Authors: Gwendolyn Brooks

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

African American poet, professor, and activist

June 7, 1917

Topeka, Kansas

December 3, 2000

Chicago, Illinois

Biography

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

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Gwendolyn Brooks

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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.

Author Works Poetry: A Street in Bronzeville, 1945 Annie Allen, 1949 The Bean Eaters, 1960 Selected Poems, 1963 We Real Cool, 1966 The Wall, 1967 In the Mecca, 1968 Riot, 1969 Family Pictures, 1970 Aloneness, 1971 Black Steel: Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, 1971 Aurora, 1972 Beckonings, 1975 Primer for Blacks, 1980 To Disembark, 1981 Black Love, 1982 The Near-Johannesburg Boy, 1986 Blacks, 1987 Gottschalk and the Grand Tarantelle, 1988 Winnie, 1988 Children Coming Home, 1991 Long Fiction: Maud Martha, 1953 Nonfiction: The World of Gwendolyn Brooks, 1971 Report from Part One, 1972 Young Poet’s Primer, 1980 Conversations with Gwendolyn Brooks, 2003 (Gloria Wade Gayles, editor) Children’s/Young Adult Literature: Bronzeville Boys and Girls, 1956 The Tiger Who Wore White Gloves, 1974 Very Young Poets, 1983 Edited Text: Jump Bad: A New Chicago Anthology, 1971 Bibliography Bloom, Harold, ed. Gwendolyn Brooks. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2000. From the series Modern Critical Views. Includes an introduction by Bloom. Bolden, B. J. Urban Rage in Bronzeville: Social Commentary in the Poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, 1945-1960. Chicago: Third World Press, 1999. A critical analysis focused on the impact of Brooks’s early poetry. Bolden examines A Street in Bronzeville, Annie Allen, and The Bean Eaters in clear historical, racial, political, cultural, and aesthetic terms. "Gwendolyn Brooks—Bio." Illinois Poet Laureate, State of Illinois, 2017, www.illinois.gov/poetlaureate/pages/brooks.aspx. Accessed 11 Apr. 2017. An overview of Brooks' professional life with some personal details included. “Gwendolyn’s Words: A Gift to Us.” Essence 31, no. 11 (March, 2001): A18. Begins with an account of Brooks’s early life and documents the sequence of her compositions. Also covers her professional relationship with Haki R. Madhubuti, who helped publish her works. Kent, George E. A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990. This biography, completed in 1982 just before Kent’s death, is based on interviews with Brooks and her friends and family. Integrates discussions of the poetry with a chronicle of her life. Especially valuable is an extensive recounting of the events and speeches at the 1967 Fisk conference, which changed the direction of her poetry. D. L. Melhem’s afterword provides an update to 1988. Melhem, D. L. Gwendolyn Brooks: Poetry and the Heroic Voice. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1987. Beginning with a biographical chapter, Melhem employs a generally laudatory tone as he subsequently looks closely at the earlier poetry collections. He surveys the later works within a single chapter and also examines Maud Martha and Bronzeville Boys and Girls. Melhem’s treatment gives attention to both structures and themes. The bibliography of her works is organized by publisher, in order to show her commitment to small black-run presses after the late 1960’s. Miller, R. Baxter, ed. Black American Poets Between Worlds, 1940-1960. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1986. To this collection Harry B. Shaw contributes “Perceptions of Men in the Early Works of Gwendolyn Brooks,” which looks at A Street in Bronzeville, Annie Allen, Maud Martha, and The Bean Eaters for their largely positive depictions of urban African American men. “Define …the Whirlwind: Gwendolyn Brooks’s Epic Sign for a Generation,” by R. Baxter Miller, focuses on Brooks’s epic achievement “In the Mecca.” Each of these essays has notes, and the book is indexed. Mootry, Maria K., and Gary Smith, eds. A Life Distilled: Gwendolyn Brooks, Her Poetry and Fiction. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987. Looks at Brooks’s sense of place, her aesthetic, and the militancy that emerged in her “second period.” The middle section comprises essays on individual collections, while the book’s final two essays examine Maud Martha. The selected bibliography lists Brooks’s works and surveys critical sources in great detail, including book reviews and dissertations. Washington, Mary Helen. “An Appreciation: A Writer Who Defined Black Power for Herself.” Los Angeles Times, December 8, 2000, p. E1. Discusses the young Brooks who attended the 1967 Fisk University Writers’ Conference, encountered young black militants led by Amiri Baraka, and was converted. She branded her earlier writing “white writing” and resolved to change. Wright, Stephen Caldwell, ed. On Gwendolyn Brooks: Reliant Contemplation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996. This resource judiciously selects and assembles the most important writings to date about the works of Gwendolyn Brooks in the form of reviews and essays. Three-part organization helpfully separates the reviews from the essays and the later essays from the rest.

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