Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) was the first African American to receive a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and is best known for her intense poetic portraits of urban African Americans.
Gwendolyn Brooks was born on June 7, 1917, in Topeka, Kansas. The eldest child of Keziah (Wims) Brooks, a schoolteacher, and David Anderson Brooks, a janitor who, because he lacked the funds to finish school, did not achieve his dream of becoming a doctor. Brooks grew up in Chicago and, according to George Kent, was "spurned by members of her own race because she lacked social or athletic abilities, a light skin, and good grade hair." She was deeply hurt by this rejection and took solace in her writing. She became known to her family and friends as "the female Paul Lawrence Dunbar" and received compliments on her poems and encouragement from James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes, prominent writers with whom she initiated correspondence and whose readings she attended in Chicago. By the age of sixteen, she had compiled a substantial portfolio, consisting of over 75 poems.
After graduating from Wilson Junior College in 1936, she worked briefly at "The Mecca," a Chicago tenement building. She participated in poetry readings and workshops at Chicago's South Side Community Art Center, producing verse that would appear in her first published volume, A Street in Bronzeville in 1945.
In 1939 she married Henry L. Blakeley, and together they would raise two children: Henry, Jr., and Nora. When she married she became a housewife and mother. But instead of directing her creative energy entirely to domestic chores, Brooks wrote poetry when the children were asleep or later while they were in school. In this way she wrote several collections of poetry, which constitutes her early work: A Street in Bronzeville, Annie Allen (1949), The Bean Eaters (1960), and Selected Poems (1962). During this time she also wrote a novel, Maud Martha (1953).
The work of this period is characterized by her portraits of urban African American people involved in their day-today activities and by her technical form, lofty diction, and intricate word play. Critics have frequently labeled her early work as intellectual, sophisticated, and academic. Although these poems sing out against social and sexual oppression, they are frequently complex and, therefore, in need of close textual reading to uncover their protest and Brooks' own social commentary. In many of these works she criticized the color prejudice which African American people inflict on one another by calling attention to their tendency to prefer light-skinned African American people. In Annie Allen and Maud Martha she examined the conventional gender roles of mother and father, husband and wife, and found that they frequently stifle creativity out of those who try to live up to artificial ideals. But this social criticism tends to be pushed back into the complicated language.
In recognition of these works, in 1950, Brooks was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and became the first African American to be granted this honor.
In 1967, Brooks' work achieved a new tone and vision. She simplified her technique so that her themes, rather than her techniques, stood in the forefront. This change can be traced to her growing political conscienceness, previously hinted at in Selected Poems, after witnessing the combative spirit of several young African American authors at the Second Black Writers' Conference held at Fisk University that year. These works include: In the Mecca (1968), Riot (1969), Aloneness (1971), Family Pictures (1971), the autobiographical Report from Part One (1972), The Tiger Who Wore White Gloves: Or, What You Are You Are (1974), Beckonings (1975), and Primer for Blacks (1980). These works are much more direct, and they are designed to sting the mind into a higher level of racial awareness. Foregoing the traditional poetic forms, she favored free verse and increased the use of her vernacular to make her works more accessible to African Americans and not just academic audiences and poetry magazines.
During the 1970s, Brooks taught poetry at numerous institutions for higher learning, including Northeastern Illinois State College (now Northeastern Illinois University), University of Wisconsin at Madison, and the City College of the City University of New York. She continued to write, and while her concern for the African American nationalist movement and racial solidarity continued to dominate her verse in the early-1970s, the energy and optimism of Riot and Family Pictures were replaced in the late-1970s with an impression of disenchantment resulting from the divisiveness of the civil rights and "Black Power" movements. This mood was reflected in Beckonings (1975) and To Disembark (1980), where she urged African Americans to break free from the repression of white American society and advocated violence and anarchy as acceptable means.
Later, Brooks spent her time encouraging others to write by sponsoring writers' workshops in Chicago and poetry contests at correctional facilities. In 1985, she was named as the consultant in poetry for the Library of Congress. In short, she has taken poetry to her people, continuing to test its relevance by reading her poetry and lecturing in taverns, barrooms, lounges, and other public places as well as in academic circles.
In later years Brooks continued to write, with Children Coming Home (1992) and Blacks (1992). In 1990 Brooks' works were ensured a home when Chicago State University established the Gwendolyn Brooks Center on its campus. She continued to inspire others to write, focusing on young children by speaking and giving poetry readings at schools around the country.
In 1997, on the occasion of her 80th birthday, she was honored with tributes from Chicago to Washington D.C. Although she was honored by many, perhaps the best description of Brooks' life and career came from her publisher, Haki Madhubuti, when he said, "She is undoubtedly one of the top 100 writers in the world. She has been a chronicler of black life, specifically black life on the South Side of Chicago. She has become almost a legend in her own time."
In addition to her Pulitzer Prize, Brooks has been awarded an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award (1946), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1946 and 1947), a Poetry magazine award (1949), a Friend of Literature Award (1963), a Black Academy of Arts and Letters Award (1971), a Shelley Memorial Award (1976), an Essence Award (1988), a Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America (1989), a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Endowment for the Arts (1989), a Jefferson Award from the National Endowment for the Humanities (1994), as well as some 49 honorary degrees from universities and colleges, including Columbia College in 1964, Lake Forest College in 1965, and Brown University in 1974. Moreover, she was named poet laureate of Illinois in 1969 and was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1988. In 1985 she reached the pinnacle of her career when she became the poetry consultant at the Library of Congress, the second African American and the first African American woman to hold that position.
Gwendolyn Brooks died on December 3, 2000.
Further Reading on Gwendolyn Brooks
The best source of biographical information is Brooks' own autobiography, Report from Part One (1972). Critical information on Brooks includes Don L. Lee "The Achievement of Gwendolyn Brooks," in Black Scholar (Summer, 1972); Gloria T. Hill "A Note on the Poetic Technique of Gwendolyn Brooks," in College Languages Association Journal (December, 1975); Suzanne Juhasz "A Sweet Inspiration … of My People: The Poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks and Nikki Giovanni," in Naked and Fiery Forms (1976); Hortense J. Spillers "Gwendolyn the Terrible: Propositions on Eleven Poems," in Shakespeare's Sisters (1979); George E. Kent "Aesthetic Values in the Poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks," in Black American Literature and Humanism, edited by R. Baxter Miller (1981); Mari Evans "Gwendolyn Brooks," in Black Women Writers, 1950-1980 (1983); and Claudia Tate "Gwendolyn Brooks," in Black Women Writers at Work (1983).
Further biographical information on Brooks can found in Shirley Henderson "Our Miss Brooks on Eve of Her 80th Birthday, Poet Offers Some Answers," in the June 6, 1997 issue of the Chicago Tribune and in Heather Lalley "Paying Tribute to Illinois' Poet Laureate as Brooks Turns 80, City Finds Words to Describe Her Power to Inspire," in the June 5, 1997 issue of the Chicago Tribune. Her life and works are also the subject of George E. Kent A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks (1990).