Gwendolyn Brooks was a postwar poet best known as the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize, for her 1949 book Annie Allen.
Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks was born on June 7, 1917, in Topeka, Kansas. When Brooks was six weeks old, her family moved to Chicago as part of the Great Migration. Brooks was known as “Gwendie” to close friends and family during her childhood.
Brooks attended three high schools: the prestigious, integrated Hyde Park High School; the all-black Wendell Phillips Academy High School; and the integrated Englewood High School. The racial prejudice that she encountered at some of these institutions would shape her understanding of social dynamics in the United States and influence her writing. In 1936, Brooks graduated from Wilson Junior College, having already begun to write and publish her work.
Brooks began writing at an early age. She published her first poem in a children's magazine at age 13. By 16, she had published approximately 75 poems. She began submitting her work to the Chicago Defender, a leading African-American newspaper. Her work included ballads, sonnets and free verse, drawing on musical rhythms and the content of inner-city Chicago. She would later say of this time in her life, “I felt that I had to write. Even if I had never been published, I knew that I would go on writing, enjoying it and experiencing the challenge.”
Brooks worked as a secretary to support herself while she developed as a poet. She took part in poetry workshops, including one organized by Inez Cunningham Stark, an affluent woman with a literary background. While Stark was white, all of the participants in her workshop were African American. Brooks made great strides during this period, garnering official recognition. In 1943, her work received an award from the Midwestern Writers’ Conference.
Brooks published her first book of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville, in 1945. The book was an instant success, leading to a Guggenheim Fellowship and other honors. Her second book, Annie Allen, appeared in 1949. Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for Annie Allen, making her the first African American to win the coveted Pulitzer. Other honors received throughout her lifetime include Poetry magazine's Eunice Tietjens Prize.
In the early 1960s, Brooks embarked on a teaching career as an instructor of creative writing. She taught at Columbia College in Chicago, Chicago State University, Northeastern Illinois University, Columbia University and the University of Wisconsin. She also continued to write and publish. Her long poem “In the Mecca,” published in 1968, was nominated for a National Book Award in poetry.
Brooks married Henry Lowington Blakely Jr. in 1939. The couple had two children, Henry and Nora.
Gwendolyn Brooks died of cancer on December 3, 2000, at the age of 83, at her home in Chicago, Illinois. She remained a resident of Chicago's South Side until her death. She is buried at Lincoln Cemetery in Blue Island, Illinois.
June 7, 1917
December 3, 2000
- She published her first poem in a children's magazine when she was just thirteen years old.
- As a teen, she recieved compiments on her writing from Langston Hughes.
- Brooks was one of the champions of the “black aesthetic,” a movement in the 1960s to promote and encourage black separatism.
- President John F. Kennedy asked Brooks to read her work at the Poetry Festival in 1962.
- She became the Illinois Poet Laureate in 1968.
- She also earned the title of U.S. Poet Laureate in 1985.
- One of the most important qualities of Brooks’ writing was that she wanted to right for the young African-American community rather than herself. However, living in times of racism and segregation greatly influenced Gwendolyn's writing.
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