Gwendolyn Brooks

Have you ever seen a group of kids who think they're so cool? The inspiring American poet, Gwendolyn Brooks (1917‐2000), turned the sentiment of teens who feel like they're on top of the world into a highly influential Jazz poem called "We Real Cool" (1960). Though the ideas of 'cool' we have in high school usually change, Gwendolyn Brooks remains a seminal poet in 20th-century American poetry and African American culture and history. Brooks started her publishing career at the age of 13, and in 1950, she became the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize in poetry. Pretty cool, don't you think?

Gwendolyn Brooks Gwendolyn Brooks

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Table of contents

    Gwendolyn Brooks: Biography

    Gwendolyn Brooks was an ambitious woman with a sincere love for writing and poetry that blazed from an early age. The poet began her career in poetry at the age of 13, when she published her first poem in a children’s magazine, and later, she went on to win a Pulitzer Prize.

    Gwendolyn Brooks: Early Life, Education, and Early Career

    Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks was born on June 7, 1917, in Topeka, Kansas. Her father, David Anderson Brooks, was a janitor. He aspired to be a doctor but decided to marry and raise a family instead. Her mother, Keziah Brooks, was both a school teacher and a classically trained pianist.

    Brooks and her family moved to the South Side of Chicago when she was young. Her parents had moved to Chicago during the Great Migration but moved back to Topeka, Kansas, before Brook's birth to be closer to family. Brooks considered Chicago her hometown and stated that it deeply influenced her experiences and poetry.

    The Great Migration, also known as the Great Northward Migration and the Black Migration, is a term used for the mass movement of African Americans out of southern American states into urban, northern American cities. The migrations were prompted by the poor economic and social conditions for African Americans in the South, where Jim Crow laws enforced segregation, extremely racist attitudes, and limited opportunities.

    Cities such as New York City, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Washington D.C. provided better work opportunities and greater freedoms for Black people to live and form their own communities.

    Brooks attended several schools around Chicago, including Forestville Elementary School, Hyde Park High School, Wendell Phillips High School, and Englewood High School. She attended predominantly white, all-Black, and integrated schools, which helped her understand societally integrated systems of racial injustice and bias from a young age.

    It is important to keep in mind that Brooks grew up in a pre-Civil Rights era America.

    Brooks was aware but not discouraged by the discrimination of her times. She worked hard towards being a writer from a young age. Brooks‘s mother would encourage her writing ambitions by telling her she would be like the female version of the American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.

    Gwendolyn Brooks, Paul Laurence Dunbar, StudySmarter

    Paul Laurence Dunbar was an American poet, novelist, and short-story writer whose parents were enslaved at the time of his birth. Brooks's father used to read her Dunbar's poetry.

    Brooks wrote an abundance of poems as a child and submitted them to various publications. At 13, she had her first poem, “Eventide,” published in the children’s magazine American Childhood. By the age of 16, she had written and published around 75 poems. By the age of 17, she regularly contributed to the poetry column of the African-American newspaper, The Chicago Defender.

    Brooks was sure she was born to be a writer and did not believe she needed a university education in order to write. She did not see herself as a scholar but simply a person who loved writing. Brooks completed a two-year program at Wilson Junior College (now called Kennedy-King College) and worked as a typist while continuing to pursue a writing career. While attending college, she published ballads and sonnets inspired by blues music and free verse. Brooks received praise from African American writers and activists, including James Weldon Johnson, Richard Wright, and Langston Hughes.

    Free verse is a form of poetry that has no set meter or rhyme scheme.

    Gwendolyn Brooks, Person Looking Out City Window, StudySmarter

    Brooks’s poetic inspiration as a teen often came from the inner city Chicago American life she observed from the corner window of her family’s apartment.

    Gwendolyn Brooks: Later Life and Writing Career

    In 1939, Gwendolyn Brooks married her husband, Henry Lowington Blakely, Jr. Together they had a son, Henry Lowington Blakely III, and a daughter, Nora Brooks Blakely, who became her mother's literary agent.

    Brooks deepened her skill and knowledge of poetry as she attended poetry workshops at the South Side Community Art Center in her mid-twenties. During these workshops, she developed her voice as a poet and the famous American poet, Langston Hughes, came by a workshop session to listen to her read her poem, "The Ballad of Pearl May Lee" (1945).

    By 1944, Brooks had finally attained her lifelong goal of publishing in the notorious, Chicago-based literary journal, Poetry. The following year, she published her first poetry book, A Street in Bronzeville (1945), through Harper & Brothers Publishing. The book painted nuanced portraits of everyday life in Bronzeville, Chicago, and was critically acclaimed upon release. In 1946, Brooks received the Guggenheim Fellowship for her exceptional creativity and contribution to the arts.

    In 1950, Gwendolyn Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for her second poetry collection, Annie Allen (1949). Annie Allen is a coming-of-age story detailing the life of a young, Black girl who grows up in Bronzeville, Chicago.

    In 1953, Brooks published her only narrative book, Maud Martha, a short novel about a Black woman who faces discrimination based on race and gender, and struggles to find her place in urban America.

