Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks was born in Topeka, Kansas to Keziah Wims Brooks and David Anderson Brooks. Brooks’ mother was a former school teacher who left teaching for marriage and motherhood, and her father, the son of a runaway slave who fought in the Civil War, had given up his ambition to attend medical school to work as a janitor. When Brooks was only six weeks old, her family moved to Chicago where she grew up.
Her home life was stable and loving, although she encountered racial prejudice in her neighborhood and in her schools. She first attended Hyde Park High School, a leading white high school, before transferring to all-black Wendell Phillips. Brooks eventually attended an integrated school, Englewood High School. Her enthusiasm for reading and writing was encouraged by her parents. Her father provided a desk and bookshelves, and her mother took her, when she was in high school, to meet Harlem Renaissance poets Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson.
Brooks published her first poem in a children’s magazine at the age of 13. When Brooks was 16 years old, she had compiled a portfolio of around 75 published poems. At age 17, Brooks stuck to her roots and began submitting her work to “Lights and Shadows,” the poetry column of the Chicago Defender, an African American Newspaper. Although her poems range in style from traditional ballads and sonnets to using blues rhythms in free verse, her characters are often drawn from the inner city. During this same period, she also attended Wilson Junior College, from where she graduated in 1939. After publishing more than 75 poems and failing to obtain a position with the Chicago Defender, Brooks began to work a series of typing jobs.
In 1938, Gwendolyn married Henry Blakely and gave birth to two children, Henry, Jr. (1940) and Nora (1951). By 1941, Brooks was taking part in poetry workshops. One particularly influential workshop was organized by Inez Cunningham Stark. Stark was an affluent white woman with a strong literary background, and the workshop participants were all African American. The group dynamic of Stark’s workshop proved especially effective in energizing Brooks, and her poetry began to be taken seriously (The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks, Elizabeth Alexander, Editor, 2005). In 1943 she received an award for poetry from the Midwestern Writers’ Conference.
Her first book of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville, published in 1945 by Harper and Row, brought her instant critical acclaim. She received her first Guggenheim Fellowship and was one of the “Ten Young Women of the Year” in Mademoiselle magazine. In 1950, she published her second book of poetry, Annie Allen, which won her Poetry magazine’s Eunice Tietjens Prize and the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, the first given to an African American.