Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks (June 7, 1917 – December 3, 2000) was an American poet. She was appointed Poet Laureate of Illinois in 1968 and Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1985.
Gwendolyn Brooks was born on June 7, 1917, in Topeka, Kansas, to David Anderson Brooks and Keziah Wims, their first child. Her mother was a former school teacher who left teaching for marriage and motherhood, and her father, the son of a runaway slave who fought in the Civil War, had given up his ambition to become a doctor to work as a janitor because he could not afford to attend medical school. When Brooks was only six weeks old, her family moved to Chicago, Illinois, where she grew up. She went by the nickname, “Gwendie,” which her close friends called her.
Her home life was stable and loving, although she encountered racial prejudice in her neighborhood and in her schools. She attended Hyde Park High School, the leading white high school in the city, before transferring to all-black Wendell Phillips. Brooks eventually attended an integrated school, Englewood High School. In 1936, she graduated from Wilson Junior College. These four schools gave her a perspective on racial dynamics in the city that continued to influence her work.
Her enthusiasm for reading and writing was encouraged by her parents. Her father provided a desk and bookshelves, and her mother took her, when she was in high school, to meet Harlem Renaissance poets Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson.
Brooks published her first poem in a children’s magazine at the age of thirteen. When Brooks was sixteen years old, she had compiled a portfolio of around seventy-five published poems. Aged 17, Brooks stuck to her roots and began submitting her work to “Lights and Shadows”, the poetry column of the Chicago Defender, an African-American newspaper. Although her poems range in style from traditional ballads and sonnets to using blues rhythms in free verse, her characters are often drawn from the poor inner city. During this same period, she also attended Wilson Junior College, from where she graduated in 1936. After publishing more than seventy-five poems and failing to obtain a position with the Chicago Defender, Brooks began to work a series of typing jobs.
By 1941, Brooks was taking part in poetry workshops. One particularly influential workshop was organized by Inez Cunningham Stark. Stark was an affluent white woman with a strong literary background, and the workshop participants were all African-American. The group dynamic of Stark’s workshop proved especially effective in energizing Brooks and her poetry began to be taken seriously (The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks, Elizabeth Alexander, Editor, 2005). In 1943 she received an award for poetry from the Midwestern Writers’ Conference.
Her first book of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville, published in 1945 by Harper and Row, brought her instant critical acclaim. She received her first Guggenheim Fellowship and was one of the “Ten Young Women of the Year” in Mademoiselle magazine. In 1950, she published her second book of poetry, Annie Allen, which won her Poetry magazine’s Eunice Tietjens Prize and the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, the first given to an African-American.
After John F. Kennedy invited her to read at a Library of Congress poetry festival in 1962, she began her career teaching creative writing. She taught at Columbia College Chicago, Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago State University, Elmhurst College, Columbia University, Clay College of New York, and the University of Wisconsin–Madison. In 1967, she attended a writer’s conference at Fisk University where, she said, she rediscovered her blackness. This rediscovery is reflected in her work In The Mecca, a long poem about a mother searching for her lost child in a Chicago apartment building. In The Mecca was nominated for the National Book Award for poetry.
In addition to the National Book Award nomination and the Pulitzer Prize, Brooks was made Poet Laureate of Illinois in 1968. In 1985, Brooks became the Library of Congress’s Consultant in Poetry, a one year position whose title changed the next year to Poet Laureate. In 1988, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. In 1994, she was chosen as the National Endowment for the Humanities‘ Jefferson Lecturer, one of the highest honors for American literature and the highest award in the humanities given by the federal government. In 1995, she was presented with the National Medal of Arts. Other awards she received included the Frost Medal, the Shelley Memorial Award, and an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Brooks was awarded more than seventy-five honorary degrees from colleges and universities worldwide. In 1995, she was honored as the first Woman of the Year by the Harvard Black Men’s Forum. On May 1, 1996 Brooks returned to her birthplace in Topeka, Kansas. She was the keynote speaker for the Third Annual Kaw Valley Girl Scout Council Women of Distinction Banquet and String of Pearls Auction. A ceremony was held in Brooks’ honor at a local park, located at 37th and Topeka Boulevard.
In 1939, Brooks married Henry Lowington Blakely, Jr. and gave birth to two children: Henry Lowington Blakely III, who was born October 10,1940, and Nora Blakely, who was born in 1951.
From mid-1961 to late-1964, Henry III was in the U.S. Marine Corps,first at MCRD Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego and then at Marine Corps Base Hawaii at Kaneohe Hawaii. Upon his return, he married his childhood sweetheart, Chicagoan Kathleen Hardiman, a barber’s daughter on April 17, 1965. During Henry III’s three year absence in the USMC, Brooks mentored her future daughter-in-law in poetry writing. So taken with this relationship of mentoring a young, budding new poet, Brooks began to increase her mentoring toward a new generation of young, Black (“Negro” at the time) poets.