks in urban America, also eventually included international issues and heroes including the South Africans Steve Biko and Winnie Mandela. Her collections The Near-Johannesburg Boy, and Other Poems (1986) and Winnie (1988) link the oppression of Africans with that of African Americans. In addition to her novel and her many volumes of poetry, Brooks also produced two autobiographies, Report from Part One (1972), and Report from Part Two (1996).
Despite the many honors, awards, and critical accolades Brooks has received, contemporary scholars have asserted that Brook's work as a whole has not received the recognition it deserves. In recent years her writings have been analyzed by feminist scholars, who have rekindled interest in her novel Maud Martha. However, critics disagree on whether Brooks herself can be considered a feminist, since she refused to see her treatment of gender as separate from her treatment of race and class issues. Nonetheless, the female characters in her fiction and her poetry are for the most part strong women who challenge the confines of their proper roles both within the black community and within the larger American culture. In discussing Brooks's critique of the accepted standards of feminine beauty in Maud Martha, Harry B. Shaw observed, "Maud is clearly less concerned with being thought inferior than she is with being perceived as ugly. This concern is filtered through the point of view of an insecure, self-disparaging black woman who feels that she is homely and, therefore, uncherished because she is black and has nappy hair and 'Negro features.'" Through the character of Maud, Brooks denounced not only the aesthetic standards of white America but the apparent acceptance of those standards by blacks themselves. Brooks's appropriation of the traditional sonnet form—typically associated with a privileged, white, male speaker addressing or imploring a silent female—to give voice to the black female subject was assessed by Stacy Carson Hubbard (see Further Reading) as a transformation of the sonnet into "a vehicle for her own form of complaint, a poetry of power trespassing on the restricted ground of the traditionally male, and white, sonnet." Annie Perkins contended that Brooks always displayed sensitivity to women's issues, citing in particular the poem "Gang Girls," which offers a critique of female submission to male gang members' domination. Perkins concluded that "although Brooks has not aligned herself with feminist movements to challenge white male patriarchy, she nonetheless shares the aim of achieving social equality and economic parity for women while displaying and celebrating the full range of their capabilities and achievements."