Classic Author Focus: Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks was an American poet, author, and teacher who became widely known as the first Black American writer to win a Pulitzer Prize, for poetry. She was also named the poet laureate for Illinois in 1968, a position she kept until her death, and U. S. poet laureate for 1985-1986. She was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the first Black woman to have that honor. She received a lifetime achievement award in 1989 from the National Endowment for the Arts and many other honors.

Brooks was born in Topeka, Kansas, but her parents moved to Chicago when she was an infant as part of the Great Migration. She was the child of David Anderson Brooks, a janitor who had hoped to be a doctor, and Keziah Brooks, a teacher and concert pianist.

As a high school student, Brooks first attended a prestigious, mostly white school. However, experiencing prejudice and racial injustice, she transferred to an all-Black high school and finished at an integrated school. Encouraged in her interest in books and writing from a young age, she decided not to attend college but to write.

Brooks published her first poem, “Eventide,” when she was 13 years old in American Childhood. She submitted her first poem to the Chicago Defender, a Black newspaper, when she was 17, but by then she had already around 75 poems in children’s magazines. She tended to write about ordinary people in her community. While attending a poetry workshop in 1941, she captured the attention of Langston Hughes, and in 1944, two of her poems were published in Poetry magazine. Her first book of poems, A Street in Bronzeville, received much acclaim, and she was named as one of the “Ten Young Women of the Year” by Mademoiselle magazine and received a Guggenheim fellowship.

Her second book of poetry, Annie Allen, won the Pulitzer prize for poetry in 1950 as well as a prize from Poetry magazine. She published her only novel, Maud Martha, in 1953. She published one of her most famous works, In the Mecca, in 1968.

As well as writing, Brooks was active in teaching writing and in mentoring other writers. She held posts at the University of Chicago, Columbia College Chicago, Northeastern Illinois University, Columbia University, and other universities and colleges. She also taught creative writing to a violent street gang in Chicago and mentored her own future daughter-in-law in poetry.

Brooks was married in 1939 and had two children. She died at her home in Chicago in 2000.

Dates: 1917-2000

Most popular works: A Street in Bronzeville, Annie Allen, Maud Martha, In the Mecca

Other works: Bronzeville Boys and Girls, The Bean Eaters, Riot, Family Pictures, and many others

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