Gwendolyn Brooks

1917 –

Gwendolyn Brooks was born in Topeka on June 7, 1917, to David Anderson Brooks, the son of a runaway slave, and Keziah Corinne (née Wims), and raised in Chicago. Brooks began writing poetry in her teenage years and published her first poem in American Childhood magazine. She sent her early poems to both Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson, and both elder poets responded with letters of encouragement. Brooks also became a regular contributor to the Chicago Defender’s “Lights and Shadows” poetry column when she was sixteen. She graduated from Woodrow Wilson Junior College in 1936. 

Brooks was the author of more than twenty books of poetry, including  Children Coming Home (The David Co., 1991); Blacks (The David Co., 1987); To Disembark (Third World Press, 1981); The Near-Johannesburg Boy and Other Poems (The David Co., 1986); Family Pictures (Broadside Press, 1970); Riot (Broadside Press, 1969); In the Mecca (Harper & Row, 1968), a finalist for the National Book Award; The Bean Eaters (Harper, 1960); Annie Allen (Harper, 1949), for which she received the Pulitzer Prize; and A Street in Bronzeville (Harper & Brothers, 1945), a collection admired by fellow Chicagoan and writer Richard Wright. She also wrote the novel, Maud Martha (Harper, 1953) and Report from Part One: An Autobiography (Broadside Press, 1972). She edited Jump Bad: A New Chicago Anthology (Broadside Press, 1971). Her books for children include Bronzeville Boys and Girls (Harper, 1956), later rereleased in 2015 and illustrated by Faith Ringgold. 

After going to a literary conference at Fisk University in 1967, which was also attended by Amiri Baraka and other poets from the Black Arts Movement, Brooks became an activist in the Black Power movement. She also started a poetry workshop from her home. Participants included Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, and Don L. Lee (Haki Madhubuti).  

In 1968, Brooks was named poet laureate for the state of Illinois. In 1976, she became the first African American to join the National Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1985, she was the first Black woman appointed as consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress (now, poet laureate). She also received an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, the Frost Medal, a National Endowment for the Arts Award, the Shelley Memorial Award, and fellowships from the Academy of American Poets and the Guggenheim Foundation. Additionally, Brooks earned more than fifty honorary degrees during her career. In 1995, she was awarded the National Medal of the Arts.

Brooks spent her later years dedicated to public service. She conducted poetry readings at prisons and hospitals and attended annual poetry contests for school children, which she often funded. 

Brooks lived in Chicago until her death on December 3, 2000.