Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks was born in Topeka, Kansas, on June 7, 1917. Her family returned to Chicago, Illinois, shortly after her birth; her parents nurtured her love of literature from an early age. Ms. Brooks graduated from Englewood High School and received an Associates Degree from Wilson Junior College (now known as Kennedy-King College) in 1936. She met Henry Blakely, a fellow writer and businessman, at an NAACP poetry group. They were married in 1939 and had two children, Henry Jr. and Nora.
Over the past fifty years, Ms. Brooks’ excellence, linguistic prowess, and literary genius epitomized her commitment to education. She taught at the University of Wiconsin-Madison, City College of New York, Columbia College of Chicago, Northeastern Illinois University, and Elmhurst College. At the time of her death, Ms. Brooks was the Distinguished Professor of English at Chicago State University and the Poet Laureate of Illinois.
Ms. Brooks’ lifelong career enhanced, enriched, and embraced language on an international scale. She was awarded over 75 honorary doctorates and was a much sought-after speaker known for her giving, compassionate, and sometimes mischievous spirit.
Ms. Brooks authored more than twenty books of poetry including A Street in Bronzeville (1945), Selected Poems (1963), In the Mecca (1968), Riot (1969), The Tiger Who Wore White Gloves (1970), Blacks (1987), and Children Coming Home (1992). She also wrote one novel, Maud Martha, two autobiographies, Report from Part One: An Autobiography (1972) and Report from Part Two: Autobiography (1996), and edited Jump Bad: A New Chicago Anthology (1971). Several of her poems are frequently anthologized, including “We Real Cool,” “The Mother,” “Of DeWitt Williams on His Way to Lincoln Cemetery,” “kitchenette building,” and “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, A Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon.”
In 1997, Mayor Richard M. Daley announced Gwendolyn Brooks Week in conjunction with her 80th birthday. A special program entitled “Eighty Gifts” was held at the Harold Washington Library Center with presentations by 80 writers and performers from across the globe. Other special honors include the Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Black Literature and Creative Writing at Chicago State University; the Gwendolyn Brooks Junior High School in Harvey, Illinois, as well as schools named after her in Aurora and DeKalb, Illinois; the Gwendolyn Brooks Cultural Center at Western Illinois University in Macomb, Illinois; the Edward Jenner School Auditorium in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green community; and the engraved listing of her name on the Carter G. Woodson Regional Library in Chicago and the Illinois State Library in Springfield, Illinois.
Ms. Brooks’ had a special commitment to young people and sponsored various poetry awards, including the Illinois Poet Laureate Awards – an annual event she developed and ran for over 30 years to honor young writers from Illinois elementary schools and high schools. This project, along with many other programs, contests, and events, was personally financed by Ms. Brooks in her efforts to give writers opportunities to publicly read their writings, receive monetary awards in recognition of their achievements, and be celebrated for their creative talent.
Brooks’ life, legacy, and immeasurable contributions will be remembered not only with fond memories, thoughts and literature, but through the cultural and social contributions made by those she influenced in myriad ways.
Gwendolyn Brooks – poet, writer and humanitarian – was preceded in death by her husband, Henry Blakely. She is survived by her son, Henry; daughter-in-law, Lillian Christman; grandson, Nicholas Blakely; daughter, Nora Brooks Blakely; nieces, Paulette and Dorthea Brooks; nephew, David Brooks; cousins, Carol and Henry Roberts; cultural son and daughter-in-law, Haki and Safisha Madhubuti; and countless other family members, friends, and fellow writers.
SELECTED AWARDS AND HONORS
Pulitzer Prize for Literature (1950)
Poet Laureate of Illinois (1969-2000)
29th Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (1985-1986)
Senior Fellowship in Literature (1989) by the National Endowment for the Arts
Medal for Distinguished Contributions to American Letters by the National Book Foundation (1994)
Jefferson Lecturer from the National Endowment for the Humanities Lifetime Achievement Award (1994)
National Medal of Art (1995)
Lincoln Laureate Award (1997)
International Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent (1998)
65th Academy Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets (2000)