Gwendolyn Brooks was born in Topeka, Kansas in 1917. Her parents, for whom she was their first child, were a janitor and school teacher. When she was only six years old the family moved to Chicago. She would live there for the rest of her life. As a young girl she attended Forestville Elementary School on the South Side of the city. Brooks was thirteen years old when she published her first poem, ‘Eventide.’ It appeared in American Childhood. She went on to an integrated, fairly prestigious high school called Hyde Park. She moved between two more schools, Wendell Phillips High and Englewood High, before graduating.
Early Life and Education
By the time she was seventeen her work was frequently appearing in the Chicago Defender, a paper primarily aimed at the African-American population of the city. It is recorded that by this point in her life she had written somewhere around 75 poems. They ranged from ballads to sonnets and even work in free verse, inspired by the blues.
After high school she took part in a two-year program at Wilson Junior College. Then went on to work for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or the NAACP. During this time period she was attending poetry workshops and doing everything she could to develop her writing. Her parents were very supportive of her throughout her life and understood that she did not want to enter into a four-year college program. It was also around this time period that she married Henry Lowington Blakely, Jr. They had two children together and Brooks would outlive him by only four years.
Before long she was receiving positive feedback from writers such as James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes. Her work during this period was very focused on the experience of Blacks within urban Chicago. In 1944 two of her poems were published in Poetry magazine’s November issue. This was a goal she had been striving for since she was a young girl.
Brooks’ first collection, A Street in Bronzeville, was published in 1945 by Harper & Brothers. It was received very well and a number of very positive reviews were published in regards to her style. The following year saw Brooks’ receive her first Guggenheim Fellowship. Her burgeoning career was highlighted in Mademoiselle magazine. The next volume of poetry, Annie Allen, followed in 1949. It was focused on the life experiences of a young Black girl growing up in the same areas in which Brooks lived. The work was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry the next year. It also received Poetry magazines Eunice Tietjens Prize.
A few years later Brooks’ only narrative book was published. It came in the form of 34 individual vignettes and was titled Maud Martha. The book was concerned with the everyday life of a black woman and the doubts that plagued her. She suffered from the preconceived, prejudicial judgements of everyone in her life.
In 1968 Brooks was appointed the Poet Laureate of Illinois. She held this position for the next thirty-two years until her death. This was also the year she published one of her most well-known works, In the Mecca. The volume was nominated for the National Book Award for Poetry. In general the collection proved that Brooks was becoming more and more concerned about social problems in her city.
In the 1970s Brooks left her publisher Harper & Row and began taking her work to growing Black publishing companies. These included Broadside press which went on to publish at least six works over the decade. She also edited works for these presses.
Later Life and Death
The following years saw her win the Anisfield-Wold Book Award and the Shelley Memorial Award of the Poetry Society of America. She was also inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1972 an autobiographical account of Brooks’ life, Report From Part One, was released. It included interviews, photographs and musing from her life. The follow-up, Report From Part Two wasn’t released until she was almost eighty years old.
In 1985 she was made the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, a position better know as Poet Laureate of the United States.
Gwendolyn Brooks died in December of 2000 at the age of eighty-three. After her death one of her childhood high schools was renamed in her memory and Western Illinois University’s Gwendolyn Brooks Center for African-American Literature was founded.