Gwendolyn Brooks 1917–
American poet, novelist, children's writer, editor, and autobiographer.
The following entry presents an overview of Brooks's career through 1996. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 4, 5, and 15.
A powerful voice of black consciousness and social protest in mid-century America, Gwendolyn Brooks is among the most distinguished African-American poets of the twentieth century. With the publication of her second volume of poetry, Annie Allen (1949), she became the first black American writer to win a Pulitzer Prize. Noted for her mastery of traditional forms and poignant evocation of urban black experience, Brooks emerged as a leading black literary figure during the 1950s and 1960s. Drawing upon both European models and African-American folk tradition, her lyrical poetry addresses racial injustice, poverty, and the private struggles of young black women with exceptional precision, psychological depth, and authenticity. In addition to Annie Allen, Brooks is best known for A Street in Bronzeville (1945), The Bean Eaters (1960), In the Mecca (1968), and her only novel, Maud Martha (1953). During the late 1960s, Brooks embraced the Black Power and Black Arts movements, marking a dramatic shift in her poetry toward increasingly polemical declarations of black pride and African cultural nationalism.
Born in Topeka, Kansas, Brooks was raised in the poor South Side section of Chicago by devoted parents; her mother abandoned teaching for marriage and motherhood and her father, the son of a runaway slave who fought in the Civil War, gave up his ambition to attend medical school to work as a janitor. Out of the loving security of her home, Brooks early experienced racial prejudice in grade school, where other black students ridiculed her for her dark skin and lack of social or athletic abilities. Brooks found solace in reading and writing, which her parents enthusiastically encouraged; after reading her seven-year-old daughter's precocious poetry, Brooks's mother proclaimed to her, "You are going to be a poet." Brooks published her first poem at age thirteen in American Childhood magazine. At age sixteen she met Langston Hughes, who read her poems and offered encouragement after a poetry reading. Brooks's early poetry reflects her interest in William Wordsworth, John Keats, Emily Dickinson, William Cullen Bryant, and Percy Bysshe Shelly. After graduating from an integrated high school in 1934, Brooks continued to devote herself to writing and even corresponded with Harlem Renaissance poet James Weldon Johnson, who commented favorably on her poetry and suggested that she read modern poets. Brooks was a regular poetry contributor to the Chicago Defender beginning in 1934. After graduating from Wilson Junior College in 1936, she briefly worked as a maid and as a secretary for a spiritual charlatan who managed a massive slum tenement known as the Mecca. Brooks later recalled both of these painfully degrading job experiences in her poetry. In 1938 Brooks joined the NAACP Youth Council, where she met her husband, Henry Lowington Blakely II, whom she married the next year; their son was born in 1940, and daughter in 1951. From 1941 to 1942 Brooks attended a poetry workshop with Inez Cunningham Stark, who helped hone her technical skills. Brooks won the Midwestern Writers Conference prize in 1944 with the "Gay Chaps at the Bar," and again in 1945 with "the progress." Both poems appeared in her first volume of poetry A Street in Bronzeville. Brooks was named one of the ten most outstanding women of the year by Mademoiselle magazine in 1945 and received several prestigious honors, including a National Institute of Arts and Letters grant in 1946, an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in 1946, and Guggenheim fellowships in 1946 and 1947. Brooks's next volume of poetry, Annie Allen, won a Eunice Tietjens Memorial Prize from Poetry magazine in 1949 and a Pulitzer Prize in 1950. During the 1950s, Brooks published her only novel, Maud Martha, and a book of children's verse, Bronzeville Boys and Girls (1956). Her third volume of poetry, The Bean Eaters, heralded Brooks's growing social and racial consciousness at the height of the civil rights movement. Her Selected Poems (1963) received a Robert F. Ferguson Memorial Award and Thormod Monsen Literature Award in 1964. In 1967 Brooks attended the Second Fisk Writers Conference, where she was captivated by younger black writers such as LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) and Don L. Jones (Haki Madhubuti), whose message of black solidarity Brooks embraced as her own, marking a decisive turning point in her career. Brooks hosted poetry workshops for members of the Chicago gang the Blackstone Rangers, traveled to Africa twice in the early 1970s, and supported black publishing ventures by having her subsequent work published by Broadside Press in Detroit and Third World Press in Chicago. She also served as editor of several Broadside Press anthologies. In 1968 Brooks received a National Book Award nomination for In the Mecca and succeeded Carl Sandburg as poet laureate of Illinois. In 1971 she received the Black Academy of Arts and Letters Award. During the 1970s and 1980s Brooks published additional small volumes of poetry, her autobiography Report from Part One (1972), children's verse in The Tiger Who Wore White Gloves (1974), and the writing manuals Young Poet's Primer (1980), A Capsule Course in Black Poetry Writing (1975), and Very Young Poets (1983). A noted teacher and mentor for young poets, Brooks has sponsored numerous poetry contests and workshops, often financed at her own expense, and taught at many colleges and universities since the early 1960s. In 1985 Brooks was appointed poetry consultant for the Library of Congress. She has received numerous additional honors, including the Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America and 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's poetry in A Street in Bronzeville reveals the formal accomplishment, colloquial rhythms, and social concerns that characterize most of her work. The first section of the volume presents a realistic montage of everyday episodes and scenes in Bronzeville, the poor Chicago neighborhood of her childhood and early marriage. Drawing upon a variety of poetic styles, including the sonnet, ballad, blank verse, and blues, Brooks relates the frustrated hopes, economic deprivation, violence, and racial prejudice experienced