Gwendolyn Brooks was an American poet, writer, and teacher. Brooks was the first African American to receive a Pulitzer Prize for her poetry for her book Annie Allen. She was the first Black woman to be a poetry consultant to the Library of Congress and best known for her poetic descriptions of celebrations and struggles of Black city life.
- Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks was born in Topeka, Kansas, on June 7, 1917. She moved to Chicago with her parents, Keziah and David, when she was five weeks old during the Great Migration.
- Her father, David, was a janitor who had hoped to become a doctor; her mother, Keziah, a teacher, and classically trained pianist. In an interview in 1994, she labeled herself as an “organic Chicagoan.”
- Brooks was the oldest of two children and had a younger brother named Raymond Melvin.
- Brooks’ father was initially studying medicine at the “Frisk University.” He dropped out of school after his father died. After moving to Chicago, he worked as a janitor once they moved to Chicago, first at the “McKinley Music Publishing Company” and later, at Targ and Dinner.
- She started her formal education at a Chicago southside school, Forestville Elementary, where she faced social rejection.
- At the age of 11, Brooks wrote one poem every day, making a series of poetry books. She wrote about the world around her, mother nature, and religion.
- Her first poem was published in the American Childhood Magazine when she was only 13 years old.
- Gwendolyn Brooks had a Sweet Sixteen Party, but none of her classmates showed up.
- Her mother encouraged her and helped Gwen send her poems to magazines and the Chicago Defender. By the age of seventeen, she had published several poems in Chicago Defender.
- According to George Kent, she was “spurned by members of her race because she lacked social or athletic abilities, a light skin, and good grade hair.” Brooks felt rejected and spent most of her childhood writing.
- Her first poetry book was “A Street in Bronzeville” of 1945.
- “Maud Martha” was her first novel which had 34 sketches.
- In poetry, her Pulitzer award, entitled Annie Allen, chronicled an ordinary black girl growing up in the Bronzeville neighborhood on Chicago’sChicago’s famous South Side. It tells the story of a black woman’s passage from childhood to adulthood against poverty and discrimination.
- Her collection of poems called “Bronzeville Boys and Girls” was published in 1956.
- Brooks became active in the “Youth Council of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She became the publicity director of the Chicago chapter in 1937.
- She taught creative writing to Chicago gang members from the Chicago’sChicago’s Blackstone Rangers.
- Brooks taught creative writing at the University of Chicago, Columbia College Chicago, Chicago State University, Northeastern Illinois University, Elmhurst College, Columbia University, and the University of Wisconsin.
- Gwendolyn Brooks was sixty-eight when she became the first black woman to be a poetry consultant to the Library of Congress.
- President John F. Kennedy invited Brooks to read at a Library of Congress poetry festival in 1962.
- Broadside Press published her book ‘Riot’ in 1969.
- She attended a predominantly white high school in Chicago, Hyde Park High School. Still, she transferred to an all-black school and an integrated school, Wendell Phillips High School, in the Chicago Broonzville neighborhood. Later finished school at Englewood High School.
- She graduated from a two-year program at Wilson Junior College in 1936, now known as Kennedy-King College. Brooks did not pursue a four-year college degree because she did feel it was necessary as a writer.
- In 1941, Gwendolyn took part in poetry workshops, including a seminar organized by the influential Inez Cunningham Stark, a white woman with a solid literary background. Starks offered workshops to Black people, and it helped Brooks gained techniques from her predecessors. Even Langston Hughes passed by and heard Brooks read her poem “The Ballad of Pearl May Lee.”
Gwendolyn Brooks personal life
- Among her close friends, she went by the nickname “Gwendie”.
- In 1939, Brooks married Henry Lowington Blakely, Jr. They had two children: Henry Lowington Blakely III and Nora Blakely.
- Brooks mentored her son’s fiancée, Kathleen Hardiman, in writing poetry.
Gwendolyn Brooks died at 83 on December 3, 2000, at her home in Chicago, Illinois. She is buried at Lincoln Cemetery in Blue Island, Illinois.
Honors and Awards
- The Guggenheim fellowship and Mademoiselle magazine named her one of its “Ten Women of the Year.”
- In 1949, she published her second collection of poems. The book entitled “Annie Allen earned her many honors, including the “Pulitzer Prize.”
- President John F. Kennedy invited Brooks to read at the “Library of Congress’ poetry festival.
- Brooks became the first Black woman to be inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1976.
- She received the highest honor granted by the state of Illinois in 1997, the ‘Order of Lincoln.’
- Brooks took on the role of Poet Laureate of the United States.
- Awarded the National Medal of Arts.