Gwendolyn Brooks

Alex Rover | July 13, 2023


Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks (June 7, 1917 in Topeka, Kansas – December 3, 2000 in Chicago, Illinois), American poet and teacher, was the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. She was awarded the prize in 1950 for her second book of poems, Annie Allen.

During her career, she received numerous other distinctions. In 1968, she was named Illinois Poet Laureate, a status she held until the end of her life in 2000. In 1976, she became the first African-American woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1985 and 1986, she served as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, the first position held by an African-American woman.

Youth and training

Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks was born on June 7, 1917, in Topeka, Kansas. She is the eldest child of David Anderson Brooks and Keziah (Wims) Brooks. Her mother was a teacher and pianist, her father a janitor in a music business. Family legend has it that her paternal grandfather fled slavery to join the Union Army during the American Civil War.

Brooks is six weeks old when her family decides to move to Chicago during the great African-American migration. She feels at home in this city. She begins her studies at Forestville Elementary School, on Chicago’s South Side. She went on to attend one of the city’s most elitist and predominantly white high schools: Hyde Park High School (Massachusetts). She then moved on to Wendell Phillips Academy High School (en), where the students were overwhelmingly African-American, and finally to the most co-educational of the three, Englewood Technical Prep Academy (en). According to the author of his biography, Kenny Jackson Williams, “these three schools gave him a sense of the city’s shifting racial dynamics, which has always influenced his writing.

In 1936, she graduated from Wilson Junior College, now known as Kennedy-King College (en). Brooks decided not to pursue her studies to Master’s level, as she knew she wanted to devote herself to writing. “I’m not an academic,” she says later. “I’m just a writer, I love writing and I intend to keep on writing. To earn a living, Brooks is an advertising director at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Chicago. Chicago will remain an important reference point for the rest of her life.


Brooks published her first poem, “Eventide”, in a children’s magazine, American Childhood, when she was 13. By the age of 16, she had written and published some 75 poems. At 17, she began submitting her work to “Lights and Shadows”, the poetry section of the Chicago Defender, an African-American newspaper. Her poems, many of which were published while she was attending Wilson Junior College, range from traditional ballads and sonnets to poems using blues rhythms in free verse. In her early years, James Weldon Johnson, Richard Wright and Langston Hughes congratulate her on her poetic work and encourage her to persevere. James Weldon Johnson sent her the first review of her poems when she was just 16.

Her characters are often drawn from her experience of urban life. She says, “I lived in a small apartment on the second floor of a building at the junction of two streets. I could look both ways. I had the basic material for my work.

In 1941, Brooks took part in poetry workshops. One particularly popular event is organized by Inez Cunningham Stark, a well-to-do white woman with a strong literary background. Stark offers writing workshops at the new South Side Community Art Center, which Brooks attends. It’s here that she gains the confidence to lay down her voice and learn more about the techniques of her predecessors. The famous poet Langston Hughes, who frequented the workshop, heard her read “The Ballad of Pearl May Lee”. In 1944, she achieved the goal she had been pursuing since she was 14, and received numerous requests for publication: two of her poems appeared in the November issue of Poetry magazine.

Brooks publishes his first book of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville (1945), with Harper & Brothers, thanks to author Richard Wright’s powerful support of the publisher. He tells editors who ask his opinion of Brooks’ work:

“There is no self-pity here, no struggle for effect. She seizes reality as it is and renders it faithfully. … She easily captures the pathos of petty fates; the groan of the wounded; the tiny accidents that afflict the lives of the desperately poor and the problem of color prejudice among Negroes.”

The book immediately won critical acclaim for its authentic, vivid portraits of life in Bronzeville. Brooks later says that it was Paul Engle’s rave review in the Chicago Tribune that “made my reputation”. Engle declares that Brooks’ poems are no more “black poetry” than Robert Frost’s work is “white poetry”. Brooks receives her first Guggenheim Fellowship in 1946 and is listed as one of the “Ten Young Women of the Year” in Mademoiselle magazine.

Brooks’ second collection of poetry, Annie Allen (1949), narrates the life and experiences of a young black girl growing up in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood. The book received the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and Poetry magazine’s Eunice Tietjens Award.

