Brooks was born in Topeka, Kansas, but her family moved to Chicago when she was young. Her father was a janitor who had hoped to become a doctor; her mother was a schoolteacher and classically trained pianist. They were supportive of their daughter's passion for reading and writing. Brooks was thirteen when her first published poem, "Eventide," appeared in American Childhood; by the time she was seventeen she was publishing poems frequently in the Chicago Defender, a newspaper serving Chicago's black population. After such formative experiences as attending junior college and working for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, she developed her craft in poetry workshops and began writing the poems, focusing on urban blacks, that would be published in her first collection, A Street in Bronzeville.
Her poems in A Street in Bronzeville and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Annie Allen were "devoted to small, carefully cerebrated, terse portraits of the Black urban poor," commented Richard K. Barksdale in Modern Black Poets: A Collection of Critical Essays. Brooks once described her style as "folksy narrative," but she varied her forms, using free verse, sonnets, and other models. Several critics welcomed Brooks as a new voice in poetry; fellow poet Rolfe Humphries wrote in the New York Times Book Review that "we have, in A Street in Bronzeville, a good book and a real poet," while Saturday Review of Literature contributor Starr Nelson called that volume "a work of art and a poignant social document." In Annie Allen, which follows the experiences of a black girl as she grows into adulthood, Brooks deals further with social issues, especially the role of women, and experimented with her poetry, with one section of the book being an epic poem, "The Anniad"—a play on The Aeneid. Langston Hughes, in a review of Annie Allen for Voices, remarked that "the people and poems in Gwendolyn Brooks' book are alive, reaching, and very much of today."
In the 1950s Brooks published her first and only novel, Maud Martha, which details a black woman's life in short vignettes. It is "a story of a woman with doubts about herself and where and how she fits into the world. Maud's concern is not so much that she is inferior but that she is perceived as being ugly," related Harry B. Shaw in Gwendolyn Brooks. Maud suffers prejudice not only from whites but also from blacks who have lighter skin than hers, something that mirrors Brooks's experience. Eventually, Maud takes a stand for her own dignity by turning her back on a patronizing, racist store clerk. "The book is . . . about the triumph of the lowly," commented Shaw. "Brooks shows what they go through and exposes the shallowness of the popular, beautiful white people with 'good' hair. One way of looking at the book, then, is as a war with . . . people's concepts of beauty." Its other themes, Shaw added, include "the importance of spiritual and physical death," disillusionment with a marriage that amounts to "a step down" in living conditions, and the discovery "that even through disillusionment and spiritual death life will prevail."
David Littlejohn, writing in Black on White: A Critical Survey of Writing by American Negroes, found Martha Maud "a striking human experiment, as exquisitely written . . . as any of Gwendolyn Brooks's poetry in verse. . . . It is a powerful, beautiful dagger of a book, as generous as it can possibly be. It teaches more, more quickly, more lastingly, than a thousand pages of protest." In a Black World review, Annette Oliver Shands noted the way in which Maud Martha differs from the works of some black writers: "Brooks does not specify traits, niceties or assets for members of the Black community to acquire in order to attain their just rights. . . . So, this is not a novel to inspire social advancement on the part of fellow Blacks. Nor does it say be poor, Black and happy. The message is to accept the challenge of being human and to assert humanness with urgency."
Brooks's later work took a far more political stance. Just as her first poems reflected the mood of their era, her later works mirrored their age by displaying what National Observer contributor Bruce Cook termed "an intense awareness of the problems of color and justice." Toni Cade Bambara reported in the New York Times Book Review that at the age of fifty "something happened to Brooks, a something most certainly in evidence in In the Mecca and subsequent works—a new movement and energy, intensity, richness, power of statement and a new stripped lean, compressed style. A change of style prompted by a change of mind." "Though some of her work in the early 1960s had a terse, abbreviated style, her conversion to direct political expression happened rapidly after a gathering of black writers at Fisk University in 1967," Jacqueline Trescott reported in the Washington Post. Brooks herself noted that the poets there were committed to writing as blacks, about blacks, and for a black audience. If many of her earlier poems had fulfilled this aim, it was not due to conscious intent, she said; but from this time forward, Brooks thought of herself as an African determined not to compromise social comment for the sake of technical proficiency.
