Brooks, Gwendolyn (Elizabeth)
From "Encyclopedia of African-American Writing"
Poet—this one word describes every cell of Gwendolyn Brooks's being. It was always poetry—from her Chicago childhood to her 1950 Pulitzer Prize to her awakening social consciousness to her Illinois Poet Laureate status and through all the other honors and awards. It was always poetry—and few writers besides Brooks can speak volumes with so few words.
Gwendolyn Brooks, Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry, 1950 Born into a large and close-knit extended family, including memorable aunts and uncles whom Brooks later honored in her work, Brooks seems to always have been comfortable with herself. Her mother, Keziah Wims, met her father, David Anderson Brooks, in Topeka, Kansas in 1914. They soon married and relocated to Chicago. Keziah returned to family in Topeka to give birth to her first child, Gwendolyn. Keziah stayed in Topeka for several weeks before returning to her husband in Chicago with her infant daughter. Gwendolyn's only sibling, younger brother Raymond, was born 16 months later. Brooks's mother had been a schoolteacher in Topeka, and her father, son of a runaway slave, had attended Fisk University for one year in hopes of becoming a doctor. Economic survival became more important, however, so his desires for a medical career were dashed and he spent
a doctor. Economic survival became more important, however, so his desires for a medical career were dashed and he spent much of his life as a janitor. Despite financial constraints for the young family in Chicago, Brooks remembers a loving, family atmosphere throughout her childhood. She had a more difficult time fitting in with her high-school classmates, however, attending three high schools: Hyde Park, which was mostly white; Wendell Phillips, which was all black; and Englewood High School, the integrated school from which she eventually graduated in 1934. Two years later, she graduated from Wilson Junior College (1936). Even prior to her high school years, it became apparent to Brooks that she did not really fit in with her peers. She was a nonperson at Hyde Park and socially inept at Wendell Phillips. She kept her self-esteem, however, largely due to her strong family ties. Also, since she was seven years old, her mind had been someplace else. That place was poetry, which she had started writing at that young age. Her parents contributed to her love of language and story. As a former schoolteacher, Brooks's mother encouraged her daughter's interest, and her father often told stories and sang songs about his family's history with slavery. From her parents and her extended family, Brooks learned the honor and dignity found in living everyday life with love and integrity. Her first published poem, “Eventide,” appeared in American Childhood Magazine in 1930 when Brooks was 13. At 16, with her mother's help, Brooks met two prominent African-American writers, James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes. Although both writers read Brooks's work and told her that she had talent and should keep reading and writing poetry, only Hughes and Brooks developed a long and enduring friendship. She later wrote a poem tribute to him, “Langston Hughes,” published in her Bean Eaters collection. She also remembered him fondly and with great respect in her autobiography, Report from Part One. In the meantime, she contributed regularly to the Chicago Defender, having 75 poems published there in two years. Brooks was also looking outside herself, joining the Youth Council of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1938. There she met her future husband and fellow writer, Henry L. Blakey III, whom she married in 1939. Marriage took Brooks from the comfort of her parent's home and into a kitchenette apartment, the setting for her first volume of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville, published in 1945. She gave birth to their first child, Henry, Jr.,...