Gwen Brooks Bio

Gwen Brooks Bio


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes




Books by Gwendolyn Brooks

In Montgomery and Other Poems A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks (Kent) / A Street in Bronzeville (1945) / Selected Poems (1963) / In the Mecca  (1968)

 Riot (1969) /  The Tiger Who Wore White Gloves (1970) /  Blacks (1987), and Children Coming Home (1992) / Maud Martha (1953)

Report from Part One: An Autobiography  (1972) /  Report from Part Two: Autobiography(1996) / Jump Bad: A New Chicago Anthology (1971).

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In Montgomery and Other Poems

By Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000)

A Bio-Literary Sketch


Gwendolyn Brooks –awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1950 for her second volume of verse, named poet laureate of the state of Illinois in 1968, succeeding Carl Sandburg, and appointed to the prestigious National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1976, — was born in Topeka, Kansas on June 7, 1917, the granddaughter of a runaway slave, and grew up in the slums of Chicago. Her parents were David Anderson Brooks, a janitor, and Keziah Corinne (Wims) Brooks, formerly an elementary schoolteacher. From the time she was one month old, Ms. Brooks lived with her family, which later came to include a brother, Raymond, in the sprawling black ghetto on the South Side of Chicago.

Her economically deprived but respectable upbringing was enriched by her parents’ love of education and culture. Keziah brooks composed songs and “storyettes” to amuse her children; David Brooks read them daily selections from his prized set of Harvard Classics. Encouraged by her parents, Ms. Brooks read widely and was especially fond of Lucy Maud Montgomery, the Canadian novelist who wrote Anne of Green Gables, and Paul Lawrence Dunbar, the black poet.

A solitary child, she preferred the company of her books to that of her classmates at the Forestville Elementary School and, later, at the more elite Frances Willard School. “I was very ill-adjusted,” she told Phyl Garland in an interview for Ebony (July 1968). “I couldn’t skate, I was never a good rope-jumper, and I can remember thinking I must be a very inferior kind of child since I couldn’t play jacks.”

Despite her intellectual bent, Ms. Brooks’ scholastic achievements were, by her own estimation, “very poor.” “At my best, I was average.” She admitted to garland. “I spent more time brooding over my relations with other children than I did thinkig about my lessons.” She found it so difficult to adjust that she attended three different high schools. Her overriding pleasure was “putting rhymes together,” in her composition notebooks, which she filled with “careful rhymes” and “lofty meditations” on nature, love, and death.

When she was thirteen, one of her poems “Eventide,” was published in American Childhood, a popular children’s magazine of the period. Urged by her mother, she sent samples of her work to James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes and received encouraging comments from both men. After graduating from Englewood High school in 1934, she completed her formal education at Wilson Junior College, now known as Kennedy-King College, in 1936, majoring in English literature. Gwendolyn Brooks had been a regular contributor to “Lights and Shadows,” a column of miscellany in the Chicago Defender, the city’s black daily newspaper. When she obtained her college degree, she hoped for work as a Defender reporter. 

When she was not hired, she found temporary work as a domestic in a North Shore home, an embittered experience. She then worked as a typist for a “spiritual adviser” who, she recalled, sold holy thunderbolts, lucky charms, and numbers” from his storefront church. 

In the late 1930s Brooks joined the NAACP Youth council and soon became its publicity director. “Those were some of my happiest days because I had never thought I’d have a whole bunch of friends, people who seemed to like me and thought that there was something to me,” she told Garland. “It was then that my beautiful social life began.” At one, Youth Council meeting Ms. Brooks met another promising writer, Henry L. Blakely. The two were married on September 17, 1939 and had two children, Henry, Jr. and Nora.

Two years later (1941), Brooks signed up for a poetry workshop at the South Side Community Art center in Chicago. At the workshop under the direction of Inez Cunningham Stark, an editor of poetry magazine, students were often exposed to harsh criticism from their peers, but Gwendolyn found the honesty and openness constructive to her work and, with Ms. Stark’s patient assistance, she learned to master the techniques of modern poetry.