In 1953, Brooks published his first and only novel, Maud Martha, which, in a series of 34 short stories, traces the life of a black woman named Maud Martha Brown from childhood to adulthood. It tells the story of “a woman who doubts herself and where and how she fits into the world. Maud’s concern is not so much that she is inferior, but that she is perceived as ugly,” says author Harry B. Shaw in his book Gwendolyn Brooks. Maud suffers prejudice and discrimination not only from whites, but also from blacks who are lighter-skinned than she is, a direct reference to Brooks’ personal experience. In the end, Maud defends herself by turning her back on a condescending, racist shop assistant. “The subject of the book is… the triumph of the humble,” Shaw comments. By contrast, literary scholar Mary Helen Washington emphasizes Brooks’s critique of racism and sexism, calling Maud Martha “a novel about bitterness, rage, self-hatred and the silence that results from repressed anger.”

In 1967, the year Langston Hughes died, Brooks attended the second Black Writers’ Conference at Nashville’s Fisk University. There, according to one version of events, she met activists and artists such as Imamu Amiri Baraka, Don L. Lee and others who spoke to her about the new black cultural nationalism. Recent studies claim that she became involved in left-wing politics in Chicago for many years and, under the pressure of McCarthyism, adopted a black nationalist posture as a way of distancing herself from her earlier political relationships. Brooks’ experience at the conference inspired many of her later literary activities. She teaches creative writing to some of Chicago’s Blackstone Rangers, a violent criminal gang. In 1968, she publishes one of her most famous works, In the Mecca, a long poem about a mother searching for her lost child in a Chicago apartment building. The poem is nominated for the National Book Award for poetry.

Her autobiographical account From Part One, a collection of reminiscences, interviews, photographs and short stories, appeared in 1972, and Report From Part Two was published in 1995, when she was nearly 80.

Brooks traces her first teaching experience back to the University of Chicago, when she was invited by author Frank London Brown to teach American literature. It was the beginning of her commitment to sharing poetry and teaching writing. Brooks went on to teach across the country, holding positions at Columbia College in Chicago, Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago State University, Elmhurst College, Columbia University and City College in New York.

Personal life

In 1939, she married Henry Blakely Lowington Blakely Junior. They have two children, Henry Lowington Blakely III and Nora Brooks Blakely (en). Her husband died in 1996.

Brooks died on December 3, 2000, in Chicago, Illinois. She is buried in Lincoln Cemetery. Her memory lives on in the institutions and events that bear her name.


The Rare Book & Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois has acquired an archive from his daughter Nora Blakely. The Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley also holds a collection of his personal papers, particularly from 1950 to 1989.

Establishments and institutions honour the Brooks name:


  1. Gwendolyn Brooks
  2. Gwendolyn Brooks
  3. ^ Banks, Margot Harper (2012). Religious allusion in the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks. McFarland & Co. p. 3. ISBN 978-0786449392.
  4. ^ “Frost? Williams? No, Gwendolyn Brooks”. Archived from the original on December 20, 2016. Retrieved January 24, 2020.
  5. ^ “Illinois Poet Laureate”. Archived from the original on February 28, 2015. Retrieved March 6, 2015.
  6. a et b (en) « Frost? Williams? No, Gwendolyn Brooks », sur The Pulitzer Prizes
  7. (en) Bruce Rauner, « Illinois Poet Laureate », sur, 28 février 2015 (consulté le 2 juin 2020)
  8. a b c et d (en) « Gwendolyn Brooks | American poet and educator », sur Encyclopedia Britannica (consulté le 9 juin 2019)
  9. (en) Academy of American Poets, « Gwendolyn Brooks | Academy of American Poets », sur (consulté le 9 juin 2019)
  10. (en) « Renowned Poet Gwendolyn Brooks’ Time In Kansas Was Short, But Worth A Birthday Party », sur KCUR 89.3 – NPR in Kansas City. Local news, entertainment and podcasts., 7 juin 2017 (consulté le 2 juin 2020)
  11. ^ The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks, Elizabeth Alexander, Editor, 2005)
  12. ^ Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities. URL consultato il 21 dicembre 2008 (archiviato dall’url originale il 20 ottobre 2011).
  13. ^ Asante, Molefi Kete (2002). 100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books. ISBN 1-57392-963-8.
  14. «Frost? Williams? No, Gwendolyn Brooks». (en inglés). Consultado el 24 de enero de 2020.
  15. «Illinois Poet Laureate». Archivado desde el original el 28 de febrero de 2015. Consultado el 6 de marzo de 2015.
  16. Busby, Margaret, “Gwendolyn Brooks — Poet who called out to black people everywhere”, The Guardian, 7 de diciembre, 2000.
  17. Grigsby Bates, Karen (29 de mayo de 2017). «Remembering The Great Poet Gwendolyn Brooks At 100». NPR. Consultado el 1 de junio de 2017.
  18. Share, Don. «Introduction: June 2017, Gwendolyn Brooks speaks to us more vividly than ever.» (June 2017 edición). Poetry.
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