Although In the Mecca and Brooks's subsequent works have been characterized as tougher and possessing what a Virginia Quarterly Review critic called "raw power and roughness," several commentators emphasized that these poems are neither bitter nor vengeful. Instead, according to Cook, they are more "about bitterness" than bitter in themselves. Dictionary of Literary Biography essayist Charles Israel suggested that In the Mecca's title poem, for example, shows "a deepening of Brooks's concern with social problems." A mother has lost a small daughter in the block-long ghetto tenement, the Mecca; the long poem traces her steps through the building, revealing her neighbors to be indifferent or insulated by their own personal obsessions. The mother finds her little girl, who "never learned that black is not beloved," who "was royalty when poised, / sly, at the A and P's fly-open door," under a Jamaican resident's cot, murdered. A Virginia Quarterly Review contributor compared the poem's impact to that of Richard Wright's fiction. R. Baxter Miller, writing in Black American Poets between Worlds, 1940-1960, observed, " In the Mecca is a most complex and intriguing book; it seeks to balance the sordid realities of urban life with an imaginative process of reconciliation and redemption." Other poems in the book, occasioned by the death of Malcolm X or the dedication of a mural of black heroes painted on a Chicago slum building, express the poet's commitment to her people's awareness of themselves as a political as well as a cultural entity.
Brooks's activism and her interest in nurturing black literature led her to leave major publisher Harper & Row in favor of fledgling black publishing companies. In the seventies, she chose Dudley Randall's Broadside Press to publish her poetry (Riot, Family Pictures, Aloneness, Aurora, and Beckonings ) and Report from Part One, the first volume of her autobiography. She edited two collections of poetry—A Broadside Treasury and Jump Bad: A New Chicago Anthology—for the Detroit-area press. The Chicago-based Third World Press, run by Haki R. Madhubuti—formerly Don L. Lee, one of the young poets she had met during the sixties—also brought some Brooks titles into print. She did not regret having supported small publishers dedicated to the needs of the black community. Brooks was the first writer to read in Broadside's original Poet's Theatre series and was also the first poet to read in the second opening of the series when the press was revived under new ownership in 1988.
Brooks, however, felt that Riot, Family Pictures, Beckonings, and other books brought out by black publishers were given only brief notice by critics of the literary establishment because they "did not wish to encourage Black publishers." Some critics expressed concern over the political content of these poems. Riot, in particular, in which Brooks is the spokesman for the "HEALTHY REBELLION" going on then, as she calls it, was accused of "celebrating violence" by School Library Journal reviewer L. L. Shapiro. Key poems from these books, later collected in To Disembark, call blacks to "work together toward their own REAL emancipation," Brooks once indicated. Even so, "the strength here is not in declamation but in the poet's genius for psychological insight," commented J. A. Lipari in Library Journal.
Later Brooks poems continue to deal with political subjects and figures, such as South African activist Winnie Mandela, the onetime wife of antiapartheid leader—and later president of the country—Nelson Mandela. Brooks once told Contemporary Literature interviewer George Stavros: "I want to write poems that will be non-compromising. I don't want to stop a concern with words doing good jobs, which has always been a concern of mine, but I want to write poems that will be meaningful . . . things that will touch them." Still, Brooks's work was objective about human nature, several reviewers observed. Janet Overmeyer noted in the Christian Science Monitor that Brooks's "particular, outstanding, genius is her unsentimental regard and respect for all human beings. . . . She neither foolishly pities nor condemns—she creates." Overmeyer continued, "From her poet's craft bursts a whole gallery of wholly alive persons, preening, squabbling, loving, weeping; many a novelist cannot do so well in ten times the space." Littlejohn maintained that Brooks achieves this effect through a high "degree of artistic control," further relating, "The words, lines, and arrangements have been worked and worked and worked again into poised exactness: the unexpected apt metaphor, the mock-colloquial asides amid jewelled phrases, the half-ironic repetitions—she knows it all." More important, Brooks's objective treatment of issues such as poverty and racism "produces genuine emotional tension," the critic wrote.
