Biography of Gwendolyn Brooks, the People’s Poet

Gwendolynn Brooks, 1950
Gwendolynn Brooks, 1950.

Bettmann / Getty Images

In many ways, Gwendolyn Brooks embodies the black American experience of the 20th century. Born into a family that moved to Chicago as part of the Great Migration of blacks to the north of the country, she made her way through school during the Great Depression and pursued a traditional role for herself; when she submitted poetry to magazines she usually listed her profession as "housewife."

In the postwar era, Brooks joined much of the black community in becoming more politically aware and active, joining the Civil Rights Movement and engaging with her community as a mentor and thought leader. Throughout her experiences, Brooks produced beautiful poetry that told the stories of ordinary black Americans in bold, innovative verse, often inspired by the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago where she lived most of her life.

Fast Facts: Gwendolyn Brooks

  • Full Name: Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks
  • Known For: American poet whose work focused on the lives of urban African Americans
  • Literary Movement: 20th century poetry
  • Born: June 7, 1917 in Topeka, Kansas
  • Died: December 3, 2000 in Chicago, Illinois
  • Spouse: Henry Lowington Blakely, Jr.
  • Children: Henry Lowington Blakely III and Nora Brooks Blakely
  • Education: Wilson Junior College
  • Major Works: A Street in Bronzeville, Annie Allen, Maud Martha, In the Mecca
  • Interesting Fact: Brooks was the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize (in 1950 for Annie Allen)

Early Years

Brooks was born in Topeka, Kansas in 1917. Six weeks after her birth, her family moved to Chicago. Her father worked as a custodian at a music company, and her mother taught school and was a trained musician.

As a student, Brooks excelled and attended Hyde Park High School. Although Hyde Park was an integrated school, the student body was majority white, and Brooks would later recall she experienced her first brushes with racism and intolerance while attending classes there. After high school she attended a two-year degree program and took work as a secretary. She decided against pursuing a four-year degree because she knew from a young age that she wished to write, and saw no value in further formal education.

Brooks wrote poetry as a child, and published her first poem when she was 13 years old ("Eventide," in the magazine American Childhood). Brooks wrote prolifically and began submitting her work on a regular basis. She began to publish regularly while still attending college. These early poems attracted the attention of established writers such as Langston Hughes, who encouraged and corresponded with Brooks.

Gwendolyn Brooks, Chicago Poet
1960: Poet Gwendolyn Brooks on the back steps of her home in Chicago. Slim Aarons / Getty Images

Publishing and Pulitzer

By the 1940s, Brooks was well-established but still relatively obscure. She began attending poetry workshops and continued to hone her craft, work that paid off in 1944 when she published not one but two poems in Poetry magazine. This appearance in such a respected, national periodical brought her notoriety, and she was able to publish her first book of poems, A Street in Bronzeville, in 1945.

The book was a huge critical success, and Brooks received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1946. She published her second book, Annie Allen, in 1949. The work was once again focused on Bronzeville, telling the story of a young black girl growing up there. It too received critical acclaim, and in 1950 Brooks was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, the first black author to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Brooks continued to write and publish for the rest of her life. In 1953 she published Maud Martha, an innovative sequence of poems describing the life of a black woman in Chicago, which is regarded as one of the most challenging and complex of her works. As she became more politically engaged, her work followed suit. In 1968 she published In the Mecca, about a woman searching for her lost child, which was nominated for the National Book Award. In 1972, she published the first of two memoirs, Report From Part One, followed 23 years later by Report From Part Two, written when she was 79 years old. In the 1960s, as her fame grew, her writing began to take on a sharper edge as she observed society, exemplified by one of her most famous poems, We Real Cool, published in 1960.

Teaching

Brooks was a lifelong teacher, often in informal settings like her own home, where she frequently welcomed young writers and held ad hoc lectures and writing groups. In the 1960s she began teaching more formally, street gangs as well as university students. She taught a course on American Literature at the University of Chicago. Brooks was remarkably generous with her time, and spent much of her energy encouraging and guiding young writers, and eventually held teaching positions at some of the country’s best schools, including Columbia University and Northeastern Illinois University.

Portrait of Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks
Gwendolyn Brooks, poet, seated in the poetry room at the Library of Congress. Bettmann / Getty Images

Personal Life

Brooks married Henry Lowington Blakely, Jr. and had two children with him, remaining married until his death in 1996. Brooks is remembered as a kind and generous woman. When the Pulitzer Prize money gave her and her family financial security, she was known to use her money to help people in her neighborhood by paying rent and other bills, and funding poetry anthologies and other programs to give opportunities to young black writers.

Death and Legacy

Brooks died in 2000 after a brief battle with cancer; she was 83 years old. Brooks’ work was notable for its focus on ordinary people and the black community. Although Brooks mixed in classical references and forms, she almost uniformly made her subjects contemporary men and women living in her own neighborhood. Her work often incorporated the rhythms of jazz and blues music, creating a subtle beat that made her verse bounce, and which she often used to create explosive climaxes to her work, as in her famous poem We Real Cool which ends with the devastating triplet we die soon. Brooks was a pioneer of black consciousness in this country and dedicated much of her life to helping others, educating younger generations, and promoting the arts.

Quotes

“THE POOL PLAYERS / SEVEN AT THE GOLDEN SHOVEL / We real cool. We / Left school. We /Lurk late. We / Strike straight. We / Sing sin. We / Thin gin. We / Jazz June. We / Die soon.” (We Real Cool, 1960)

“Writing is a delicious agony.”

“Poetry is life distilled.”

“Believe me, I loved you all. Believe me, I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you All.” (The Mother, 1944)

“Reading is important—read between the lines. Don’t swallow everything.”

“When you use the term minority or minorities in reference to people, you’re telling them that they’re less than somebody else.”

Sources

  • “Gwendolyn Brooks.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 15 Aug. 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gwendolyn_Brooks.
  • Bates, Karen Grigsby. “Remembering The Great Poet Gwendolyn Brooks At 100.” NPR, NPR, 29 May 2017, https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/05/29/530081834/remembering-the-great-poet-gwendolyn-brooks-at-100.
  • Félix, Doreen St. “Chicago's Particular Cultural Scene and the Radical Legacy of Gwendolyn Brooks.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 4 Mar. 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/chicagos-particular-cultural-scene-and-the-radical-legacy-of-gwendolyn-brooks.
  • Watkins, Mel. “Gwendolyn Brooks, Whose Poetry Told of Being Black in America, Dies at 83.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 4 Dec. 2000, https://www.nytimes.com/2000/12/04/books/gwendolyn-brooks-whose-poetry-told-of-being-black-in-america-dies-at-83.html.