Last reviewed: June 2017
African American poet, professor, and activist
June 7, 1917
December 3, 2000
Shortly after Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks was born, her family moved to Chicago, where she grew up and later made her home. During the 1930’s, Brooks received her associate degree in literature and arts from Wilson Junior College and served as publicity director for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Youth Council in Chicago. In the mid-1930s she became a poetry columnist for the Chicago Defender. She married Henry Blakely in 1939 and had two children. She and her husband separated in 1969 but were reconciled in 1973.
A major voice in contemporary American poetry, Brooks published her first book of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville, in 1945. Here she introduces themes that occupied her throughout her life: racism and poverty, life in the American family, the trauma of world war, and the search for dignity and happiness in a society that denies these to many. Bronze Portrait Bust Of Gwendolyn Brooks
Bronze Portrait Bust Of Gwendolyn Brooks
Brooks’s early poetry is characterized by a uniform narrative stance. A sensitive observer tells verse stories about ordinary people, many of whom are ghetto dwellers entrapped by social, economic, and racial forces they can neither control nor understand. Brooks describes the many ways her characters seek security and hope: through religion, through integration of the races, and through careless and profligate living. Pursued to excess, all these attempts to escape have one thing in common—they fail. The activities are used to mask frightful uncertainty and insecurity, yet they actually extend and intensify the cycle of hopelessness.
Taken together, Brooks’s poems about ordinary people create a vivid and complex picture of America’s poor, with poverty both sign and symbol of racism and injustice. The poor are uneducated (or undereducated), victimized by racism and crime, and trapped by society and their own inadequacies. The poet-narrator’s attitude toward them is one of wistful and sometimes ironic sympathy; she herself is a part of the life she describes.
One of Brooks’s main contentions at this point in her career was that political and social freedom for African Americans would tear down the walls between the races and that such freedom would bring relief from demeaning poverty and ignorance. It must be added, however, that in the most pessimistic moments in her early poetry she suggests that freedom for African Americans is impossible in American society.
Recognition and honors crowned Brooks’s early career. In 1950 she became the first African American to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and she was appointed poet laureate of Illinois on Carl Sandburg’s death in 1968, a position she held for the rest of her life.
Beginning in 1968, the direction of Brooks’s work changed. In her poetry, essays, and speeches, Brooks launched what she called the “new music.” As she explained, “I want to write poetry that will appeal to many, many blacks, not just blacks who go to college but also those who have their customary habitat in taverns and the street. . . . Anything I write is going to issue from a concern with and interest in blackness and its progress.” Brooks turned away from the careful portraiture of her early work to pursue a more emotional and personal type of polemic poetry, and she continued to experiment with new poetic forms and new attitudes to express her commitment to the cause of black unity in the United States.
In 1981, Brooks published the collection of poems To Disembark, which is composed of alternate versions of several previously published poems. The poems serve as a continuing call for blacks to disengage from all that represents the oppressive life of white America. Brooks suggests in “Riot,” as well as in other poems, that this disengagement may require violent disturbance and anarchy. The bitter, militant tone of the book caused one critic to label it a “distressing celebration of violence.” An important part of the change in Gwendolyn Brooks was a new emphasis on independent publishing for African American writers. With her omnibus Blacks, the self-publication of many of her previously published works, she established a model.
In addition to producing engaging works of poetry and literature, Brooks shared her knowledge in the classroom. She taught creative writing at various institutions, including Northeastern Illinois University and the West Harlem campus of the City College of New York. She was a distinguished professor of English at Chicago State University and the Rennebohm Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin in spring 1969.
In 1985, Brooks was appointed poetry consultant (poet laureate) for the Library of Congress. In 1987, she became an honorary fellow of the Modern Language Association. The following year she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame. Brooks won two Guggenheim Fellowships, and she was made a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She received honorary degrees from more than seventy schools, and in 1994 the National Endowment for the Humanities named her the Jefferson Lecturer for Distinguished Intellectual Achievement in the Humanities. In 1995, President Bill Clinton awarded Brooks the National Medal of Art. She died in 2000 at the age of eighty-three.