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...
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