    In her later life, Gwendolyn Brooks became involved in politics and the development of Black national identity in America. Brooks taught creative writing to diverse audiences and in numerous places. She taught members of a Chicago street gang, as well as teaching writing and poetry at prestigious universities, including the University of Chicago, Northeastern Illinois University, and Columbia University. Brooks also mentored younger Black poets, including her son's fiancée, Kathleen Hardiman.

    Brooks published one of her most famous poems, "In the Mecca," in 1968. In the same year, she was nominated as Poet Laureate of Illinois. Brooks wrote two autobiographical books, Report From Part One (1972) and Report From Part Two (1996). Brooks never tired of writing. She was nearly 80 years old when her second autobiography was published.

    Gwendolyn Brooks: Death, Awards, and Legacy

    Gwendolyn Brooks died of cancer at her home in Chicago on December 3, 2000. She was 83 years old at the time of her death.

    Brooks is remembered for her honest portrayals of Black life and her promotion of Black culture. She received numerous honors and awards, including the 1946 Guggenheim Fellowship, the 1950 Pulitzer Prize, the 1989 Robert Frost Medal, and the 1995 National Medal of Arts. She was the Poet Laureate of Illinois from 1968 till her death; she was the honorary Poet Laureate of the United States in 1985 and was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1988.

    Brooks was the first African American poet to win the Pulitzer Prize, and her poetry, writings, and success have influenced African American literature, poetry, and poets.

    Gwendolyn Brooks: Books

    Gwendolyn Brooks is best known for her first three poetry books, A Street in Bronzeville (1945), Annie Allen (1949), and The Bean Eaters (1960). In addition, she is known for her novella, Maud Martha (1953). These books all focus on the experiences of the Black community in the poet's hometown of Bronzeville, Chicago.

    Gwendolyn Brooks: A Street in Bronzeville (1945)

    A Street in Bronzeville is Gwendolyn Brooks's first poetry book. It was published by Harper & Brothers when Brooks was only 28. The poetry book details the poet's personal experiences and observations of life in the Black neighborhood of Bronzeville, Chicago, where she grew up.

    The book is made up of 20 poems that cuttingly capture the real life, identity, and struggles of the Black community amidst inner-city American life. Significant poems from A Street in Bronzeville include "kitchenette building," about tiny apartments made into family homes for Black tenants in Chicago, and "the mother," which is about a woman's hardships as she addresses the children she has aborted.

    Most of the poems in the collection were written while Brooks was attending Inez Cunningham Stark's poetry workshops at the South Side Community Art Center.

    Gwendolyn Brook's Hometown, Bronzeville

    Bronzeville, Chicago, was known as a 'Black Belt' neighborhood, a neighborhood that Black people were confined to live in during the Great Migration.

    Bronzeville was known for building rich Black culture and industry before the Great Depression. However, when the Great Depression hit in 1929, white-owned companies forced competition, and many Black-owned businesses had to shut down. Bronzeville became overcrowded and faced neglect from white landlords, diminishing the neighborhood's quality of life and prosperity.

    Throughout her life, Gwendolyn Brooks's poetry remained grounded in the culture and experiences of her South Side Chicago home.

    Gwendolyn Brooks: Annie Allen (1949)

    Annie Allen is Gwendolyn Brook's second poetry book, for which she won the 1950 Pulitzer Prize and the Eunice Tietjens Prize from Poetry magazine.

    The poetry book follows the life of a woman named Annie Allen, from childhood to womanhood. Annie Allen is a woman from a Chicago ghetto who deals with the struggles of poverty, discrimination, and disappointment. She dreams of a better life but is faced with the reality of a woman's role in a harsh, urban environment.

    The most prominent poem in the book is the long poem, "The Anniad," which details Annie's desire to escape home by getting married. However, marriage comes with hardships and disappointments, as the couple is separated due to the war, and Annie's husband ultimately abandons her.

    Gwendolyn Brooks: The Bean Eaters (1960)

    The Bean Eaters (1960) is the American poet's third poetry book, which explores the themes of hope and injustice amidst life in inner-city Chicago. The Bean Eaters features some of Brooks's most famous poems, including "We Real Cool" and "The Bean Eaters."

    Gwendolyn Brooks: Maud Martha (1953)

    Maud Martha (1953) is Gwendolyn Brooks's only novel. The short book follows the same ideas explored in the poetry collection Annie Allen, as it follows the protagonist, Maud Martha, as she moves from childhood into the realities of adulthood as a Black woman in Chicago. The novel reflects the strength and vivacity of African American urban life and people amidst the grave injustices and hardships they face.

    Gwendolyn Brooks: Poems

    As Brooks had 75 poems published at the age of 16, she wrote hundreds of poems by the time she was 83. However, two of her best-known poems are "In the Mecca" (1968) and "We Real Cool" (1960).

    Gwendolyn Brooks: "In the Mecca" (1968)

    "In the Mecca" is a long poem that was nominated for the National Book Award for poetry. The poem is about a woman named Mrs. Sallie, who comes home after a long day of work as a domestic worker, and finds that her child is missing. She searches for her child in a large, decrepit tenement building, only to find that the child was murdered by a neighbor.