In 1943 the young poet earned the Poetry Workshop Award at the summer Midwestern Writers’ Conference at Northwestern University; the following year she won the top prize at the annual Writers’ Conference in Chicago.

“Poetry was not the whole of [her] life,” however, as she revealed in her autobiography, Report from Part One, (Broadside Press, 1972), for in the early 1940s “partying . . . was most important.” “My husband and I knew writers, knew painters, knew pianist and dancers and actresses, knew photographers galore,” she wrote. “There were always weekend parties to be attended, where we merry Bronzevillians could find each other and earnestly philosophize sometimes on into the dawn, over martinis and Scotch and coffee, and an ample buffet. . . . Conversation was our ‘mary jane.’ Of course, in that time, it was believed, still, that the society could be prettied, quieted, cradled, sweetened, if only people talked enough, glared at each other yearningly enough, waited enough.”

In the mid-1940s such established literary magazines as Harper’s, the Saturday Review of Literature, the Yale Review, and Poetry, began to publish Ms. Brooks’ poems. Encouraged, she submitted nineteen poems to Harper & Brothers, which agreed to publish them on the recommendation of Richard Wright, the black novelist. In his appraisal Wright said: “[Ms. Brooks] easily catches the pathos of petty destinies, the whimper of the wounded, the tiny incidents that plague the lives of the desperately poor, and the problem of common prejudice. . . . There is not so much an exhibiting of Negro life to whites in these poems as there is an honest human reaction to the pain that lurks so carefully in the Black Belt.”

Gwendolyn Brooks was an “objective” poet, one who has discovered the neglected miracles of everyday life. A lifelong resident of Chicago Brooks wrote unflinchingly about the lives of its impoverished blacks, particularly its women, in wrenching portraits that are social documents as well as works of art. Despite the narrow focus of her work, her poems have a universal appeal.

“In my writing I am proud to feature and their concerns, their troubles as well as their joys,” she said in an interview. “It is my privilege to present Negroes not as curios, but as people.”

“I wrote about what I saw and heard in the street,” Ms. Brooks told Paul M. Angle in an interview for Illinois Bell (Summer 1967) magazine. “I lived in a small second-floor apartment at the corner, and I could look first on one side and then on the other. There was my material.” When her A Street in Bronzeville, was published in 1945, it attracted considerable attention from literary critics because of its passion, authenticity, sincerity, and freshness.

Although her poetic voice is objective, Gwendolyn Brooks–as an observer–is never far from her action. On one level, of course, Brooks is a protest poet, at least. since The Bean Eaters (1960) and certainly her work after 1967; yet her protest evolves through suggestion rather than through a bludgeon. Brooks attempts to provide facts with little or embellishment or interpretation. But the simple facts expressed uniquely and simply can indeed be convincing that something is amiss and needs more careful attention and likely a change for the better.

In 1946 and 1947 Brooks received a Guggenheim Fellowship for creative writing and in 1946 a $1,000 grant in literature from the National Institute of Arts and letters. Mademoiselle magazine named her one of its Ten Women of 1945.

Her second volume of verse, Annie Allen (Harper, 1949), firmly established Gwendolyn Brooks as an important voice in contemporary American literature. Although she had set out to make the book as “technically perfect” as possible, she had felt free to experiment with a new form: the sonnet-ballad. The book, a sequence of poems tracing the progress to mature womanhood of a Bronzeville black girl, examines the universal experiences of loneliness, loss, and death as well as the abrasions of poverty. Reviewers singled out “manicure” and “The Anniad,” a long lyrical about the marriage of her heroine, as having special merit.

