Gwendolyn Brooks

1917 - 2000

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Poet Biography
Pulitzer Prize winner Gwendolyn Brooks

Like her predecessor and mentorLangston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks was one of the twentieth century’s most gifted and prolific American poets. Brooks was the first African American writer to win the Pulitzer Prize, the winner of several lifetime achievement awards, and a holder of more than fifty honorary degrees.

Brooks was born in Topeka, Kansas, to David Anderson Brooks, the Oklahoma-bredson of a runaway slave and a house slave of mixed parentage, and Keziah Corinne (née Wims), a former school teacher and aspiring concert pianist.David attended Fisk University for one year, aspiring to become a doctor. After leaving school, he moved to Chicago and focused on making a living. In a 1967 interview with Roy Newquist, Brooks explained that her parents lived on Chicago’s South Side and that her mother had only gone to Topeka two and a half months before Brooks was born so that Keziah could give birth at the home of her parents, Luvenia and Moses Wims, where she enjoyed “long daily walks and raising fresh vegetables.”Five weeks after Gwendolyn was born, Keziah returned to Chicago. Sixteen months later, Brooks’s brother, Raymond, was born.

David and Keziah encouraged their children’s reading habits. Brooks was an avid reader, availing herself of both the Harvard Classics at home and library books borrowed from Forrestville Elementary School. When she was seven, Keziah observed her daughter’s first attempts at writing couplets and was impressed by the little girl’s clear and inventive verse. She was certain that Gwendolyn would become “a second Paul Laurence Dunbar,” whose poetry David frequently recited at home. Two years later, Brooks was writing quatrains. She would later apply these early formal experiments in her later work, such as the two-line “Estimable Mable,” the elegy “The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till,” and her best-known poem, “We Real Cool.”

Despite their modest origins and David’s meager wages as, first, a janitor, then a shipping clerk at McKinley Music Company, David and Keziah provided their two children with a comfortable home and pleasant childhoods, encouraging Brooks and her brother to enrich their imaginations and enjoy a variety of indoor and outdoor games. The relative peace in Brooks’s Bronzeville neighborhood home contrasted with the hostility that she experienced from other children at Forrestville Elementary, which she later described in her novel Maud Martha (1953). The other children mistook Brooks’s introversion and shyness for snobbery. In other moments, they criticized her expensive clothing (gifts from an aunt) and derided her for having dark skin and a kinky hair texture.

Brooks’s social alienation, coupled with her parents’ encouragement, led her to dedicate herself to poetry. She wrote at least one poem per day and sometimes as many as three. At age 11, she began collecting the poems she had already written into notebooks. She published four poems in the local newsletter, the Hyde Parker. When she was 13, Brooks made her national debut in the October 1930 issue of American Childhood magazine with the poem “Eventide.” “Eventide” shows the influence of the English Romantic poets William Wordsworth and John Keats, as well as Brooks’s admiration for the nineteenth-century American poets William Cullen Bryant and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. By age 14, Brooks was writing ballads and free verse, poems about racism and love.

During her teen years, Brooks discovered the richness of the African American poetic tradition beyond Dunbar’s work in the anthologies Negro Poets and Their Poems (1923), edited by Robert Kerlin, and Countee Cullen’s Caroling Dusk (1927). In 1933, she wrote to James Weldon Johnson and sent him some of her poems. Johnson recognized Brooks’s talent and urged her to read the Modernists T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and e.e. cummings. Other early influences included Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens. Soon thereafter, Brooks and her mother met Langston Hughes at Metropolitan Church in Chicago, where Brooks handed him some of her poems. Hughes, who read Brooks’s work on the spot, encouraged her to pursue writing.

At 16, Brooks became a regular contributor to the Chicago Defender’s “Lights and Shadows” poetry column, publishing nearly 100 poems in the popular Black newspaper.

Financial strains in Brooks’s family made college an impossibility. Instead, she enrolled at Woodrow Wilson Junior College, an affordable two-year institution, where she took courses in literature and wrote poems that contemplated love and her reticence about her Black identity.

Brooks graduated from Wilson Junior College (now, Kennedy-King College) in 1936. With the country still crippled by the Great Depression, Brooks took what jobs she could find, working occasionally as a domestic, and for a time as an assistant to the West Indian spiritual advisor E. N. French, who operated out of the Mecca Building in Bronzeville.