    Through "In the Mecca," Brooks explores the issues with the city of Chicago and its disregard for the living conditions of its people. The poet portrays the squalor and misery of many who struggled to live in crowded, tenement buildings.

    The History of The Mecca

    The Mecca was a real building that was originally a luxurious building built for wealthy families in Chicago. However, as the neighborhood changed, the Mecca became worn down, and before being torn down, it was an extremely crowded, decrepit tenement building that housed thousands of struggling people.

    Gwendolyn Brooks uses the historical symbol of The Mecca to suggest the city's disregard for what happens to those who face financial and racial discrimination and hardship. Ironically, Brooks was nominated Poet Laureate of Illinois the same year this poem was published.

    Gwendolyn Brooks: "We Real Cool" (1960)

    "We Real Cool" is Gwendolyn Brooks's most famous poem. The poem was written in 1959 and was published in the poetry collection, The Bean Eaters (1960). Brooks wrote the poem after seeing a group of seven boys who skipped school to play pool. The poem embodies how she perceived that the boys felt about themselves.

    The poem is known for its rhythm, flow, subtle progression through repetition and sparse yet powerful use of dialect:

    We real cool. We Left school. WeLurk late. Westrike straight. WeSing sin. We Thin gin. WeJazz June. We Die soon." (3‐10)

    Gwendolyn Brooks, Pool Balls, StudySmarter

    The poem is set in a pool hall called The Golden Shovel.

    Gwendolyn Brooks: "We Real Cool" as an Example of Jazz Poetry

    Jazz poetry is a broad term for poetry that reflects the rhythm or feel of jazz music, as well as poetry that addresses the subject of jazz music or musicians. Jazz poetry was developed through Black culture in the 1920s and has influenced Beat poetry and hip-hop music.

    Gwendolyn Brooks's poem, "We Real Cool," is seen as a classic example of Jazz poetry. The poem's reading mimics the syncopated rhythm characteristic of Jazz music through the placement of the subject "We" at the ends of the lines. The lines flow into one another with the use of enjambment. Brook's poem also mimics the subtle escalation of Jazz music, as a poem portraying cool kids playing pool escalates to suggest the early death of Black teens. The poem also literally addresses jazz, suggesting promiscuity and freedom through the music the boys listen to.

    Syncopated rhythm is a type of rhythm when the emphasis falls on the offbeat rather than the regular downbeats.

    Enjambment is when a line of poetry continues into the next without any pause or punctuation.

    Gwendolyn Brooks: Quotes

    Gwendolyn Brooks believed in the power of books to heal and lend meaning to life. She reflects this idea in her 1957 poem, "Book Power":

    Books are meat and medicine

    and flame and flight and flower,

    steel, stitch, and cloud and clout,

    and drumbeats in the air." (5‐8)

    Notice how the poet uses alliteration (the repetition of the initial letter sounds of nearby words) in lines 5‐7 and then creates a sense of freedom and relief through the lack of alliteration in the final line to reflect the "drumbeats in the air."

    Brooks attested to the individual experience of poetry. Though she went into writing every poem with a certain idea and intention, she understood as a writer that her words would resonate with each soul slightly differently. This is reflected in Conversations with Gwendolyn Brooks (2003), a posthumously published book made up of interviews with the poet:

    “When you read a poem, you may not get out of it all that the poet put into it, but you are different from the poet. You’re different from everybody else who is going to read the poem, so you should take from it what you need. Use it personally.”

    Gwendolyn Brooks - Key takeaways

    • Gwendolyn Brooks (1917‐2000) is a 20th-century Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet.
    • Brooks is known for writing about Black culture and experiences from the perspective of her hometown, Bronzeville, Chicago.
    • Brooks is best known for her poetry books, A Street in Bronzeville (1945), Annie Allen (1949), The Bean Eaters (1960), and her novella, Maud Martha (1953).
    • Brooks wrote the poems "In the Mecca" (1968) and "We Real Cool" (1960).
    • Gwendolyn Brooks was greatly influenced by Jazz poetry and was made Poet Laureate of Illinois in 1968.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Gwendolyn Brooks

    Who is Gwendolyn Brooks?

    Gwendolyn Brooks (1917‐2000) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning African American poet who wrote primarily about the Black experience in Chicago.

    What was Gwendolyn Brooks famous for?

    Gwendolyn Brooks is famous for writing the poems "We Real Cool" (1960) and "In the Mecca" (1968), as well as the books A Street in Bronzeville (1945), Annie Allen (1949), and Maud Martha (1953).

    What year did Gwendolyn Brooks die?

    Gwendolyn Brooks died in the year 2000. 

    How did Gwendolyn Brooks change the world?

    Gwendolyn Brooks was an advocate for African American culture. She was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize in poetry, and she brought to light the struggles, experiences, and vitality of the Black community in Chicago. 

    When was Gwendolyn Brooks born?

    Gwendolyn Brooks was born on June 7, 1917. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    True or False: Gwendolyn Brooks was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize in poetry.

    How old was Gwendolyn Brooks when she published her first poem?

    Brooks's family moved from Kansas to Chicago during which of the following periods?


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