To Blyden Jackson, who analyzed her work years later in Black Poetry in America: Two Essays in Historical Interpretation (1974), Annie Allen was representative of Ms. Brooks’ method: the study “of the flower in the crannied wall.” “Her genius operates within its area of greatest strength,” he wrote, “the close inspection of a limited domain, to reap from that inspection . . . a view of life in which one may see a microscopic portion of the universe intensely and yet, through that microscopic portion, see all truth for the human condition wherever it exists.” Annie Allen won for Brooks the Eunice Tietjens Memorial Prize from Poetry magazine in 1949 and the Pulitzer for poetry in 1950. It was the first time the award was conferred on a black woman.

She orchestrated the theme of coming of age in Maud Martha (Harper, 1953), a novel in the form of thirty-four vignettes about the life of a young black girl growing up in Chicago. Maud Martha is first presented as an unhappy overweight, seven-year-old child, then as a day-dreaming, introverted adolescent, and finally as a young bride “in a sad gray building in a cold white world,” married to a husband numbed by his struggle with “The Man.” Her life, in the end, is devoid of dreams, little more than a series of harsh confrontations with white society and regretful glimpses of what might have been. As in Annie Allen, brooks’ portrayal of a seemingly simple and uneventful life fathomed profound emotional and psychological depths.

Bronzeville Boys and Girls (Harper, 1956), an illustrated collection of thirty-six poems for children, marked yet another departure for Gwendolyn Brooks. Written with childlike simplicity, the poems dealt with the everyday experiences common to all youngsters as well as those peculiar to the city child (“These buildings are too close to me./ I’d like to PUSH away./ I’d like to live in the country,/ And spread my arms all day.”).

In The Bean Eaters (Harper 1960), Brooks’ tone grew slightly more militant and satirical. Among the poems in this, her most controversial volume to that date, were a bitter recollection of the beating and shooting of Emmett Till, a fifteen-year-old black, in 1955 and a moving description of the violent racial confrontation in Little Rock, Arkansas after a court-ordered integration order in 1957. “We Real Cool,” one of her most famous poems, captures the frustration and uncertain self-image of black urban youth. In its entirety it reads: “W real cool. We/Left school. We/Lurk late. We/Strike straight. We/Sing sin. We/Thin gin. We/Jazz June. We/Die soon.”

Reviewing The Bean Eaters for the New York Times Book Review (October 23, 1960), poet Harvey Shapiro took Brooks to task for what he found to be “trite” and “sentimental” social satire. He was more favorably impressed by the conventional “Ballad of Rudolph Reed,” a poem about a black man’s efforts to move into a white neighborhood. Frederick Bock, in the Chicago Sunday Tribune (June 5, 1960), was similarly disappointed by her “complacent handling of a number of ambitious poems dealing with racial themes.” On the other hand, for Herbert Burke, writing in library Journal (April 15, 1960), The Bean Eaters had “an impact which is both fresh and frightening.” A representative  sampling of poems from The Bean Eaters, along with selections from Annie Allen and A Street in Bronzeville and a handful of new pieces was published under the title Selected Poems (Harper 1963).

President John Kennedy invited her to read at a Library of Congress poetry festival in 1962. Her first teaching job was a poetry workshop at Columbia College (Chicago) in 1963.For six years beginning in 1963, Brooks conducted poetry and fiction workshops and taught freshman English and twentieth-century literature at Chicago’s Columbia College, Elmhurst College, Northeastern Illinois State College, and the University of Wisconsin, where she was Rennebohm Professor of English. Although she believed that it was impossible to teach anyone to how to write, she encouraged her students to “write earnestly and personally” from their own experiences.

“A writer must not be afraid to give himself to life, of becoming involved with people,” she explained to Lucia Mouat in an interview for the Christian Science Monitor (November 27, 1967). “He must not just live for his own tiny comforts but extend and expose himself even though he will be hurt many times.”

In the spring of 1967 Gwendolyn Brooks attended the Fisk University Writers’ Conference in Nashville, Tennessee, where she met Ron Milner, Imamu Baraka (the former LeRoi Jones), and other black writers. For two days she listened and learned, awed, by the new spirit of self-confidence, pride, and militancy of her fellow blacks. “It frightens me to realize that if I had died before the age of fifty, I would have died a ‘Negro” fraction,” she wrote in Report from part One. If it hadn’t been for these young people, these young writers who influenced me, I wouldn’t know what I know about this society. By associating with them I know who I am. . . . My stupidity was incredible. I hadn’t even read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I didn’t know what was going on in the world.”

