A towering figure in the field of 20th-century poetry is the late Gwendolyn Brooks, who touched millions of all races with her eloquence. The first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize, she remains one of the most influential poets of modern times.
Brooks (1917-2000) was born in Topeka, Kansas and moved with her family to Chicago shortly after her birth. Her mother was a schoolteacher, while her father, a janitor, had abandoned his dream of becoming a doctor because he did not have enough money to finish high school.
Young Gwendolyn was spurned by peers and sought comfort in reading and writing. At age 7, she composed her first poem, and by age 16, over 75 of her poems had been published. She later recalled that “very early in life I became fascinated with the wonders language can achieve. And I began playing with words.”
While working a string of menial jobs to support her son (she later bore a daughter), she began attending a series of poetry workshops taught by Inez Cunningham Stark in 1941. Surrounded by other creative African Americans in a dynamic environment, Brooks flourished, and her work began to attract more attention.
In 1943, she won the Midwestern Writers Conference Poetry Award, and two years later published her first book of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville, which earned widespread acclaim. A second collection, Annie Allen, earned Brooks the Pulitzer Prize in 1950, the first time that an African American writer had won the prestigious honor.
Brooks used her poetry to depict the struggles of everyday African Americans, including their battles with poverty and discrimination. Using the sonnet-ballad — a method she invented — Brooks blended humor and irony to support themes of family life, war, honor, and hardships. A contemporary, Richard Wright, lauded Brooks’ ability to “capture the pathos of petty destinies, the whimper of the wounded, the tiny incidents that plague the lives of the desperately poor, and the problems of common prejudice.”
In 1953, Brooks produced an autobiographical novel, Maud Martha, which dealt with racism, sexism, and classism in the eyes of a Black woman in the World War II era. More book titles, Bronzeville Boys and Girls (1956) and In the Mecca (1968) followed, in addition to another major poetry collection, The Bean Eaters (1960). The latter examined the fiery integration of the Little Rock school system, lynchings of Black men in the South, and failed efforts of White liberals to help the plight of African Americans.
These works demonstrated not only her growing concern with social issues, but also a move toward free verse and away from traditional styles. Brooks underwent a spiritual transformation at the Second Black Writers’ Conference at Fisk University in 1967, where, she said, she “rediscovered her Blackness.”
Some critics charged that her work took on a more radical tone, but her critical respect blossomed. Biographer D.H. Melhem wrote that Brooks “enriches both Black and White cultures by revealing essential life, its universal identities, and the challenge it poses.”
During her life, Brooks taught poetry at numerous colleges and universities, including Columbia, Wisconsin, and Chicago State, where her papers are held. She received over 70 honorary degrees, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Endowment of the Arts.
She was also named a Jefferson Lecturer by the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1994, the government’s highest honor for career achievement in the humanities. In 1998, Congress declared Brooks a “living legend.”
Brooks considered her greatest accomplishment to be her work with youth. For three decades, she sponsored poetry competitions for students, paying expenses from her own pocket. Brooks once noted that “all my life is not writing. My greatest interest is being involved with young people.”
Brooks died at her home on Chicago’s South Side on Dec. 3, 2000. In a ceremony on June 6, 2003, the Illinois State Library building in Springfield was named in honor of Gwendolyn Brooks, a gentle spirit who provided a powerful voice in modern American literature.
Tom Emery ’93 studied Gwendolyn Brooks as part of his major study of the history of the Illinois State Library. He welcomes reader comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.