In her free time, Brooks joined the NAACP Youth Council, where she met future collaborator and co-founder of the DuSable African American Museum of History, Margaret Taylor Burroughs, and participated in the council’s anti-lynching protests. It was at a Youth Council meeting that she also met fellow writer, Henry Lowington Blakely, Jr. The couple married on September 17, 1939—two years after their initial meeting.

From 1937 to 1939, Brooks filled new notebooks with poetry and prose, though she wrote less than in previous years. The first years of her marriage to Henry were complicated by scrambles for employment and frequent moves, due to the lack of adequate housing options available to Black Chicagoans. Henry began to write fewer poems, bending to pressure that he focus on securing gainful employment. On October 10, 1940, Brooks gave birth to a son, Henry, Jr. Mounting pressures on the marriage led to the first of numerous separations. The couple would separate in December 1969, but subsequently reconcile in 1973, staying together until Henry’s death in 1996.

Oracle of Bronzeville, Margot McMahon

Poetry gave Brooks and her husband a welcome respite from the strains on their marriage. In 1941, they both joined a poetry workshop for Black writers organized by poet and arts patron Inez Cunningham Stark at the South Side Community Art Center, an institution opened with funding from the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Other workshop attendees were future poet and novelist Margaret Walker and several of Brooks’s friends, including Burroughs and fellow poet Margaret Danner. In her later years, Brooks would credit Cunningham’s workshop for aiding in the development of her craft. Students read contemporary poetry and works of criticism, while also engaging in rigorous critiques of each other’s work. Langston Hughes visited one day and listened to Brooks read “Ballad of Pearl May Lee,” a young Black woman’s lament over the lynching death of a young Black man named Sammy, whose racial self-hatred cost him his life. The poem became a favorite of Hughes and was published in Brooks’s debut collection, A Street in Bronzeville (1945). Though he balked at the title, assuming no one outside of Chicago would recognize the neighborhood’s name, Richard Wright praised the manuscript to the editors at Harper & Brothers. Margaret Walker, in a review in the journal Phylon, lauded the collection’s universality, despite the provincial perspective suggested in its title. The volume also garnered a glowing review in the Chicago Tribune, and the Chicago Defender featured a full-page profile on Brooks.

Despite her newfound fame, Brooks, Henry, and their son, whom they called “Hank,” were still living in a kitchenette, sharing a bathroom with residents in the neighboring four units. The Blakelys received a much-needed infusion of income when Brooks was hired to write book reviews for various Chicago newspapers and for Negro Digest (later, Black World). She was awarded grants from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1946 and received Guggenheim Foundation fellowships in both 1946 and 1947.

Plaque at the Gwendolyn Brooks House, Chicago

In 1949, Brooks released her second poetry collection, Annie Allen. Initially met with reservations by the editors at Harper, the volume would win Brooks the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1950. In a 1986 interview with Main Street Rag reviewer Kevin Bezner, Brooks recalled receiving a telephone call from then Chicago Sun-Times reporter, Jack Star, notifying Brooks that she had won. Star would later detail the event in a March 6, 1981 profile on Brooks for Chicago Magazine, “The Proud Poet of Bronzeville.” This announcement came on the day that that the electricity was turned off in the Blakely home—the family was too impoverished to keep up with the bill.

Annie Allen explores the title character’s experiences from girlhood to womanhood—a leitmotif that Brooks repeated for her first and only novel, Maud Martha. The book received little attention after its release due to its dismissal of the protest themes that had characterized much postwar African American literature. It was also the only novel of its time to make a dark-skinned Black woman’s lifelong experience of colorism a central theme. Brooks took inspiration from her own childhood experiences with colorism. Maud Martha would garner critical praise in later decades and, like Brooks’s poem “The Life of Lincoln West,” addressed the impact of colorism in Black communities. She later wrote a sequel to the novel titled “The Rise of Maud Martha,” which takes place after the death of Maud’s husband, Paul, in a fire. The short story, first published in 1955, was long out of print until was reprinted in Mary Helen Washington’s anthology Invented Lives: Narratives of Black Women 1860-1960 (1987).

Gwendolyn Brooks Home in Chicago

On September 8, 1951, Brooks gave birth to her second child, Nora. In the same decade, she published three additional volumes at Harper & Brothers: Bronzeville Boys and Girls (1956), a collection of poetry for children; The Bean Eaters (1960), and Selected Poems (1963). In 1962, she and her former mentor, Langston Hughes, were the only Black poets invited to read their work at Library of Congress’s National Poetry Festival. The dearth of attention paid to Black writers, and particularly to Black women writers, moved Brooks to focus on her community. She began reading poetry to children in Chicago public schools in the 1960s, initiating what would become a lifelong interest in engaging more of the public, particularly young people, with poetry. Later, she would hold readings at prisons and hospitals, and would serve as a judge in annual children’s poetry contests.