Among Brooks's major prose works are her two volumes of autobiography. When the first, Report from Part One, was published in 1972, some reviewers expressed disappointment that it did not provide the level of personal detail or the insight into black literature that they had expected. "They wanted a list of domestic spats," remarked Brooks. Bambara noted that it "is not a sustained dramatic narrative for the nosey, being neither the confessions of a private woman poet or the usual sort of mahogany-desk memoir public personages inflict upon the populace at the first sign of a cardiac. . . . It documents the growth of Gwen Brooks." Other critics praised the book for explaining the poet's new orientation toward her racial heritage and her role as a poet. In a passage she presented again in later books as a definitive statement, Brooks wrote: "I—who have 'gone the gamut' from an almost angry rejection of my dark skin by some of my brainwashed brothers and sisters to a surprised queenhood in the new Black sun—am qualified to enter at least the kindergarten of new consciousness now. New consciousness and trudge-toward-progress. I have hopes for myself. . . . I know now that I am essentially an essential African, in occupancy here because of an indeed 'peculiar' institution. . . . I know that Black fellow-feeling must be the Black man's encyclopedic Primer. I know that the Black-and-white integration concept, which in the mind of some beaming early saint was a dainty spinning dream, has wound down to farce . . . I know that the Black emphasis must be not against white but FOR Black. . . . In the Conference-That-Counts, whose date may be 1980 or 2080 (woe betide the Fabric of Man if it is 2080), there will be no looking up nor looking down." In the future, she envisioned "the profound and frequent shaking of hands, which in Africa is so important. The shaking of hands in warmth and strength and union."
Brooks put some of the finishing touches on the second volume of her autobiography while serving as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. Brooks was sixty-eight years of age when she became the first black woman to be appointed to the post. Of her many duties there, the most important, in her view, were visits to local schools. Similar visits to colleges, universities, prisons, hospitals, and drug rehabilitation centers characterized her tenure as poet laureate of Illinois. In that role, she sponsored and hosted annual literary awards ceremonies at which she presented prizes funded "out of her own pocket, which, despite her modest means, is of legendary depth," Reginald Gibbons related in Chicago Tribune Books. She honored and encouraged many poets in her state through the Illinois Poets Laureate Awards and Significant Illinois Poets Awards programs.
Proving the breadth of Brooks's appeal, poets representing a wide variety of "races and . . . poetic camps" gathered at the University of Chicago to celebrate the poet's seventieth birthday in 1987, Gibbons reported. Brooks brought them together, he said, "in . . . a moment of good will and cheer." In recognition of her service and achievements, a junior high school in Harvey, Illinois, was named for her, and she was similarly honored by Western Illinois University's Gwendolyn Brooks Center for African-American Literature.
- A Street in Bronzeville (also see below), Harper (New York, NY), 1945.
- Annie Allen (also see below), Harper (New York, NY), 1949.
- The Bean Eaters (also see below), Harper (New York, NY), 1960.
- In the Time of Detachment, In the Time of Cold, Civil War Centennial Commission of Illinois (Springfield, IL), 1965.
- In the Mecca (also see below), Harper (New York, NY), 1968.
- For Illinois 1968: A Sesquicentennial Poem, Harper (New York, NY), 1968.
- Riot (also see below), Broadside Press (Highland Park, MI), 1969.
- Family Pictures (also see below), Broadside Press (Highland Park, MI), 1970.
- Aloneness, Broadside Press (Highland Park, MI), 1971.
- Aurora, Broadside Press (Highland Park, MI), 1972.
- Beckonings, Broadside Press (Highland Park, MI), 1975.
- Primer for Blacks, Black Position Press (Chicago, IL), 1980.
- To Disembark, Third World Press (Chicago, IL), 1981.
- Black Love, Brooks Press (Chicago, IL), 1982.
- Mayor Harold Washington; and, Chicago, the I Will City, Brooks Press (Chicago, IL), 1983.
- The Near-Johannesburg Boy, and Other Poems, David Co. (Chicago, IL), 1987.
- Gottschalk and the Grande Tarantelle, David Co. (Chicago, IL), 1988.
- Winnie, Third World Press (Chicago, IL), 1988.
- Children Coming Home, David Co. (Chicago, IL), 1991.
- In Montgomery, and Other Poems,Third World Press (Chicago, IL), 2003.
- Selected Poems, Harper (New York, NY), 1963.
- (With others) A Portion of That Field: The Centennial of the Burial of Lincoln, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 1967.
- The World of Gwendolyn Brooks (contains A Street in Bronzeville, Annie Allen, Maud Martha, The Bean Eaters, and In the Mecca; also see below), Harper (New York, NY), 1971.