Having, as she put it, “rediscovered her blackness,” Brooks returned to Chicago and was immediately invited to a performance of Opportunity, please knock, an Alley Theater Project that featured the Blackstone Rangers, a South side street gang. Impressed by their raw talent, she organized a poetry writing workshop for the Rangers. Soon her home became a meeting place for young people interested in art and politics particularly those interested in merging the concept of black art with the ideology of Black Power. Ms. Brooks also sponsored poetry competitions in elementary and high schools, usually supplying the cash awards out of her won funds, participated in open-air readings, and supported the Kuumba Workshop, an experiential community theatre.

An integrationist during the 1940s and 1950s, Brooks had subscribed to the Christian tenet that all people were “really good.” Not anti-white, but, rather, pro-black, her new attitude emphasized black self-reliance. She was, in her own words, a “new integrationist,” as defined by Don L. lee in his poem of that title: “I/seek/integration/of/Negroes/with/black/people.” For Brooks, it was a matter not of repudiating her past, but of moving ahead into “at least the kindergarten of new consciousness . . . and trudge-toward-progress.” Brooks began to focus more on writing for African-American people than writing about them for white audiences.

Her remarkable ability to change following her “transformation” at Fisk University was reflected in her next book of poems, In the Mecca (Harper 1968). The thirty-page title poem describes a mother’s frantic search for her lost daughter in the sprawling, decrepit apartment house, The Mecca, a search that uncovered the desperate, often tragic lives of the building’s inhabitants. Other poems, such as “Malcolm X,” “The wall,” and “way-out-Morgan” were even more militant.

The radical tone of the new poems was underlined by their clipped, compressed lines, abstract word patterns, and random rhymes. Hailing In the Mecca as “a kind of Spoon River Anthology of the black ghetto,” Bruce Cook, who reviewed it for the National Observer (September 9, 1968) applauded Brooks’ lifelike portraits and her “new sureness . . . born of familiarity and nourished by conviction.”

After publication of In the Mecca, Brooks left Harper & Row for Broadside Press, a small, low-profit black publishing house in Detroit, a decision that was praised by black artists and intellectuals as an act of conscience. But with the exception of Report From Part One, an autobiographical collage, the Brooks titles published under the Broadside imprint – Riot (1969), Family Pictures (19700, Aloneness (1971), and Beckonings (1975) – as well as The Tiger Wore White Gloves, a children’s book published by Third World Press (1974), were virtually ignored by the major reviewing media.

Committed to the concept of black owned publishing houses, Brooks has contributed both time and money to broadside press.

Under her direction, the press published A Broadside Treasury (1971), Jump Bad: A New Chicago Anthology (1971), and A Capsule Course in Black Poetry Writing (1975)

A “shy, unassuming” woman whose most distinctive feature  was her ‘soft, gentle, quizzical brown eyes, Gwendolyn Brooks lived in a book-filed house in a working-class neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago with her husband, Henry Blakely, a businessman.  Her favorite recreation is reading. Less militant in recent years, Brooks has concentrated on writing “a kind of poetry that will appeal to all manner of blacks.” I don’t want to imitate these young people,” she explained. “I have got to find a way of writing that will accomplish my purpose but still sound Gwendolynian.”

Ms. Brooks conducted seminars, workshops, and readings at countless major educational institutions across the country and taught at several including the University of Wisconsin-Madison, City College of New York, Columbia College of Chicago, Northeastern Illinois University, and Elmhurst College. At the time of her death, Ms. Brooks had been the Distinguished Professor of English at Chicago State University for several years and the Poet Laureate of Illinois since 1969.

