Biography of Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks was an American poet whose descriptions of the psychological fluctuations and social anxieties of Black citizens within (and, implicitly, beyond) her Chicago milieu have become some of the most famous and well-regarded poems of the 20th century. Subjected to the condescension and exclusion that marks the condition of the Black woman poet in America, Brooks nonetheless achieved some of the highest honors in the world of the poetic elite, such as her 1968 appointment as Poet Laureate of the state of Illinois, her 1976 induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and perhaps most memorably her reception of the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, making her the first Black person to receive this award.

Brooks was born in Topeka, Kansas, but moved to Chicago with her family after six weeks; she stayed in Chicago all her life until her death in 2000. Encouraged by her parents in the pursuit of writing poetry professionally, Brooks hit the ground running by publishing her first poem in the magazine American Childhood at the age of 13. By 17, Brooks began submitting poetry regularly to the Black-run newspaper the Chicago Defender. She received early encouragement from such Harlem Renaissance stalwarts as Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, the latter of whom expressed his enthusiasm to the editors of Harper & Brothers, who eventually put out her first book of poetry, 1945's A Street in Bronzeville.

Brooks once said, in a 1967 interview with Harry M. Angle, that she intended to live in Chicago "for my forever," and indeed the Black locales of Chicago's South Side--"Bronzeville," as she called it--remained the overarching poetic subject for her 50-odd years of active poetic life, despite significant shifts in her authorial perspective and style therein. In an interview cited by the New York Times' 2000 obituary of Brooks, she says that "she wrote about what I saw and heard in the street...I lived in a small second-floor apartment at the corner, and I could look first on one side and then the other. There was my material.'' Brooks' most canonical poems, drawn from collections like the aforementioned A Street in Bronzeville and 1949's Annie Allen, the book that garnered her the Pulitzer Prize, deal explicitly with the frustrations and conversely the small victories of her fellow Black American citizens, particularly those living in Chicago. Such poems as "We Real Cool" and "Gay Chaps at the Bar" step into the psyches of their subjects through employment of the first-person plural voice, sometimes coupled with sharp vernacular language, and always written with a piercing contemplation of the cadences of thought and feeling. Though some of the earliest contemporaneous praise of Brooks' poetry stressed her "universal" rather than exclusively "Black" connection to poetic language, Brooks in her early works was clearly interested in using poetry as a vehicle to document, and thereby reach out to, a particular racial and social milieu which had been antagonized by the structure and activity of civilization at large.

This interest in the documentation of Black life in America, however, dovetailed with the employment of classical Western--by extension, putatively "white"--poetic forms such as the sonnet and the ballad. Brooks' faithfulness to poetic tradition in inhabiting these forms was matched by her desire to break down their coded assumptions from within; in other words, Brooks looked to siphon from these poetic forms their congenial sense of order and conventional beauty in order to point up or modify the welter of negative and contradictory emotions and social turmoil which lay underneath. In the words of Gladys Margaret Williams, “The product was a language of accommodation and concealment, a language of ironic doubleness, a language whose messages were intended to be received in one way by outsiders and in another way by insiders."

Brooks' poetic project, then, was revolutionary from its inception, even insofar as she developed her beautiful structures of address out of traditional poetic forms. Nonetheless, Brooks took another step into a space of explicitly radical politics after the Second Fisk Writers' Conference of 1967, where she witnessed the agitations and aesthetic rebellion of such figures as Amiri Baraka, then known as LeRoi Jones; from this point on, Brooks dedicated herself principally to poetry that would expose the political antagonisms of the world at large, and which would, she hoped, successfully ignore the desires and preoccupations of white audiences to address "all black people, black people in taverns, black people in alleys, black people in gutters, schools, offices, factories, prisons, the consulate..." This post-1967 period of Brooks' poetic life is often ignored in favor of her earlier, more traditionally palatable poetry, but her increased employment of free verse and direct address subtly engages many of the same questions of the appropriateness of poetic form to documenting Black life while accommodating the poet's more uncompromising political outlook on the racial antagonisms suturing civil society. With her poetry, Brooks bore into the heart of poetic address itself, questioning and ultimately affirming the duty of aesthetics in transforming our collective vision of the world around us.

Study Guides on Works by Gwendolyn Brooks