- (Editor) A Broadside Treasury (poems), Broadside Press (Highland Park, MI), 1971.
- (Editor) Jump Bad: A New Chicago Anthology, Broadside Press (Highland Park, MI), 1971.
- (With Keorapetse Kgositsile, Haki R. Madhubuti, and Dudley Randall) A Capsule Course in Black Poetry Writing, Broadside Press (Highland Park, MI), 1975.
- Young Poet's Primer (writing manual), Brooks Press (Chicago, IL), 1981.
- Very Young Poets (writing manual), Brooks Press (Chicago, IL), 1983.
- The Day of the Gwendolyn: A Lecture (sound recording), Library of Congress (Washington, DC), 1986.
- Blacks (includes A Street in Bronzeville, Annie Allen, The Bean Eaters, Maud Martha, A Catch of Shy Fish, Riot, In the Mecca, and most of Family Pictures), David Co. (Chicago, IL), 1987.
- The Gwendolyn Brooks Library, Moonbeam Publications, 1991.
- Maud Martha (novel; also see below), Harper (New York, NY), 1953.
- Bronzeville Boys and Girls (poems; for children), Harper (New York, NY), 1956.
- Report from Part One: An Autobiography, Broadside Press (Highland Park, MI), 1972.
- The Tiger Who Wore White Gloves: Or You Are What You Are (for children), Third World Press (Chicago, IL), 1974, reissued, 1987.
- Report from Part Two (autobiography), Third World Press (Chicago, IL), 1996.
- Berry, S. L., Gwendolyn Brooks, Creative Education (Mankato, MN), 1993.
- Bigsby, C. W. E., The Second Black Renaissance: Essays in Black Literature, Greenwood Press (Westport, CT), 1980.
- Black Literature Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.
- Children's Literature Review, Volume 27, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.
- Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography: The New Consciousness, 1941-1968, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1985.
- Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 1, 1973, Volume 2, 1974, Volume 4, 1975, Volume 5, 1976, Volume 15, 1980, Volume 49, 1988.
- Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 5: American Poets since World War II, 1980, Volume 76: Afro-American Writers, 1940-1955, 1988, Volume 165: American Poets since World War II, Fourth Series, 1996.
- Evans, Mari, editor, Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, Anchor/Doubleday (New York, NY), 1984.
- Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., editor, Black Literature and Literary Theory, Methuen (New York, NY), 1984.
- Gayles, Gloria Wade, editor, Conversations with Gwendolyn Brooks, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 2003.
- Gibson, Donald B., editor, Modern Black Poets: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall (Englewood Cliffs, NJ), 1973.
- Gould, Jean, Modern American Women Poets, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1985.
- Kent, George, Gwendolyn Brooks: A Life, University Press of Kentucky (Lexington, KY), 1990.
- Kufrin, Joan, Uncommon Women, New Century Publications, 1981.
- Littlejohn, David, Black on White: A Critical Survey of Writing by American Negroes, Grossman (New York, NY), 1966.
- Madhubuti, Haki R., Say That the River Turns: The Impact of Gwendolyn Brooks, Third World Press (Chicago, IL), 1987.
- Melhem, D. H., Gwendolyn Brooks: Poetry and the Heroic Voice, University Press of Kentucky (Lexington, KY), 1987.
- Melhem, D. H., Heroism in the New Black Poetry: Introductions and Interviews, University Press of Kentucky (Lexington, KY), 1990.
- Miller, R. Baxter, Black American Poets between Worlds, 1940-1960, University of Tennessee Press (Knoxville, TN), 1986.
- Mootry, Maria K., and Gary Smith, editors, A Life Distilled: Gwendolyn Brooks, Her Poetry and Fiction, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 1987.
- Poetry Criticism, Volume 7, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1994.
- Shaw, Harry B., Gwendolyn Brooks, Twayne (New York, NY), 1980.
- World Literature Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.
- Wright, Stephen Caldwell, editor, On Gwendolyn Brooks: Reliant Contemplation, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 1996.
- African American Review, summer, 1992, pp. 197-211.
- American Literature, December, 1990, pp. 606-616.
- Atlantic Monthly, September, 1960.
- Best Sellers, April 1, 1973.
- Black American Literature Forum, spring, 1977; winter, 1984; fall, 1990, p. 567.