Chicago's Wall of Respect

In 1963, despite her lack of a degree, Columbia College president Mirron Alexandroff invited Brooks to form a poetry workshop. Fascinated by Alexandroff’s promise that she could do anything and take the students anywhere to write, Brooks accepted the position. Later, she accepted teaching positions at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois, and Northeastern Illinois State College. At the University of Wisconsin she was Rennebohm Professor of English and, at the City College of New York, served for a year as Distinguished Professor of the Arts. She commuted between Chicago and New York each week to teach in a program that included the novelist Joseph Heller. On Christmas Day in 1971, Brooks suffered “a small heart attack,” leading her to give up the position.

In February 1966, Brooks met the poet and publisher Dudley Randall at a reading in Rochester, Michigan. The two quickly became friends, and Randall suggested that Brooks publish her work at his Detroit-based press, Broadside. Joining Broadside was an expression of Brooks’s burgeoning interest in Black power politics, which included support for Black-owned businesses like Randall’s.  

Further inspired by the Second Black Writers’ Conference at Fisk University in 1967, also attended by Amiri Baraka and other Black Arts Movement poets, Brooks started a poetry workshop from her Bronzeville home. Members included Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, and Don L. Lee (Haki Madhubuti). Brooks would later act as Lee’s mentor. Together, they toured the country from 1968 to 1969, giving poetry readings. Discussions at Brooks’s workshop connected Black art to Black political power—subjects that Brooks contemplated in her next three volumes. In the Mecca, which was nominated for the National Book Award, was released in 1968, followed by the chapbooks Riot (1969) and Family Pictures (1970). The latter two were released by Broadside Press.  

In the Mecca, Riot, and Family Pictures can be read as a trilogy. In all three, Brooks deals specifically with the subject of Black self-determination—building self-sustaining communities, taking responsibility for the education of succeeding generations, and forming an independent aesthetic sensibility. For Brooks, the embrace of Black nationalism and the Black Arts Movement was also personal. Though she appreciated her own dark skin, she resented that other Black people, since her childhood, preferred lighter-skinned or “bright” girls. Like many Black girls and women, she tried to conform to European beauty standards by straightening her hair—a habit that she vowed to stop as a result of what she had learned from Black revolutionaries.

Soon after joining Broadside Press, she penned the elegy “Malcolm X”—the first poem to appear in the anthology, Malcolm: Poems on the Life and Death of Malcolm X (1967), edited by Dudley Randall and Margaret Taylor Burroughs. In 1968, Brooks was declared poet laureate of Illinois, succeeding Carl Sandburg, who died the year before.

In 1971, Brooks published her final volume with what was now Harper & Row—The World of Gwendolyn Brooks. Her future work would be published by Broadside, Third World Press—Haki Madhubuti’s publishing house—and Brooks’s own small presses, The David Company and Brooks Press. Under the latter two she released Blacks (1973) and the chapbook Mayor Harold Washington and Chicago, the I Will City (1983).

Brooks received accolades from the literary establishment until the end of her life. She was the first African American to join the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1976. In 1989, she received a lifetime achievement award from the National Endowment for the Arts and another from the National Book Foundation in 1994. In the same year, the National Endowment for the Humanities named her its Jefferson Lecturer. In 1995, she was awarded the National Medal of the Arts. Chicago State University established a chair in Black Literature and Creative Writing in her name. One of her proudest honors was To Gwen with Love: An Anthology Dedicated to Gwendolyn Brooks, co-edited by Madhubuti (then, Don L. Lee) and published in 1971. Contributors to the volume included contemporaries, such as Samuel Allen and her friend Margaret Danner, as well as younger poets, including Michael S. Harper and Dolores Kendrick. The book was born out of a celebration of Brooks’s life and work held on December 28, 1969 at the Afro-Arts Theater in Chicago.

Brooks remained at her home on Chicago’s Southside, where she continued to work quietly and avoided public attention. She died at home at the age of 83.

Sources

Brooks, Gwendolyn. Report from Part One. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1972.

Gayles, Gloria Wade, ed. Conversations with Gwendolyn Brooks. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003.

Jackson, Angela. A Surprised Queenhood in the New Black Sun: The Life and Legacy of Gwendolyn Brooks. Boston: Beacon Press, 2017.

Kent, George E. A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1990.

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