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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks, born in Topeka, Kansas, considered herself a (nearly) lifelong Chicagoan. When she began writing at age seven, her mother predicted, “You are going to be the lady Paul Laurence Dunbar.” First published at eleven, by sixteen Brooks was contributing poetry weekly to the Chicago Defender. In Report from Part One, she describes a happy childhood spent in black neighborhoods with her parents and younger brother Raymond. “Duty-loving” Keziah Wims Brooks had been a fifth grade teacher; she played the piano, wrote music, and published a book of stories at eighty-six. David Anderson Brooks, son of a runaway slave, was a janitor with “rich artistic abilities.” He had spent a year at Fisk University, hoping to become a doctor; now he sang, told stories, and worked hard to purchase a house and support his family. Both parents nurtured their daughter’s precocious gifts. “I had always felt that to be black was good,” Brooks said in her autobiography.

School awakened her to the realities of what Arthur P. Davis calls “the black-and-tan motif” in her work, i.e., the white-biased valuing of lightness among blacks, an early theme in her work, gradually overtaken by the black-white questions and confrontations that had always been prominent. Her home environment supported her confidence and fostered her black musical heritage that centered creatively in church. At church she met James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes. The latter became an inspiration and, later, a friend and mentor.

Following graduation from Wilson Junior College (now Kennedy-King) in 1936, Brooks worked for a month as a maid in a North Shore home, and then spent four unhappy months as secretary to the spiritual adviser who became the prototype for Prophet Williams in “In the Mecca.” In 1939 she married Henry Lowington Blakely II, a fellow member of Inez Cunningham Stark’s poetry workshop in the South Side Community Art Center. Early publishing, marriage, the births of Henry, Jr., in 1940 and Nora in 1951, the warm reception of her first book, and careful supervision of her career by her Harper and Row editor helped to convince Brooks that she was a professional writer. She overcame her reticence about speaking in public. In 1950 she won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry with Annie Allen, the first black writer to be so honored. That award was followed by two Guggenheim Fellowships, election to membership in the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and selection as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. She was the first black woman to hold either of the latter two positions. She was awarded more than seventy honorary degrees.

Finely crafted, influenced by Langston Hughes, T. S. Eliot, Emily Dickinson, and Robert Frost—and later by the 1960s Black Arts movement, Brooks’s poetry was always a social act. A Street in Bronzeville addresses the realities of segregation for black Americans at home and in World War II military service; Annie Allen ironically explores post-war anti-romanticism. Maud Martha, her prose masterpiece, sketches a bildungsroman of black womanhood; The Bean Eaters and later poems sound the urgencies of the Civil Rights movement. In 1967 she attended the Second Fisk University Writers’ Conference and was deeply impressed with the activism of Amiri Baraka. Subsequently, although she had always experimented with various forms, her work opened more distinctly to free verse, a notable feature of In the Mecca (1968), the book published the year she was appointed Poet Laureate of Illinois.

Returning to Chicago from the Fisk Conference, Brooks conducted a workshop with the Blackstone Rangers, a teen gang, who were succeeded by young writers like Carolyn M. Rodgers and Haki R. Madhubuti (then don l. lee). Her new Black Nationalist perspective impelled her commitment to black publishing. In 1969 she turned to Dudley Randall’s Broadside Press for publication of Riot, followed by Family Pictures and Aloneness, and to Madhubuti’s Third World Press for The Tiger Who Wore White Gloves and To Disembark. In 1971, she began publishing a literary annual, The Black Position, under her own aegis. Starting with Primer for Blacks in 1980, she took charge of her creative work. Although many of her earlier books now issue from Third World Press, Children Coming Home was published in 1991 by The David Company, her own imprint.

Brooks traveled widely and constantly, giving workshops and readings in schools, libraries, and prisons. Her visits to Africa in 1971 and 1974 deepened her sense of African heritage. Yet her poetry marks the rich confluence and continuity of a dual stream: the black sermonic tradition and black music—the spiritual, the blues, and jazz; and white antecedents like the ballad, the sonnet, and conventional and free forms. It suggests connections with Anglo-Saxon alliteration and strong-stressed verse, with the Homeric bard and the African griot. Brooks’s heroic and prophetic voice surfaces in what she called “preachments.” Brooks intended that her work “‘call’ all black people.”

Widowed in 1996, she remained a guide and guardian for young talent, registrar of black needs and aspirations. Brooks presented a poetry of caritas; of potential and actual black strength, community, and pride. Her memorable portraits of men, women, and children pose a general as well as a specific validity. She is a major voice in modern American poetry, a heroic voice insisting on our mutual democractic heritage.

D. H. Melhem

In the Heath Anthology
The Mother (1945)
The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith (1945)
A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon (1960)
The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmet Till (1960)
We Real Cool (1960)
from Ulysses
      Religion (1991)

Other Works
A Street in Bronzeville (1945)
Annie Allen (1949)
Maud Martha (1953)
Bronzeville Boys and Girls (1956)
The Bean Eaters (1960)
Selected Poems (1963)
In the Mecca (1968)
Riot (1969)
Family Pictures (1970)
"In Montgomery," Ebony, August (1971)
Aloneness (1971)
Jump Bad (1971)
The World of Gwendolyn Brooks (1971)
Report from Part One (1972)
The Tiger Who Wore White Gloves, or What You Are You Are (1974)
A Capsule Course in Black Poetry Writing (1975)
Beckonings (1975)
Primer for Blacks (1980)
Young Poet's Primer (1980)
To Disembark (1981)
Very Young Poets (1983)
The Near-Jonannesburg Boy and Other Poems (1986)
Blacks (omnibus) (1987)
Children Coming Home (1991)

Cultural Objects
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Gwendolyn Brooks Page
Contains a biography, bibliography, and the links to several poems available for browsing.

Modern American Poetry
Several analytical essays, book jacket scans, a biography, and more.

The Academy of American Poets
Contains a short hypertext biography, several poems, a selected works list, and links.

Voices from the Gaps
Provides a biographical-critical essay, a selected bibliography. and a couple of links.

Secondary Sources

Harold Bloom, ed., Gwendolyn Brooks, 2000

B.J. Bolden, Urban Rage in Bronzeville, 1999

George E. Kent, A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks, 1990

D. H. Melham, Gwendolyn Brooks: Poetry and the Heroic Voice, 1987

D. H. Melham, Heroism in the New Black Poetry: Introduction and Interviews, 1990

M. K. Mootry and G. Smith, eds., A Life Distilled, 1987

Harry Shaw, Gwendolyn Brooks, 1980

Stephen C. Wright, ed., On Gwendolyn Brooks: Reliant Contemplation, 1996