The career of Gwendolyn Brooks is virtually without parallel in American literature. She achieved extraordinary success at an early age, winning the Pulitzer Prize for poetry with her second book when she was in her early thirties. Nearly twenty years later, she abandoned her position as an establishment author to undertake a socially oriented commitment, expressed both in a more direct and politically conscious style of writing and in tireless activities on behalf of her community. But, whatever differences there may be between her earlier works and her later ones, she was a disciplined and serious artist, and an affirmer of the highest standards both in her work and in her life.
Gwendolyn Brooks, the daughter of David Anderson Brooks, the son of a runaway slave, and of Keziah Corinne (Wims) Brooks, was born on June 7, 1917, in Topeka, Kansas. Her parents were living in Chicago, but her mother had gone to Topeka in order to have her baby at her own mother's home. At the age of one month, Gwendolyn Brooks was brought home to Chicago, where she lived for her entire life. She was always intrigued by words and the sounds they made, and as early as the age of seven, with her parents' full encouragement, she began to dream that she might become a writer. When she was thirteen, she had a poem published in American Childhood, a well-known magazine of the time. In 1932, she entered Hyde Park High School, which was predominantly white; she later attended Wendell Phillips High School, which was all-black, and Englewood High School, an integrated institution. While still a student, she met the poets James Weldon Johnsonwho suggested that she read such modern poets as T. S. Eliot and E. E. Cummingsand Langston Hughes, who encouraged her in her literary ambitions, and who would offer more tangible assistance early in her career when he wrote about her several times in his newspaper column. At seventeen, she began submitting her work to "Lights and Shadows," the poetry column of the Chicago Defender, an African-American newspaper, in which she would publish more than seventy-five poems. She graduated from Wilson Junior College in 1936.
Failing to obtain a position with the Chicago Defender, she worked at a series of typing jobs until her marriage, on September 17, 1939, to Henry Blakely, whom she had met the previous year. The marriage produced two children, Henry, born in 1940, and Nora, born in 1951. A crucial step in her poetic development was taken in 1941, when she and her husband enrolled in Inez Cunningham Stark's poetry workshop, in which the students were required to read modern poets and to produce poetic exercises that were held to, and judged by, the strictest standards. Brooks began to achieve recognition in 1943, when she won an award at the Midwestern Writers' Conference; she would receive three more awards from the same organization in the next two years. In 1945, the year her first book appeared, Mademoiselle selected her as one of its "Ten Young Women of the Year." In 1946, she won a $1000 award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, as well as a Guggenheim fellowship, which was renewed the following year. Not yet thirty, she was fully launched as a serious poet.
A Street in Bronzeville, Brooks's first collection of poetry, was published in 1945. Many of its poems were gathered into several thematic groupings, including the title section, which contained both "Southeast Corner" and "The Mother" (it is indicative of Brooks's independence of spirit that she chose to read "The Mother," rather than making some less provocative selection from her work, when she was among a group of American poets honored at the White House by President Jimmy Carter in January 1980). The book's jacket copy contained praise from a number of writers, including traditionalist critics and poets such as William Rose Benét, and African-American writers such as the novelist Richard Wright. This strategy, intended no doubt to secure for Brooks the widest possible audience, was also a fair representation of the book's contents: the subject matter was drawn from the life of the black neighborhoods of Chicago, described from a seemingly objective viewpoint and expressed for the most part in traditional forms, including several sonnets. The perception of Brooks as not only a very talented poet but one whose work was in the mainstream was certified when Annie Allen (1949), her second collection, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the first time that an African-American poet had received this prestigious award.
In 1953, Brooks published Maud Martha, a novel. This short work is presented in a series of thirty-four chapters, many of which are only several pages long and often organized around a single incident. It is written with the stylistic precision and careful attention to detail that characterize poetry at its best. Its shy young woman protagonist goes through a process of maturing that is all the more convincingly presented through its being grounded in small and familiar details. Though the book was warmly greeted by reviewers, it has neverperhaps because of the customary perception of Brooks solely as a poetenjoyed the reputation and readership that it deserves. The Bean Eaters (1960), another substantial collection of poetry, once again contained a number of elegantly crafted lyrics. It also, through forceful rhythms and a more direct angle of attack, sounded in places a note of overt social protest, as in the widely reprinted "The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock." Selected Poems (1963) reprinted the best work from earlier volumes and also contained a small group of new poems.
In 1967 an event occurred that would profoundly transform the shape and direction of Brooks's literary career. Attending the Second Black Writers' Conference at Fisk University, she was struck by the passion and commitment of young poets at that gathering. Up to that point, she had regarded and presented herself essentially as a universalist, a poet who happened to be black and who wrote about her own experiences and observations of black life in America, but for whom the fact of blackness was not the controlling emphasis of her work and intentions. But, perceiving that these young poets, as she later told an interviewer, "felt that black poets should write as blacks, about blacks, and address themselves to blacks," she determined to do likewise. Having written about the people in her earlier books for a larger, mostly white audience, she now decided to write for them. In the Mecca (1968), her next collection, was a work in keeping with the temper of the raw, intense time out of which it came. Its title piece, a poem of more than thirty pages, written with a directness and urgency not previously characteristic of Brooks's style, described a woman's search for her missing young daughter, a quest that takes her through the frightening underside of her ghetto neighborhood.
Also in 1968, in the wake of Carl Sandburg's death the previous year, Brooks was appointed Poet Laureate of Illinois, a post she held until her death in 2000. Far from regarding it as a merely honorary post, she used this position to bring poetry not only to the schools and colleges of her state, but also to its hospitals and prisons, and encouraged many young poets, often through awards that she sponsored not only with her reputation and influence but with her own money as well. In addition, she taught poetry classes at a number of colleges and universities in the Midwest and in New York City. She further demonstrated her commitment to her new aesthetic when she ended a quarter-century relationship with her commercial New York publisher and began to bring out her work with small black publishers, particularly Broadside Press, founded in Detroit by the poet Dudley Randall. With Broadside, she published the poetry chapbooks Riot (1969) and Family Pictures (1970), and the autobiography Report from Part One (1972). This volume, in addition to a fifty-page reminiscence of Brooks's early life, contains several interviews with the poet and a number of briefer, socially pointed statements. While some were disappointed by its failure to conform to the expectations of the traditional personal memoir, others saw it as something more valuable, an explanation and justification of her new aesthetic of racial solidarity and commitment.
In the intervening years, Brooks remained true to the commitments undertaken when she was fifty, and continued to publish, with small local presses, works undiminished in vigor and intensity, as shown by the appearance of Report from Part Two in 1995 when she was nearly eighty.
Despite her shift in style and intent, Brooks remained an artist to the end, choosing her words and her organizational strategies with the same care and precision that characterize her earlier writings. That she perceived a continuity rather than a disruption in her progress was shown by the omnibus volume Blacks (1987), which gathered earlier and later works under one set of covers. In her entry in Who's Who in America, she provided the following as a statement of her personal philosophy: "To be clean of heart, clear of mind, and claiming of what is right and just." These are principles that she has unswervingly embodied and honored both in her writing and in the the living of her life.