Born on June 7, 1917, to a family who belonged to Kansas but later moved to Chicago, Gwendolyn Brooks was an American poet and teacher. Even though both of her parents wanted to pursue their careers as doctors but were unable to do so due to financial constraints, they were supportive of their daughter’s interest in the English language and Brooks started writing from an early age.
At the age of thirteen, Brooks had her first poem, ‘Eventide’, published in the American Childhood Magazine, and by the time she was seventeen, she was writing poetry for the Chicago Defender, a newspaper for Chicago’s black population.
After completing junior college, Brooks turned entirely towards her passion for writing and never pursued a four-year degree. However, the multi-racial schools that she attended, including Chicago’s leading White school Hyde Park High School, the all-black Wendell Phillips and the integrated Englewood High School, helped her gain a perspective on the racial dynamics present in Chicago. The influence of these experiences is highlighted in Brooks’ works such as the poems of her first collection, A Street in Bronzeville, which focus on the Black urbans. Brooks also displayed political consciousness and combined racial equality with poetic techniques in her poems which followed the civil rights activism of the 1960s.
Gwendolyn Brooks’ first successful book in 1945 led her to publish a second one, Annie Allen, in 1949. Based on the life and experiences of a young Black girl, the latter won her the Pulitzer Prize, making her the first Black author to receive this award. This achievement was followed by a number of others, including the lifetime achievement award by the Poetry Society of America in 1989 and being chosen as the first Woman of the Year by Harvard Black Men’s Forum in 1995. Adding to her list of successes are more than seventy-five honorary degrees from various colleges and universities of the world. Another milestone was set in her career when Brooks was selected as the 1994 Jefferson Lecturer by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Along with being a poet, Brooks also conducted several workshops with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and proceeded to teach creative writing at institutions such as Columbia University, Elmhurst College and Northeastern Illinois University. Brooks only wrote a single novel in her life, Maud Martha, also based on a Black woman. Her prose work also includes two volumes of autobiography titled Report from Part One and Report from Part Two respectively.
Being a protest poet since the beginning of her career, Brooks gained an angrier and more steadfast tone in her poems after becoming more actively involved in the Black Arts movement. Her writing style experienced small changes as she became a prominent member of the movement and gained increasing knowledge about social issues concerning the Black minority. For the Chicago Picasso, for instance, Brooks wrote a commemorative ode followed by the poem The Wall which she wrote as a dedication to the mural of The Wall of Respect.
The wife of Henry Blakely and the mother of two, Gwendolyn Brooks died of Cancer at the age of 83 in 2000. She will always be remembered for the contribution she made towards Literature and all the work that she carried out for the rights of Blacks.