- Black Enterprise, June, 1985.
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- Chicago Tribune, January 14, 1986; June 7, 1987; June 12, 1989.
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- Contemporary Literature, March 28, 1969; winter, 1970.
- Critique, summer, 1984.
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- English Journal, November, 1990, pp. 84-88.
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- Explicator, April, 1976; Volume 36, number 4, 1978.
- Houston Post, February 11, 1974.
- Jet, May 30, 1994, p. 37.
- Journal of Negro Education, winter, 1970.
- Kenyon Review, winter, 1995, p. 136.
- Library Journal, September 15, 1970.
- Los Angeles Times, November 6, 1987; September 14, 1993, p. F3; April 21, 1997.
- Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 2, 1984.
- Modern Fiction Studies, winter, 1985.
- Nation, September, 1962; July 7, 1969; September 26, 1987, p. 308.
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- New Statesman, May 3, 1985.
- New Yorker, September 22, 1945; December 17, 1949; October 10, 1953; December 3, 1979.
- New York Times, October 5, 1953; December 9, 1956; October 6, 1963; March 2, 1969; April 30, 1990, p. C11.
- New York Times Book Review, November 4, 1945; October 23, 1960; October 6, 1963; March 2, 1969; January 2, 1972; June 4, 1972; December 3, 1972; January 7, 1973; June 10, 1973; December 2, 1973; September 23, 1984; July 5, 1987; March 18, 1990, p. 21.
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- Voices, winter, 1950, pp. 54-56.
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- New York Times, December 5, 2000, p. C22.
- Times (London, England), December 21, 2000.
- Washington Post, December 5, 2000, p. B7.*
Poems By GWENDOLYN BROOKS
- "Still Do I Keep My Look, My Identity..."
- A Light and Diplomatic Bird
- A Penitent Considers Another Coming of Mary
- a song in the front yard
- A Sunset of the City
More poems by Gwendolyn Brooks (30 poems)
- Boy Breaking Glass
- Gay Chaps at the Bar
- Henry Rago
- Jessie Mitchell’s Mother
- kitchenette building
- my dreams, my works, must wait till after hell
- of De Witt Williams on his way to Lincoln Cemetery
- Of Robert Frost
- Old Mary
- Sadie and Maud
- Strong Men, Riding Horses
- The Ballad of Rudolph Reed
- The Bean Eaters
- The Blackstone Rangers
- The Children of the Poor
- The Life of Lincoln West
- The Lovers of the Poor
- the mother
- The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith
- the vacant lot
- We Real Cool
- when you have forgotten Sunday: the love story
- Young Afrikans
Articles About GWENDOLYN BROOKS
Audio & PodcastsPoem Talk
After the Night Years: On "The Sun Came" by Etheridge Knight and "Truth" by Gwendolyn Brooks
Hosted by Al Filreis and featuring Herman Beavers, Tracie Morris, and Josephine Park.
Chicago Cultural Center
Originally the Chicago Public Library, the Cultural Center provides an ideal atmosphere for this brief history of Chicago poetry, featuring a variety of the city’s poets.
One of the 20th century's most significant poets, Gwendolyn Brooks wrote about race in America, often from the perspective of her Bronzeville neighborhood.
Harold Washington Library
Harold Washington was elected as Chicago’s first African American mayor in 1983. Gwendolyn Brooks, Edward Hirsch, and Albert Goldbarth read an array of poems celebrating progress and the pleasures of reading.
Gwendolyn Brooks speaking in 1990 at Poetry Day in Chicago.
Gwendolyn Brooks: Essential American Poets
Archival recordings of former poet laureate Brooks, with an introduction to her life and work. Recorded January 19, 1961, Recording Laboratory, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Looking Animals in the Eye
Poems from Yusef Komunyakaa, V. Penelope Pelizzon, Kathy Nilsson, and Anthony Madrid, plus Patricia Smith on Gwendolyn Brooks.
The Mama and the Papa
Hear Gwendolyn Brooks read "the mother" and Theodore Roethke read "My Papa's Waltz," with insights by ex-US Poet Laureate Donald Hall.
Poetry magazine's Danielle Chapman wants Gwendolyn Brooks to get her due.
Subway Poetry is Back
Alice Quinn discusses the return of the Poetry in Motion program in New York.
LIFE SPAN 1917–2000