Life Sketch of Gwendolyn Brooks

Image:  Gwendolyn Brooks

Born in Topeka, Kansas, Gwendolyn Brooks became a long-time resident of Southside Chicago, from where forged an amazing career as a woman of letters, penning some of the finest poems in the American literary canon.

Early Life

Gwendolyn Brooks was born June 7, 1917, in Topeka, Kansas, to David and Keziah Brooks. Her family relocated to Chicago shortly after she was born. Brooks attended three different Chicago high schools:  Englewood, Hyde Park, and Wendell Phillips.  

In 1936, she graduated from Wilson Junior College (renamed as Kennedy-King College in 1969) with an associates degree. 

In 1930, at age thirteen, Gwendolyn published her first poem, “Eventide,” in American Childhood Magazine.  Her love for and dedication to poetry was so intense that her mother would encourage her daughter’s future in letters by telling Gwendolyn that she was going “to be the lady Paul Laurence Dunbar.” 

Brooks continued her study of poetry and to compose verse.  In 1938, Gwendolyn married Henry Blakely. The couple had two children, Henry, Jr, in 1940 and Nora in 1951. 

Living on the Southside of Chicago afforded her the opportunity to engage with writers associated with Harriet Monroe’s  magazine, Poetry, which remains one of the most prestigious magazines in American poetry. 

Gwendolyn Brooks had the good fortune to associate some the biggest names in the literary world.  She was influenced by some of the best, for example, James Weldon Johnson, with whom she corresponded throughout her teen years and who encouraged her to read T. S. Eliot, E. E. Cummings, and Ezra Pound.  

She became friends with Langston Hughes, and Claude McKay attended the book celebration party after the publication of her first book.

A Literary Life

In 1945, Gwendolyn Brooks’ first books of poems, A Street in Bronzeville, appeared, brought out by Harper and Row. Her second book, Annie Allen, won the Eunice Tiejens Prize, offered by the Poetry Foundation, the publisher of Poetry Magazine.   

In addition to poetry, Gwendolyn penned a novel, Maud Martha, in the early 1950s.  She completed two autobiographies, Report from Part One in 1972 and Report from Part Two in 1995.  Brooks went on to win numerous awards and fellowships including the Guggenheim Prize and the Academy of American Poets Award.  

Brooks was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1950, becoming the first black woman to win that once prestigious award.   In 1963, she began conducting poetry workshops at Chicago’s Columbia College.  

She also conducted workshops in poetry writing at Columbia University, the University of Wisconsin, Northeastern Illinois University,  and Elmhurst College.

Brooks and her husband enjoyed an active social life in Chicago.  In her first autobiography, Report From Part One, she describes her social scene:

My husband and I knew writers, knew painters, knew pianists and dancers and actresses, knew photographers galore. There were always weekend parties to be attended where we merry Bronzevillians could find each other and earnestly philosophize sometimes on into the dawn, over martinis and Scotch and coffee and an ample buffet. Great social decisions were reached. 

Great solutions for great problems were provided. . . . Of course, in that time, it was believed, still, that the society could be prettied, quieted, cradled, sweetened, if only people talked enough, glared at each other yearningly enough, waited enough.

After the publication of her first book, A Street in Bronzeville, the noted poet Paul Engle reviewed the collection for the Chicago Tribune, remarking, “The publication of A Street in Bronzeville is an exceptional event in the literary life of Chicago, for it is the first book of a solidly Chicago person.” He noted that she was young but still a “permanent talent.”

Many of Brooks’ most anthologized poems come from her collection, A Street in Bronzeville.  About living and writing on the South Side of Chicago, Brooks has remarked, “If you wanted a poem, you only had to look out of a window. There was material always, walking or running, fighting or screaming or singing.”  

She took from her urban environment much material for the subjects of her poems, as she experimented with verses about front yards (“a song in the front yard”), vacant lots (“the vacant lot”), and bars (“Gay Chaps at the Bar”).  She offers a major experimental piece with “the sonnet-ballad” which audaciously compresses a ballad narrative into the famous fourteen-line form.

Brooks on the Exclusionary Term “African American”

Regarding the phrase, African American, Gwendolyn Brooks has opined, 

I don’t like the term African American.  It is very excluding.  I like to think of Blacks as family, and the parts of that family that live in Brazil or Haiti or France or England are not going to allow you to call them African American because they are not. 

Brooks’ works offer the genuine experience of a human being who happens to be black.  

Gwendolyn Brooks did not wallow in victimhood as a means to force popularity as many other poets such as LeRoi Jones (aka “Amiri Baraka” ) and James William Brown (aka “Yusef Komunyakaa”) have done; that practice unfortunately grew deeper and more widespread, during and after the administration of the first black American president.

Instead of playing identity politics, Brooks focuses on real life experiences. Individual life experience becomes universal when focused with love, attention to detail, honesty, and empathy.

Brooks has always considered herself an “organic Chicagoan.”  She has asserted that she wanted to report her own experience and to record that experience openly and honestly.   By remaining open and honest, she has created a body of work that becomes classic, thus enduring.

She explained that her writing process was to go “inside [herself]” and to bring forth what she feels, write it down, give it a good looking over, and “pull out all the clichés.”  She claimed rightly, therefore, that she worked that way and she worked hard at her craft.

The Death and Funeral of Gwendolyn Brooks

At the age of 83, Brooks died of cancer on December 3, 2000.  Surrounded by loved ones, she passed away quietly at her Southside Chicago home, where she had resided for most of her life.  A severe snowstorm blanketed the landscape on the day of Brooks’ funeral.  

But many people for all over the country still traveled to celebrate the life of this fine poet.  The renowned jazz-singer, poet, and activist, Oscar Brown, Jr., celebrated her life by singing the song, “Elegy,” which is a musical rendition of Brooks’ poem, “of DeWitt Williams on his way to Lincoln Cemetery.”

Many heartfelt memorial tributes to Gwendolyn express the love, admiration, gratitude, and respect her readers have for her.  The following tribute exemplifies the glowing praise afforded this fine poet:

What manner of woman was she? Gwendolyn Brooks was our teacher and friend. She loved and celebrated black people and black life, and she taught us that it was all right and necessary to love our black selves. She was a lover of humanity. I thank God for her example, for her service, for her body of work that will continue to energize, inspire, and guide us.

I will miss Miss Brooks.

Annie Perkins
December 20, 2000 | Norfolk, VA

Gwendolyn Brooks is interred at Lincoln Cemetery in Blue Island, Illinois.



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