 Ms. Brooks’ lifelong career enhanced, enriched, and embraced language on an international scale. She was awarded over 75 honorary doctorates and was a much-sought after speaker known for her giving, compassionate, and sometimes mischievous) spirit.

 In 1997, Mayor Richard M. Daley announced Gwendolyn Brooks Week in conjunction with her 80th birthday. A special program entitled Eighty Gifts was held at the Harold Washington Library Center with presentations by 80 writers and performers from across the globe. Other special honors include the Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Black Literature and Creative Writing at Chicago state University; the Gwendolyn Brooks Junior High School in Harvey, Illinois as well as schools named after her in Aurora and DeKalb, Illinois; the Gwendolyn Brooks Cultural Center at Western Illinois University in Macomb, Illinois; the Edward Jenner School Auditorium in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green community, and the engraved listing of her name on the Carter G. Woodson Regional Library in Chicago and the Illinois State Library in Springfield.

Ms. Brooks had a special commitment to young people and sponsored various poetry awards, including the Illinois Poet Laureate Awards, an annual events she developed and ran for over 30 years to honor young writers from Illinois elementary schools and high schools. This project, along with many other programs, contest, and events were personally financed by Ms. Brooks in her efforts to give writers opportunities to read publicly their writings, receive monetary awards in recognition of their achievements, and be celebrated for their creative talent.


On Sunday, December 3, 2000, world-renowned writer, and humanitarian Gwendolyn Brooks passed away at her Chicago, Illinois residence; she was 83. Brooks is survived by her son, Henry Blakely III, her daughter, Nora Brooks Blakely, and countless family members, friends, and fellow poets. Her husband, Henry Blakely, II, preceded her in death.

The legacy of Gwendolyn Brooks consists of her immeasurable contribution to literature as well as the cultural and social contributions made by those she influenced in myriad ways.

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Ms. Brooks authored more than twenty books of poetry including A Street in Bronzeville (1945), Selected Poems (1963),  In the Mecca  (1968), Riot (1969), The Tiger Who Wore White Gloves (1970), Blacks (1987), and Children Coming Home (1992). She also wrote one novel,  Maud Martha (1953), two autobiographies, Report from Part One: An Autobiography  (1972), and Report from Part Two: Autobiography(1996), and edited Jump Bad: A New Chicago Anthology (1971).


Selected Awards and Honors

Pulitzer Prize for Literature (1950)

Poet Laureate of Illinois (1969)-2000)

29th Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (1985-1986)

Senior Fellowship in Literature (1989) by the National Endowment for the Arts

Medal for Distinguished Contributions to American Letters by the National Book Foundation (1994)

Jefferson Lecturer from the National Endowment for the Humanities Lifetime Achievement Award (1994)

National Medal of Art (1995)

Lincoln Laureate Award (1997)

International Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent (1998)


Literary Production


    A Street in Bronzeville (1945)     Annie Allen (1949)     Bronzeville Boys and Girls (1956)     The Bean Eaters (1960)     Selected Poems (1963)     We Real Cool (1966)     The Wall (1967)     In the Mecca (1968)     Family Pictures (1970)     Riot (1970)     Black Steel: Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali (1971)     The World of Gwendolyn Brooks (1971)     Aloneness (1971)     Aurora (1972)     Beckonings (1975)     Black Love (1981)     To Disembark (1981)     The Near-Johannesburg Boy and Other Poems (1986)     Blacks (1987)     Winnie (1988)

    Gottschalk and the Grande Tarantelle (1989)

    Children Coming Home (1991)

    In Montgomery and Other Poems (2003)


    Report from Part One: An Autobiography (1972)

    Report from Part Two: A Autobiography     A Capsule Course in Black Poetry Writing (1975)     Primer for Blacks (1981)     Young Poet’s Primer (1981)     Very Young Poets (1983)


    Maud Martha (1953)

Source: Current Biography (1977) and In Montgomery and Other Poems (2003)

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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update14 December 2011




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Wendy Stand Up with Your Proud Hair!   gwendolyn brooks writers conference  

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