Primary Creator: Brooks, Gwendolyn (1917-2000)
Extent: 200.0 Linear Feet
Date Acquired: 09/19/2013
Poet Gwendolyn Brooks was born to parents David Anderson and Keziah Wims Brooks on June 7, 1917 in Topeka, Kansas. A few weeks later, her family moved to Chicago where she would live for the rest of her life. Brooks began writing at an early age and was encouraged by her mother saying, "You are going to be the lady Paul Laurence Dunbar." When she was 13, her poem "Eventide" was published in the children's magazine American Childhood . By the time she graduated high school, Brooks had published over one hundred poems in the "Lights and Shadows" poetry column of the Chicago Defender . After high school, Brooks graduated from a two-year program at Wilson Junior College . In 1939, she married Henry Blakely, Jr. whom she met after joining the Chicago NAACP Youth Council. They soon had their first child, Henry III, and later their daughter, Nora.
Early in her career, Brooks was encouraged by poet James Weldon Johnson and Harlem Renaissance writers Langston Hughes and Richard Wright . In her work, Brooks drew inspiration from her life and surroundings in Chicago. Her first book of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville (1945), received praise for its authentic portraits of the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago. Her second collection of poems, Annie Allen (1949), chronicles the life of a young Black Bronzeville girl. It was for this book that Brooks won the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, making her the first Black person to win the award in any category .
In the 1960s, Brooks work became more overtly political as she became close with activists and writers involved in the Black Arts Movement, a group of artists whose work reflected the cultural side of the growing Black Power movement . She became especially close with Haki Madhubuti, to whom she became both a mentor and a mother figure. Soon Brooks began working exclusively with Black publishers, especially Broadside Press, founded by her close friend Dudley Randall, and Third World Press, founded by Madhubuti. In the 1980s, Brooks also established her own imprint called The David Company.
Throughout her long career, Brooks published more than twenty books of poetry, including The Bean Eaters (1960), Selected Poems (1963), In the Mecca (1968), Riot (1969), Family Pictures (1970), Aloneness (1971), Beckonings (1975), To Disembark (1981), Black Love (1982), The Near-Johannesburg Boy and Other Poems (1986), Blacks (1987), Gottschalk and the Grand Tarantelle (1988), Winnie (1988), and Children Coming Home (1991). She also published one novel, Maud Martha (1953), as well as children's literature such as Bronzeville Boys and Girls (1956) and The Tiger Who Wore White Gloves (1974). Brooks also published two autobiographies, Report from Part One (1972), and Report from Part Two (1995).
In addition to her writing, Brooks taught poetry and creative writing at numerous colleges and universities. In 1990, the Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Black Literature and Creative Writing was founded at Chicago State University, where Brooks served as distinguished professor and writer-in-residence . Brooks influenced generations of writers, not only with her words, but with her actions. For most of the year, she traveled the country to perform her poetry for children of all ages as well as at universities, public libraries, hospitals, and prisons. As she especially encouraged young poets, Brooks sponsored youth poetry awards for over thirty years. Renowned for her generosity, Brooks dedicated her life to promoting the value of poetry and inspiring young writers.
Brooks was the recipient of more than seventy-five honorary doctorates and countless accolades . In 1968, she was appointed Poet Laureate of Illinois, a position which she held until her death in 2000 . In 1985, Brooks was selected for an honorary one-year term as the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress . She received lifetime achievement awards from both the National Endowment for the Arts in 1989 and the National Book Foundation in 1994. Brooks then received the National Endowment for the Humanities' highest honor when she was named the 1994 Jefferson Lecturer. The next year, Brooks received the National Medal of Arts.
Today, Gwendolyn Brooks' legacy persists as one of the most significant poets of the twentieth century, because of both her contribution to American literature and her kindness and generosity, especially toward young poets and authors of color.
Acquisition Source: Nora Brooks Blakely
Finding Aid Revision History: This finding aid is experiencing ongoing revision, beginning in June 2023.