by ordinary Bronzeville men, women, and children. In "The Ballad of Chocolate Mabbie" the title character is jilted by her boyfriend for a light-skinned girl: "The Sundays of Satin Legs Smith" depicts one man's futile effort to escape poverty and racism through flamboyant dress and sex. The second section of the volume, consisting of the sonnet series "Gay Chaps at the Bar," deals with the unsung heroism of black soldiers during the Second World War. Brooks continued these social themes in Annie Allen, which focuses upon the maturation of its young, black female protagonist. Divided into several sections, including "Notes from the Childhood and Girlhood," "The Anniad," "Appendix to the Anniad," and "The Womanhood," Brooks chronicles Annie's home life, youthful innocence, growing self-awareness, and romantic relationships amid the same grim, poverty-stricken setting of A Street in Bronzeville. The centerpiece of the volume is "The Anniad," a long mock-heroic epic whose title alludes to Homer's The Iliad. This complex poem juxtaposes Annie's idealism with the stark reality of her limited circumstances as a black woman, wife, and mother. Brooks elaborated upon similar themes in Maud Martha, an autobiographic novel comprised of thirty-four vignettes that chronicles the childhood and emotional development of an unhappy, self-conscious black woman who struggles to find dignity and confidence despite poverty and racial discrimination from both blacks and whites. In The Bean Eaters Brooks moved away from personal subjects to address the mounting alienation and despair of African-Americans during the late 1950s. The title of the collection alludes to Vincent van Gogh's painting The Potato Eaters. Many of these poems relate the failed efforts of those in the black community to escape hopelessness through materialism, religion, racial integration, and reckless living. This volume includes Brooks's much anthologized poem "We So Cool," which mimics the self-defeating defiance of pool hall drop-outs. In another poem, "Ballad of Rudolph Reed," Brooks describes the tragic result of a black man's attempt to move his family into a white neighborhood. Brooks also linked the experiences of Chicagoans with national events in several poems, including "A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon," which deals with the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a black teenager killed for allegedly whistling at a white girl. Brooks's Selected Poems contains several new poems which further evince her commitment to social causes. In one poem, "Riders to the Blood-Red Wrath," Brooks extols the activities of the Freedom Riders and others involved in the civil rights movement. In the Mecca marks a transition in Brooks's poetry, reflecting a turn away from the humor and irony of earlier volumes toward the overt political tone and subjects of her subsequent work. The long title poem, written in free verse and replete with literary and biblical allusions, is set in the dilapidated Mecca apartment complex of Brooks's earlier employment. The narrative revolves around Mrs. Sallie, a single mother of nine children, and her frantic search to locate her missing child, Pepita, within the sprawling residence. While searching for Pepita with the police, Mrs. Sallie encounters other inhabitants of the Mecca, most of whom are too preoccupied with their own obsessions to offer assistance or compassion. Pepita's body is eventually discovered under the roach infested cot of Jamaican Edward, who has raped and murdered the young girl. In the Mecca also contains an elegy for Malcolm X and slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers. The evolution of Brooks's political and racial consciousness is documented in Report from Part One, an assemblage of interviews, reviews, and autobiographic prose that recounts her visits to Africa and new black aesthetic. Brooks's poetry in Riot (1969), Family Pictures (1970), Aloneness (1971) and Beckonings (1975) reflects her revolutionary perspective and black pride. For example, "The Third Sermon of the Warpland" in Riot deals with Chicago street disturbances after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and "The Life of Lincoln West" in Family Pictures presents a white man's derisive view of dark-skinned blacks. Brooks collected and republished many of these poems in to disembark (1981).
Brooks is highly regarded as a major contemporary American poet and preeminent African-American literary figure. Consistently praised for her technical skill and intimate portraits of black personalities and urban life, she has won both critical and popular admiration among her readers. As many critics note, Brooks possesses an uncanny ability to transmute commonplace subjects into the extraordinary, especially those seemingly insignificant events in the lives of the poor and dispossessed in her native Chicago. According to Cheryl Clarke, "Brooks's entire oeuvre has been studies of black subjectivity, of African-American oral and written traditions, sources of knowledge and faith systems; of the psychic and physical effects of racism on the lives of black and white people; and of the richness of the lyric." Critical analysis of Brooks's work is focused primarily upon her poetry in A Street in Bronzeville, Annie Allen, The Bean Eaters, In the Mecca, and her novel Maud Martha, together considered her most accomplished works. Brooks's poetry after her 1967 racial awakening has received mixed reaction. While some critics disapprove of the ideology and polemical tone of her poetry from In the Mecca forward, others continue to appreciate the impressive force and universal appeal of her work. Brooks has also received both praise and criticism for the complexity and ambitious themes of her work. Despite her identity as a "New Black" poet during the late 1960s and 1970s, Brooks is recognized as a prescient commentator on race and female oppression for her work that predates the civil rights, Black Power, and women's movements. As Kathryne V. Lindberg writes, "Brooks has always addressed and continues to address difficult issues, including those often decorously silent intimate traumas of abortion, color caste, domestic abuse, alienation, and motherhood in poverty. Defiant in the face of a painful history of racist lies and false consciousness that refuses to yield a 'useable past,' she has actively fashioned models of personal and communal dignity as poetic blueprints for 'cultural survival.'"