Gwendolyn Brooks

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Gwendolyn Brooks (June 7, 1917 – December 3, 2000) was an award-winning African American woman poet.


  • 1 Biography
  • 2 Legacy
  • 3 Works
  • 4 See also
  • 5 References


Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks was born in Topeka, Kansas on June 7, 1917, to Keziah Wims Brooks and David Anderson Brooks. Brooks' 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 attend medical school to work as a janitor. When Brooks was only six weeks old, her family moved to Chicago, Illinois, where she grew up. Her home life was stable and loving, although she encountered racial prejudice in her neighborhood and in her schools. She first attended Hyde Park High School, a leading white high school, before transferring to all-black Wendell Phillips. Brooks eventually attended an integrated school, Englewood High School. 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.

This encouragement and nurturing of Brooks' creativity by her parents was quickly rewarded. 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. At the age of seventeen, Gwendolyn 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 1939. 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.

In 1938, Gwendolyn married Henry Blakely and gave birth to two children, Henry, Jr. in 1940, and Nora in 1951. 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 1949, she published her second book of poetry,Annie Allen, which won her Poetry magazine’s Eunice Tietjens Prize and, in addition, a Pulitzer Prize for poetry, the first given to an African American.

After John F. Kennedy invited her to read at an Library of Congress poetry festival in 1962, she began her career teaching creative writing. She taught at Columbia College Chicago, Northeastern Illinois University, Elmhurst College, Columbia University, Clay College of New York, and the University of Wisconsin. 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 book length poem about a mother searching for her lost child in a Chicago housing project. In The Mecca was nominated for the National Book Award for poetry.

In addition to the National Book Award 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's Jefferson Lecturer, one of the highest honors for American literature and the highest award in the humanities given by the federal government. 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. 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.

After a short battle with cancer, Gwendolyn Brooks died on Sunday, December 3, 2000, at age 83 at her Southside Chicago home. She died with "pen in hand," surrounded by verse and people she loved. Brooks has stated that to create "bigness" you don't have to create an epic. "Bigness," said Brooks "can be found in a little haiku, five syllables, seven syllables." A great example of this philosphy can be seen in her famous poem "We Real Cool".


  • In 2002, Ralph Waldo Emerson Junior High School in Oak Park, Illinois was renamed Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School.
  • In June 2003, the Illinois State Library in Springfield, Illinois was renamed the Gwendolyn Brooks Illinois State Library.


Poetry except as noted.

  • A Street in Bronzeville (1945)
  • Annie Allen (1949)
  • Maud Martha (1953) (Fiction)
  • Bronzeville Boys and Girls (1956)
  • The Bean Eaters (1960)
  • Selected Poems (1963)
  • We Real Cool Broadside (1966)
  • In the Mecca (1968)
  • Family Pictures (1970)
  • Black Steel: Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali (1971)
  • The World of Gwendolyn Brooks (1971)
  • Aloneness (1971)
  • Report from Part One: An Autobiography (1972) (Prose)
  • A Capsule Course in Black Poetry Writing (1975) (Prose)
  • Aurora (1972)
  • Beckonings (1975)
  • Black Love (1981)
  • To Disembark (1981)
  • Primer for Blacks (1981) (Prose)
  • Young Poet's Primer (1981) (Prose)
  • Very Young Poets (1983) (Prose)
  • The Near-Johannesburg Boy and Other Poems (1986)
  • Blacks (1987)
  • Winnie (1988)
  • Children Coming Home (1991)
  • In Montgomery (2000)

See also

  • African American literature
  • List of African American firsts
  • Poems by Gwendolyn Brooks at
  • Audio and Poems by Gwendolyn Brooks at
  • Brooks at Modern American Poetry
  • Some poems by Brooks at the Circle Brotherhood Association
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